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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

Character Sketches: Maintaining Self-Esteem During Bad Times

Joshua Waitzkin, the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer,[1],[2] describes in his own book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance,[3] how he learned to manage his self-esteem while negotiating grueling demands and mercurial emotions as a successful child chess prodigy. Balancing his love of the game with crushing reactions to his rare high level losses, he describes how he was able to avoid confusing his self-esteem with a variable self-image: he did not link his self-esteem to a few inner images of his success or failures in competition, but to the totality of these impressions, becoming and remaining the person he wanted to be. As the books and movie detail, Mr. Waitzkin found joy in a wide variety of activities, and never linked his self-esteem to single situations. He still values learning, variety, and communication and connection with others. Sometimes he attempts to connect with and learn from very difficult people, but does not judge himself through their eyes.

In this series, we have explored how self-esteem is directly linked to values. By choosing values and consciously deciding to behave predominantly in accordance with them, we create a series of good self-images that translate into good self-esteem. “Other-esteem,” focusing on how others seem to judge or value us, gives away the locus of control by turning these alternate perceptions into false self-images; our self-esteem then becomes dependent on our assessment of what others are thinking about us. These discernments may be inaccurate projections on our part; even when correct, they allow other people to tell us how we feel about ourselves. While accepting formal and informal feedback is important for healthy decision making and interactions, accurate self-images must ultimately be assembled and balanced into self-esteem by the individual.

Sometimes called self-identity, self-esteem is often understood as this composite of the images we have of ourselves, each based, for example, on how we look, what we are told, what we possess, and how successful we are in endeavors.[4] Carl Jung said that we all utilize persona to present ourselves to others. Just as ancient Greek actors wore masks to portray single emotions or characters during a performance, we each display persona to the world and mask our true selves.[5] Problems occur when we over identify with or become unaware of the mask we show others.[6],[7] Believing a single persona to be a true representation of our entire personality usually results in a miscalculation of our character, sometimes over-, sometimes undervaluing our true selves.

The theory of self-determination explains how when we act in accordance with our genuine values, we create and maintain true high self-esteem.[8] This cannot be created by solely seeking approval from others or from the results of competition, even with vocational or academic success.[9] While achievement is a shared value in most communities,[10] appreciation for accomplishment and social recognition are equally distributed between holders of both high and low self-image.[11]

As Joshua Waitzkin figured out, when we identify, own and maintain our values, we protect ourselves from the emotional consequences of personal failures. Personal and community values may be threatened by disasters and public health emergencies, as we have seen with the recent pandemic.[12] Retaining an awareness of our values, though, and remembering the positive results of remaining behaviorally faithful to them, sustains good self-images and high self-esteem, while reinforcing community bonds with others during difficult times.

The link between values and self-esteem remains unbroken: behaving as though you are someone you can be proud of creates just that reality: you feel good about yourself.

[1] Waitzkin F: Searching for Bobby Fischer: The Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess. New York, Penguin Books, 1993 [2] Searching for Bobby Fischer, directed by Steven Zaillian (Paramount Pictures, 1993), 1 hr., 50 min. [3] Waitzkin J: The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence. New York, Free Press, 2007 [4] Bailey JA 2nd. Self-image, self-concept, and self-identity revisited. J Natl Med Assoc 95(5):383-386, 2003 [5] Jung CG: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Volume 7 of The Collected Works, Second edition. Translated by RFC Hull. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1966, pp. 156-163 [6] Jung C: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Volume 9, Part I of The Collected Works, Second edition. Translated by RFC Hull. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1990, p. 123 [7] “The Persona – The Mask That Conceals Your True Self” [Blog] Externalized: In Pursuit of Meaning, December 24, 2021. Available at [8] Deci EL, Ryan RM: Human autonomy: The basis for true self-esteem, in Efficacy, Agency and Self-esteem. Edited by Kernis MH. New York, Plenum Press, 1995, pp. 31-49 [9] Jordan CH, Zeigler-Hill V: Fragile self-esteem: The perils and pitfalls of (some) high self-esteem, in Self-Esteem. Edited by Zeigler-Hill V. New York, Psychology Press, 2013, pp. 80-99 [10] Du H, Götz FM, Chen A, Rentfrow PJ: Revisiting Values and Self-Esteem: A Large-Scale Study in the United States. European Journal of Personality, August 2021. Available at doi:10.1177/08902070211038805. [11] Dziwota K, Dudek A, Szpak A, et al: Value preferences in individuals with low and high self-esteem. Current Problems of Psychiatry 17(2):97-106, 2016. Available at [12] Ursano RJ: Disaster Psychiatry and Behavioral Health: From Hurricanes and Earthquakes, to War and Terrorism…to COVID-19. Delivered at The American College of Psychiatrists Annual Meeting, Bonita Springs, FL, August 17, 2022.

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