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The Human Condition
Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994, 1997, Dorian Scott Cole

Note: This page is for characterization and includes some comments by me about self-esteem that may be untested/unproven. People looking for psychological information or counseling should consult a qualified psychologist.

What your character thinks of himself is a very useful tool for knowing how he will behave. It is easier to see the results of self-esteem that is too low or too high than to define it. The person whose self-esteem is too low will allow himself to be used as a doormat. The one with self-esteem that is too high will allow himself to use everyone else as a doormat. But what does self-esteem consist of? Nathaniel Branden (The Six Pillars Of Self Esteem) has investigated and written extensively on the subject, and I would recommend his books for a general treatment of the subject. 

Psychologist's definitions vary considerably probably because they think in terms of healthy self-esteem and what it should consist of, then define it in terms of the theoretical construct they work within. This creates a rather absolute set of characteristics, a definition, characteristic of modern science. But a writer creating characters may want to understand how people typically esteem themselves, whether it is right or wrong, good or bad. My approach is from the point of view of motivation, and to understand esteem in relative terms. Values vary from person to person - real people don't live by definitions. I regard motivation to be determined by values - often conflicting values. Not value in terms of dollars, although money may be a value. But value that comes from things which have meaning to the person. 

How do people measure their value? This leads to what do they value. Individual differences are probably one major reason self-esteem is so difficult to pin down, because everyone values different things. 

For example, there are people whose value system is so incredibly narrow they feel related to only one thing. For example, the soldier who can see value only in being a killing machine will have a life very focused on that. All his time, energy, relationships, training, religion, etc., are devoted to fulfilling that one objective and are subordinated to it. Another example would be the corporate president who "is" the company. His earnings are reinvested in the company, he changes wives to maintain a corporate image, he moves in social circles that are beneficial to business, relates only to people he works with, and his esteem rises and falls with company profits and successes. 

At this point in their lives, these two men don't personally value a winning Little League Baseball team, one or more people who will be around in thirty years to help them in retirement, a friend to go fishing with and to talk over personal problems, or the success of the church's search committee. These two men, for whatever reason, find value in only one thing.

Most of us find value in several things. A lot revolves around acceptance by others. How lovable are we? Lovable breaks down into how sexy, likable, pretty, how much affection can we get, and what are people willing to do for us (out of loving concern). How respected? Respect comes from title and position, job, knowledge attained, skills and talents, accomplishments. How competent? Competence concerns being rational - how well we use our minds, smart, creative, aware of our own motives. How capable? Capable relates to control. Being in control of our faculties - able to give love, able to function in a work environment, or family, etc. How contributing? Spiritual: the land of ideas, the source of personal growth. Everyone wants to be a part of something that matters, from raising children and supporting a family emotionally and financially, from helping build the empire and finding a cure for cancer, to writing a book on repairing screenplays. Some want to be involved in work or a project, especially if it involves others. Some just want to "be someone," whatever that means. Recognition. And in the words of Captain Kirk, of Star Trek, "To make a difference." Leaving a mark or positive impact on the world. This holds true if we measure ourselves at all, and I'm not at all sure that we all measure ourselves - self-esteem may be irrelevant to many people. 

Erroneous value measures

In my screenplay Priest of Sales, one character is addicted to sexual relations for one simple reason: his self-esteem is built on his ability to satisfy women - a great lover. This is something that he must prove frequently. He learned in his youth to use this as a measure because it was part of his environment, and he couldn't please his father. When confronted with this and asked what he might do to resolve it, he replied, "He could become a doctor and discover a cure for cancer." But what would he do next? "Find a cure for another disease." His solutions were just another form of the same disease. He would repititively have to find a cure for diseases just as he repititively had to show his prowess with women. His measuring scale had to do with accomplishments, and all of the other core values were somehow overlooked. 

What if we confuse our core moral and emotional values with other core processes, like power. Some people can only relate to being powerful and gaining power. Control over others. Except people who have power only have it for others to see. That's a tell-tale sign. I see the preoccupation with power as the overemphasis or misapplication of any core value that becomes so out of balance that the person twists anything at hand to make it happen. Need love, but can't get it - buy it, force it, make it happen. Need respect but can't earn it - buy it, force it, make it happen. Need to be accepted, but don't fit in - buy it...

The overemphasis of one value can lead to bad results instead of good results. What can appear as a virtue in people can also be attributed to a warped sense of values.

Origins of self-esteem

Where does self-esteem originally come from? Are people born feeling inferior or superior? Is it genetic - a matter of body chemistry? Some people seemed predisposed to be more or less sensitive to emotional issues affecting self-esteem. Young people are great at modeling what they see around them. Their self-concept dawns slowly, and if they have good models of esteem and aren't made to feel inferior or superior by parents, siblings and peers, they are more likely to have a healthy self image. 

Mothers are the all-time instillers of original self-esteem. During the child's formative years, they accept the child, love it, make it feel worthy of all it receives simply by giving freely to it, and make it feel part of something, a contributor. 


Three example characters follow, which when charted will help clarify the mechanics of self-esteem: 

Martha was raised in a middle-class environment which emphasized being intelligent and helping with the school system. Martha was successful at these things and accepted them as having value. She was also inclined toward neatness and organization and found value in those. She plays the harp, which gets her a lot of attention, so she values it. However her father abused her sexually during her teen years and that overshadows the value of everything else, causing her to believe she has no control over her body and therefore has no real value because anyone can treat her as trash and get away with it.

Ted was raised in a middle class family that spent most of its time playing sports and helping out in the community. He was no good at all at sports and saw the community as an extension of the sports world. He did well in the sciences. But his family liked him in spite of his differences, loved him, and encouraged him in school. He excelled in college and became a dentist. After four years in private practice, he had earned the respect of his peers and became a leading consultant. But he always felt drawn to community service, often tried to assist community groups and committees, but always came away frustrated and feeling less valuable because he couldn't seem to do anything for them. He could never really feel he earned the respect of the community because he thought they only valued sports. To compensate for these deficiencies, he brags and acts like he knows everything. He is known around town as a self-centered egotist because he seems to think he is better than everyone.

Jack is a moderate kind of guy who never takes anything to extremes and helps wherever he can fit in. He came from poor parents who spent all their time trying to make their small business succeed and took little interest in him. However, his teachers took an interest in him even though he wasn’t that good a student, and the coach encouraged him in sports. He is usually active helping someone, and whatever he does, he does well. He tries hard for his family and usually resolves problems. A department store manager, he knows his job and does well at it.

On the following table, I'll set normal esteem at 100. Below fifty is low. Above 150 is high. As more time and energy go into any one item, its value rises.
Valued thing Martha Ted Jack
5 20 20
5 20 20
5 50 20
5   30
Helping school
5 90 15
10 20 10
25 20   
Neat & organized
Plays harp
Total 120 260 125
Negative Value      
Sexually abused
20 190 125

With these numbers and a dollar you can go have a cup of coffee and ponder the fate of the universe. The numbers are relative and have no real meaning, they are just meant to make you think. Jack, as a character, would be a "normal" person. Ask a nurse and you'll find Ted is fairly typical of many physicians. Martha has to work twice as hard as the other two just to feel halfway human. Has this made her a more productive person, or a crippled person who can't reach her full potential? I vote for crippled because she won't be able to form normal relationships until she can integrate her experience and get beyond it.

A path to self-esteem

This is my personal view that I have come to understand from experience and study. Self-esteem is elusive because we have learned in our culture to value one person more than another. We see ourselves on this grand scale of how important we are relative to everyone else. We learn to do this from others who indicate to us the value of people in our society. People do earn their place, but the focus is on importance, not on people and their values.

Self-esteem is not learning that you are valuable because of what you can do, or how smart you are, or that you are unconditionally loved, or that you have done so much for the world. Self-esteem built on these is false esteem. These are our ways of trying to build our own self-esteem. These are the things that drive us in a never ending flurry of activity to keep proving that we are as good as or better than everyone else. Always trying to prove how smart we are. Always trying to prove we can do something better. Always trying to prove we are unconditionally loved by doing something worse than we did before to see if we're still loved. Always in competition, but there is always someone better. 

No one can love you enough to give you self-esteem. No counselor can talk to you enough to help you find self-esteem. No good deeds will ever be enough. Efforts to prove our value will generally become increasingly warped and destructive because nothing we do can ever be enough. Proving our worth is a trap. It's the thing neurosis is made of. We are not in control - we are driven.

As I wrote some of the articles on this Web site, I began to realize that self-esteem is really more a construct of society - part of the values in the meaning framework that we give to each other, and that focusing on self-esteem creates a problem where none needs to exist. Instead of focusing on building self-esteem, build self-confidence. One is valuing ourselves - the other is believing in ourselves. Self-esteem is relative and elusive. Self-confidence is built on achievement and is concrete. Self-confidence empowers us to do. Self-esteem empowers us to worry. (Excessively low or high self-esteem is a reason to see a therapist.)

Self-esteem begins with accepting ourselves as we are. We're imperfect, but so is everyone else. Every one of us has done things we're not proud of. Every one of us is in need of improvement. Every one of us can find some other person who is better than we are. To be normal is to have some degree of imperfection. I have often said, and have had it verified over and over again, that the people we think are great will fail us. They always do. Presidents and other political leaders, religious leaders and those who believe they are God's children, all have major flaws exposed in their character sooner or later. 

We all are valuable to others and to ourself just as we are. Our behavior may make us temporarily on everyone's hit list, and we feel the pain of rejection for our behavior, but we're no worse than anyone else is or was, and so we're all valuable. Just as none of us is less value than anyone else, none of us has more value than anyone else. It is the negative perceptions of ourselves, and tasks that we feel we must do but are never good at, that prevent us from feeling valued. These feelings of inadequacy and guilt may be well ingrained and very difficult to eliminate. Removing that from our psyche takes time. 

The key is to understand our core values. It is we ourselves who organize our core values. These are moral and emotional values1. Our values are closely related to our identity. Undoubtedly some of our values are learned from our environment, and some are irreducible - they are us. And some are influenced or created by spiritual ideas. We all want to love and be loved, that's a given. We all want a certain amount of respect, and to feel competent. Most of us want to know that people like us, and that we are part of something, and that we are making a contribution. These are some core values, and each person may describe values differently. When we act on these core values, we typically feel right about ourselves - we are doing the things that are important to us. Instead of feeling driven, instead of proving, we just feel comfortable doing. Then we are free to live and work at the kind of work and level that is right for us. 

Unfortunately we live in a world that doesn't always make it easy to act on our core values. We live in a world that is often superficial and won't let us love or be loved, or be a part of something, or make a contribution. Realistically it can be very tough to find where we fit. Writers can understand that very well because writing is a very competitive business and full of rejection. Keep trying - it builds character. Eventually if we don't become false and drive people away, we find the right people and the right places - our fit.

When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion. - Voltaire

To some, money is the only value. We all tend to value ourselves by our salary and our position, some more than others. It can be a way of coping with the loss of identity that often occurs in the corporate world (LaBier, 1989). The wisdom of the ages in the major religions knows full well the dangers of twisted values and money. In the Koran (Muslim), there is a very strong warning to write debts down, so there is no chance anyone will fiddle with the books, or lack thereof. 

The Bhuda said of a rich man who squandered his wealth on a grand home he had no use for, then immediately died, “A fool, though he live in the company of the wise, understands nothing of the true doctrine, as a spoon tastes not the flavor of the soup. He thinks of himself only, and unmindful of the advice of good counselors is unable to deliver himself.”

The one mention of money in the Upanishads regards people who decieve in order to get it, and continues about how easily we deceive ourselves: ‘The world unsettled by the paralogisms of the denial of Self, by false comparisons and arguments, does not know what is the difference between Veda and philosophy.’ Narcisissm is philosophy of self - actually love of self - and makes perfect sense to many people. It isn't a psychological problem, it is a spiritual one, and it can destroy relationships.

It was Christ who gave the strongest warning, saying, "The love of money is the root of all evil." I have found myself often thinking that this view is very short-sighted. People and their problems are more complex than that. But as I have used symbolism in writing more, I have begun to realize the full meaning of it. He didn't say, as some would interpret, that money itself is bad and leads to evil. It is what people do with what they have that makes things bad. Money can symbolize for us as a society (the larger world even) power, greed, position (respect), selfishness - money is the ultimate path to getting whatever a person wants, no matter if it is right, wrong, or questionable. When money is internalized as a symbol for getting what you want, it represents most of the things that can be wrong about life. Christ also said, "Where a man's treasure is, there will his heart be." He was well aware of the principal that if our behavior changes to follow a certain pattern, our mind will likely change to be like our behavior. Money can symbolize many things, and if it is coupled with a love for money, the combination can be intoxicating and lethal.

Personal note 

Every week I ask myself what I am doing writing a web site on writing and narrative psychology. What do I know? It consumes a whale of a lot of time. At the end of my self-doubt, I realize once again that my writing advice is usually right on target, is consistent with other consultants in the field, and adds a unique point of view. And I realize that sharing insight is what I do - it is part of me. It is my way of making a contribution. 

1 Mahoney theorizes that there are four process domains: reality, power, identity, and value - Mahoney, 1996. I tend to think in terms of reality (environment), energy (psyche, which tends to be directed at moral, emotional, identity, and other goals), value (moral and emotional - which I connect with purpose and meaning), identity, and spiritual (ideas). All of these interact. I'm not trying to create a theoretical construct, this is just the structure that makes the most sense to me as I try to understand personality development.

Branden, N. (1969, ...). The Psychology of Self-Esteem. Bantam Books.

LaBier, D. (1986, 1989). Modern Madness: The Hidden Link Between Work and Emotional Conflict, 78. Touchstone (Simon & Schuster). 

Mahoney, M.J. (1996). Constructivism and The Study of Complex Self-Organization. Constructive Change (The journal for the Society for Constructive Change), Vol. 1, No. 1, 4.

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