“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.”
– Mark Twain
Every therapist and every human potential coach on the planet will tell you that you need to “love yourself” in order to live a happy, fulfilling life. Okay, but what does that mean? Is it about looking in the mirror each morning and thinking, “Damn, I’m hot!” or always putting yourself first when it comes to how you spend your time, money or energy?
Some have defined it as “self-esteem,” which is basically how good or how bad we feel about ourselves. Back in the ‘80’s, California even created a task force whose research started with the assumption “that an essential and operational relationship exists between self-esteem and responsible human behavior, both personal and social.” The task force hoped that enhancing self-esteem would be the solution to everything from violent crime to “alcoholism, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, child abuse, welfare dependency, and school dropouts.”
Since that time, educators have spent zillions of dollars inserting positive self-esteem teachings into school curricula, and workshop trainers have made zillions of dollars telling you that you need more of this self-esteem and showing you how to get it. The idea was that you should feel good about yourself no matter how or what you’re doing.
Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but research does not support the notion that this particular form of “higher self-esteem” is the antidote to all our problems.
Even researchers who were supporters of the self-esteem movement, like psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister, now report that there’s little hard data to support the claims being made for the benefits of self-esteem. Dr. Baumeister’s study concluded that people with higher self-esteem might be somewhat happier and show more initiative. They may have less tendency toward suicide and eating disorders. But high esteem didn’t necessarily improve academic performance or predict positive relationships.
As Dr. Baumeister notes,“Think of the obnoxious, hostile, or bullying people you have known—were they humble, modest, and self-effacing? (That's mainly what low self-esteem is like.) Most of the aggressive people I have known were the opposite: conceited, arrogant, and often consumed with thoughts about how they were superior to everyone else.”
Professor Nicholas Emler of England agreed with Baumeister. Emler’s research revealed that low self-esteem was not a significant risk factor for poor academic performance or problems like bullying, delinquency, violence, racism, or drug or alcohol abuse. In fact, his research found that violent, anti-social men tend to like and value themselves too much rather than too little.
I don’t think the problem is that we shouldn’t love ourselves or have healthy self-esteem. I think it’s in the way we define those things. Personally, I’d trade “high self-esteem” feeling “self love” for feeling pono.
Pono is an important concept in Hawaiian culture. It means to feel “right” with the world, not as in “I’m right and you’re wrong” but it’s the sense that you are connected to and in harmony with nature, your community, your friends and family, and yourself. You feel at peace. You feel comfortable in your own skin. You feel acceptance and appreciation for everything and everyone. You feel balanced and a profound sense that all is well. When you feel pono, you are connected to your heart. Your decisions and actions are driven by integrity and awareness of what is good for the whole. Pono is feeling profound respect for all and, with it, a deep sense of self-respect.
But, unlike some versions of “self love,” being pono is not just a characteristic that you have or a badge you earn once and you’re done. To be pono is an active process of staying aware of who you are being in the world. Are you acting in harmony with others? Do your choices reflect your deepest values? Are you being the best self you know how to be at this point in time?
To the ancient Hawaiians, being pono was not optional. It wasn’t some distant state that you found only when sitting on your meditation pillow. It wasn’t a feeling that you might have every once in a while if the stars align. Being pono was a basic necessity of everyday life. They believed that being pono was critical to their physical, emotional and mental health and that it was always in reach. When they did not feel pono, they recognized it as a sign that something was off, and they did something about it to bring themselves back into harmony. Remaining pono works in the way Dan Coppersmith describes self-respect:
“Our self-respect tracks our choices. Every time we act in harmony with our authentic self and our heart, we earn our respect. It is that simple. Every choice matters.”
When you feel pono, you feel confident and self-assured. But this pono confidence isn’t a narcissistic, self-absorbed confidence that says you’re exceptional and terrific just because you show up. Teaching children to be pono doesn’t create miniature Paris Hiltons or Kanye Wests. In contrast, the Urban Dictionary defines “high self-esteem” as: An affliction which causes people to think they are way hotter than they really are. This affliction often leads to heinous wardrobe choices and/or embarrassing behavior.
So how do you become pono? By getting in touch with your basic values and authentic self. By acknowledging that you are an important part of the whole and that your actions and choices matter. By appreciating and respecting your world and the people around you.
And if we become that and instill that in our children, we very well may cure the ills of the world!
To your TOTAL empowerment!
Byline: Matthew B. James, MA, Ph.D., is President of The Empowerment Partnership, the world's leading integrative personal development company for over 30 years. Author of several books, Dr. Matt has trained thousands of students towards excellent health and personal empowerment using Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Huna, and Mental Emotional Release® (MER®) therapy. Connect with Dr. Matt on Facebook and follow his blog www.drmatt.com