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Low Self-Esteem Needs a New Name

The current one is clunky, archaic, and vague.

Manic depression was given a new name. Now it's bipolar disorder. The ex-Czech Republic became Czechia. Low self-esteem should also be renamed. It is a clunky, antiquated, circuitous phrase that dilutes, and thus dismisses, the crippling and sometimes lethal pain it describes.

With two leapfrogging L and S sounds, "low self-esteem" twists tongues — daring speakers not to slur. Attaching a tripwirey term to a condition whose afflicted live in fear of looking and sounding ridiculous is cruel: an inadvertent insult with a built-in trick.

Asking those of us with low self-esteem to say we have low self-esteem — to claim it as our shared problem or plague — is like asking chefs to say not "I am a chef" but "I am an alimentwright" or "I am a khhhrkkk."

Coined by psychologist/philosopher William James in 1890, the term "self-esteem" was popularized in the 1960s by sociologist Morris Rosenberg, whose Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale comprises 10 statements such as "On the whole, I am satisfied with myself" and "At times I think I am no good at all." Users rate their degree of agreement with each.

"Low self-esteem" and its blithe, strutting counterpart, "high self-esteem," are built around the word "esteem," whose English usage was derived during the 15th century from an Old French verb meaning "to appraise, determine, estimate."

But this English usage is archaic. When was the last time you said, "I hold cake in high esteem" or "I saw the esteemed Nicki Minaj"?

Archaicism is no crime, but I think this currently common circumstance with millions crushed in its claws merits nomenclature that does not resemble "neurasthenia" or "fare thee well."

We could call it self-hatred. Self-loathing, OK. Autophobia would be classic Greek. Just anything that signifies our situation vividly: this endless dread; blaming ourselves for everything; apologizing even to our harmers; pleading for permission to exist. Experiencing every action as another interview, audition, test which we will not just fail but fail in flames, because we suck.

Self-hatred is a kind of pain that hurts not suddenly like being stabbed but on and on. A hot acidic froth impervious to logic issues yellow-green wavelets of yuck that taste of shame and aspirin and snot and spike our circuitry nonstop to self-destruct.

Renaming it will not magically cure or vanish it. But accuracy implies urgency. Having "low self-esteem" is not like being rather short on some neutral or novel substance: Pine-Sol, say, or licorice. It's like being low on oxygen, or sightedness, or blood.

Self-hatred is an all-out war between squadrons of the same army. By losing, all win, and by winning, all lose. You cannot flee the frontline because it is you.

One might not understand — maybe for the first 40 years, or ever — that this is, if not an illness, very like one in its all-consumin nature, transferred within our DNA and/or by interpersonal brutalities or even accidentally, canceling comfort without and within, deranging, damaging. This is why we sufferers sometimes seek relief in substances that fleetingly convince us we are not ourselves.

Professionals call self-hatred a symptom. No. Self-hatred is a thing. Sometimes it coincides with other syndromes but is more than just subordinate. All by itself, it kills. Does this alone not deserve stronger words?

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