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We aspire to raise our self-esteem and lament our lack of it. So when it’s worn on our sleeve, why can it make the lip curl?

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I was very surprised when a friend recently told me I have the highest self-esteem of anyone she’s ever met.

We get on, so I reckon she means well. But it’s not always a compliment, is it?

We aspire to raise our self-esteem and lament our lack of it. Many hours of therapy are devoted to exploring it – where it went, why, how to nurture it. So when it’s there, worn on our sleeve for the world to see, why can it make the lip curl?

There’s a cultural component here. Known as ‘tall poppy syndrome’ (and, in Japan, as ‘the nail that sticks out’), there is a strong distaste for the one who stands out. We criticise them as braggarts or show-offs. The tall poppy must be cut down to size.

But just why is it so terrible to stand up and be heard?

There are a lot of people who know what it’s like to be silent and silenced. Women, the poor, BME people, trans folk, the global south… People have given a lot for their voices to be heard.

To speak your truth is to have power.

The nail that stands proud ‘needs to be hammered down’ because the haves need the have nots to conform. The worst part is we have internalised the message that we are undeserving of power, and so we police each other, cutting down to size anyone who ‘gets above their station’.

When someone outright owns their strengths and talents, we think them arrogant. We disavow their proclamation of self-worth.

What my friend may not realise about me is that I have all the usual self-doubts (this morning, I was in a teary rage for generally not being good enough). But when my ego gives me a break (for that is what such self-judgements are; in its role as mediator between who you really are and what you think the world wants of you, the ego dishes out a lot of abuse), I make a point of celebrating all that I have.

I’m acutely aware that every moment of life is a miracle. It’s also tragically short. I’ve spent years tussling with low mood, heart-racing worry and excruciating loss, so whenever there’s a window of blue sky, I’m out there vocalising my thanks for what I’ve got, what I’ve experienced, and who I am.

They call that self-esteem. I call it recognition of what you’re being briefly loaned from the universe.

It’s not really about you at all.