“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Carl Gustave Jung
2017 was a big year for me. I moved to Oregon, got a job with an awesome tech startup, lost a lot of weight, and more- but I consider these things to be secondary to a simple daily practice that I began in June.
The story really starts in March. My friend and I were at the airport headed to Upstate New York for a temp job lasting just a few days. He had a credit on his Audible account and asked what book he should download so we’d have something to listen to while we worked. I couldn’t think of anything off the top of my head, so I asked my Facebook friends what they recommended. The first reply was Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden, and we decided to go for it. I’ll admit I was a little wary of the title- ‘self-esteem’ is one of those terms that instantly rouses suspicion and scorn, and it’s certainly not something you’d want to be caught reading a self-help book about.
I was more than pleasantly surprised.
As it turns out, Branden was the psychotherapist who launched the ‘Self-Esteem Movement’ in the 1960s- a movement that quickly moved away from Branden’s definitions and principles and became the trophy-granting nonsense we usually associate with the term. Branden’s version and original intent, however, is far from the common conception we have today- with its positive affirmations, participation trophies, and ignoring the hard realities of life in order to spare people’s feelings. Rather, this book defines self-esteem as “the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.” This is quite different- it requires constant vigilance, evaluation, and work to build your competence in the world. Elsewhere in his writings, Branden defines self-esteem as a person’s reputation with their self. You may be able to fool others about your compliance with your values, but you cannot fool yourself.
In order to develop a sense of competence toward the challenges of life and have a good reputation with yourself in your inner world, Branden argues that six practices are fundamental- the titular ‘pillars’:
- The practice of living consciously
- The practice of self-acceptance (by this he does not mean being satisfied with how you are, but rather accepting your flaws- and virtues- as facts. Only when these realities are accepted can they be improved)
- The practice of self-responsibility
- The practice of self-assertiveness
- The practice of living purposefully
- The practice of personal integrity
The book devotes an in-depth chapter to each of these practices, with plenty of fleshing out and examples from Branden’s own life and those of his therapy clients, with several other chapters laying out his philosophy and criticizing other formulations of self-esteem.
As with other personal development books, I found the information informative and helpful in an abstract sense, but what I found especially valuable was the system he laid out for integrating these practices into daily life. This system is one he developed in his therapy practice, but can be easily done alone- it consists of writing exercises where a sentence stem is given, and the participant is asked to write 6-10 endings for that stem as rapidly as possible without ‘thinking about it.’ For example, a stem might be “if I brought 5% more personal integrity to my life today…” and then you would write 6-10 endings as quickly as possible. This technique is based on the supposition that we subconsciously know a lot more than we realize, and this process brings it to the surface- so, per our example, the idea is that your subconscious knows the areas in your life where you are deficient in personal integrity, as well as what consequences this deficiency is causing in your life. Endings might include “… I wouldn’t tell my boss white lies” or “… I wouldn’t have so many stories to keep track of.” I was really surprised with what came up as I experimented with the sentence stems he provides in the book. I was so impressed, in fact, that I decided to make a workbook out of the 30-week program outlined in the back of the book.
I started on Monday, June 5th specifically so that I’d finish on New Years’ Eve- and I’m happy to say that I stuck with it, with great results!
The program was organized so that each week had 4-6 stems, which were repeated every weekday. Then, on the weekend, you take a few minutes to go over your responses for the week and write down any patterns you noticed. Finally, with those patterns in mind, you do a single stem: “If any of what I wrote down this week is true, it would be helpful if I…” writing down any endings that come to mind.
I was amazed at the impact this simple, daily practice made in my life. I found a few minutes each day to do the stems, and found that I started to get a hang of writing without thinking or censoring. Even when I thought I had nothing to write, I found that with a little relaxation, endings inevitably floated up from my subconscious, and the insight was powerful. More powerful still were the changes in my thoughts and behavior that this simple practice brought about. In the book, Branden specifically said not to worry or think about applying or integrating the principles- it would happen spontaneously if the exercises were done consistently and purposefully. I found that I was becoming more conscious, more purposeful, more assertive, and more honest. I hadn’t even realized how much I had been lying my whole life!
One of the more noticeable areas where these changes took place was at work. At the time, I was working with my dad in his screenprint shop- a job I had done off and on since I was 9 years old. My whole life working there, I usually sat around waiting to be told what to do- partially out of laziness, and partially out of fear that I would mess something up. Once I started sentence stem work, however, that quickly changed. It was as if suddenly everything that needed to be done and was within my power to do started jumping out at me. I didn’t have to wait to be told what to do- I couldn’t NOT see what needed to be done! And, as I took the initiative to get these things done, I felt good- I felt the self-esteem that Branden had described. For the first time in my life, I felt a general sense of competence and alignment with my values. It was really quite refreshing.
This went on for several weeks, but eventually I felt my progress slow. The stem topics moved on from the six practices into more abstract ideas that were interesting, but not as actionable. At one point in late August, I actually wondered If it was still worth my time to do the exercises. It was during this time that I went up to Oregon to visit some friends (now roommates) and see the solar eclipse. As my friend and I made our way north through the California redwoods, we were listening to Jordan Peterson’s lecture on the psychology of the flood story in the Bible. Toward the beginning of the lecture, Dr. Peterson mentioned that his psychotherapy clients often have a similar dream when they start to uncover new territory in their subconscious: they dream that they’re in a familiar house and discover a new room, usually full of water or having signs that water had recently been present. This made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, as I had just had one of those dreams a few days earlier. I had dreamt that I was cleaning out my grandparents’ house (something I had actually done a few months before as my grandpa moved out and we prepared it to be rented), and I went up to the attic. Inside the attic, I found a door that opened up to a previously undiscovered (and architecturally impossible) large bathroom. The paint was peeling and streaked and the linoleum buckling as if the room had been the victim of significant water damage in the past, but was forgotten rather than repaired. I took this to mean that my sentence stem work was still effectual, and that I was continuing to find subconscious truth even though the outward results weren’t as dramatic as at first.
As I stuck with my commitment to do the whole 3o week program, I continued to get new insights and experience changes in attitude and behavior. I got more courage to say yes when I wanted to say yes, and no when I wanted to say no. I started having more experiences and had the courage to drop everything and move to Oregon when the opportunity presented itself. The stems began to relate to childhood experiences, and I started remembering specific events and how they impacted my thoughts and self image to the present day- 20 years later. I started having little epiphanies about why things have been the way they have been. As I got comfortable with the procedure, I started crafting my own stems to figure out various problems or to get more understanding about my anxieties. I continue to be amazed at the impact of this one little daily practice.
I’m glad I followed my friend’s recommendation to get Branden’s book. I’ve read several of his other books, purchased his audio programs, and followed his advice. It definitely works. I have more self-esteem for no other reason than that I’ve earned it through self-improvement.