So Whitney Houston has departed this world relatively young and in tragic, but not altogether surprising circumstances. In Kevin Costner's eulogy at her funeral he said "She wasn't sure if she was pretty enough, she wasn't sure if she was good enough and whether people would like her. Her vulnerability was what made her great and the part that caused her to stumble."
It was as though the good fairy had visited her at birth. She had stunning good looks, working as a model from a young age and an outstanding singing talent. She was also born into a stable, church-going, middle-class home and went on to have fame, and wealth, and yet happiness and stability seemed to elude her.
So where did the internal struggle come from?
According to the UK gay rights activist, Peter Tatchell, who witnessed her in private with her assistant Robyn Crawford, they had a love that was infectious. And her sister-in-law (her husband, Bobby Brown's sister) Tina, and her former bodyguard, Kevin Ammons, concur with this assessment.
Her manager, Clive Davis, recognised her talent as a teenager and remodelled her to make her more appealing to a mainstream audience. He took a powerful gospel singer, took the soul and gospel out, and marketed her as a pop act. He also had her appear with long, curly blond hair and played down her racial features.
So right from the beginning the core of her very being - the fact that she was black and she probably wasn't heterosexual - wasn't OK and meant that we could never know the real Whitney, just some marketer's confection.
George Clooney also recently referred to himself as being driven by "low self-esteem and a big ego - like most actors". And you really have to wonder, if people so good looking, famous, talented and wealthy can struggle with low self-esteem, what chance the rest of us have finding healthy self-regard.
What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem is a term used to reflect our own appraisal of our worth and this is usually regarded as an enduring personality characteristic. It is the confidence to feel that you can cope with the basic challenges of life and are deserving of happiness. It can encompass a range of emotions such as shame or pride and beliefs about our talents and abilities.
It is important to understand that it is not the objective facts about one-self that inform self-esteem, but what we believe to be true and these messages have been internalised from our surroundings and particularly from authority figures such as teachers and parents whilst growing up.
Self-esteem is absolutely central to our sense of self-worth and it has been found to be an important predictor of almost all behaviours including academic achievement, exercise behaviour, psychological well-being and self-reported happiness. People with high self-esteem seek to be the best they can be and do not measure themselves against others. Their drive is to more fully express who they uniquely are.
The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, included the need to be accepted, loved and respected both by oneself and others in his hierarchy of needs as a pre-requisite to psychological health. And the opposite of healthy self-esteem is self-rejection, a state which can cause unhappiness and depression.
Your self-esteem is broadcast to the world in everything you say and do from your posture and way of dressing, to the way you handle conflict and whether or not you exercise.
One example is that a lady I hadn't seen before turned up at one of the exercise classes I attend. Nothing unusual about that except for the fact that she was totally bald - but that wasn't what you noticed about her.
What you noticed was that she was confident and laughing, not in the least trying to hide or excuse her hairlessness. In the split second that we take to assess another I understood that it wasn't an issue for her - or if it had been, she had long since got over it.
People with a healthy level of self-esteem:
A person with healthy self-esteem accepts themselves warts-and-all and still loves themselves. Some confuse modesty with low self-esteem and healthy self-esteem with narcissism, egotism or pride. However, modesty can be an insincere playing down of one's accomplishments so as not to appear boastful and it is not modest to have low self-esteem, it is self-destructive.
At the other end of the scale, narcissists can be in denial of their faults, trying to hide them and to present only an idealised version of themselves. They can become grandiose and insecure as they prop their self-worth up with external factors. Narcissists are typically threatened by other's success whereas someone with healthy self-esteem will celebrate other's triumphs.
Whereas pride refers to having an inflated sense of one's personal status or accomplishments. Victorian Britain in particular had a sanction against the 'sin' of pride which still dogs some families generations later.
A person with low self-esteem may show some of the following symptoms:
Being self-critical and constantly dissatisfied with themselves
A hypersensitivity to criticism, leading to feelings of being attacked and resentment towards perceived critics
An inability to make decisions for fear of making a mistake
Being a people-pleaser who can't say 'No'
The expectation that they must be perfect and frustration when they fall short of the mark
Feelings of guilt about events that may not always be objectively bad
Exaggeration about the magnitude of mistakes or offenses and complaining about them indefinitely
Difficulty forgiving others for real or perceived offences
Irritability which can readily turn to anger or dissatisfaction
A glass-is-half-empty approach to life
A lack of pleasure in life and
Feeling insignificant and small.
Psychologists such as Albert Ellis and Stephen Hayes have criticised the whole concept of self-esteem - of measuring ourselves against others - as being destructive. And whilst they acknowledge the tendency to judgment as innate, they propose that a healthier alternative is to strive for unconditional acceptance of self and others.
For those with low self-esteem, the acquisition of material things or status may produce a temporary feeling of self-esteem, but doesn't really touch the core issues.
Relationships and self-esteem
In order to be able to give and receive love, you absolutely have to have decent self-esteem. People with low self-esteem who put others on a pedestal imagine that they can be made whole by another. But true love is an affirmation of the living, growing being in all of us.
And whilst is it a delight to discover others who we feel are worthy of our respect, admiration and love, it is vital to believe ourselves deserving of these things. Also, there can never be any meaningful relationship between people who don't believe themselves to be equals. Until you learn to love yourself, intimates will just reflect back to you your unloved places causing misery and disillusion.
According to a recent book by the palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, the most common regret of the terminally ill is not having had the courage to live a life true to themselves and not the life others expected of them. There is a huge societal and familial pressure to conform in order to be accepted.
The trouble with this is that by conforming to fit other's expectations, you end up pleasing everyone except yourself, and even when you do receive the esteem of others you know, as Whitney did, that it is not the real you that they love. And if you check everything that you say and do so as not to offend anyone, you also lose the passion, power, freedom and joy of being you.
It is important to understand that whatever you do there will be detractors who are happy to tell you that you are wrong. And, there will be times when you wonder if everything they say is true and to stay the course requires real courage. The only people who never doubt themselves are the seriously deluded. Remember the adage of Bernard Baruch "Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind".
Spirituality and self-esteem
The Native Americans talk about 'Medicine' - each person's unique blend of talents and abilities. These particular medicines are spotted and encouraged by the group so that individuals can take pride in being the tribal hunter or the healer.
Often these medicines are aligned with the qualities seen in animals so that deer medicine is about gentleness and dog medicine is about loyalty. How can it be considered to be egotistical or conceited to appreciate your own unique medicine?
Because everyone is genuinely unique. And there is a place that you and only you can fill in this universe. You are important in that we are all important - all parts of the whole.
Ultimately, there is nothing outside of you and never will be. Judgements made of others are judgements of self. Our lot is to learn to accept everything about ourselves - good and bad - and to learn to love it.
Society and self-esteem
It appears, as with Whitney Houston and George Clooney, that some of the people you least expect have lifelong struggles with low self-esteem. And I have relatively recently come to the conclusion that the circumstances that give rise to this might be deliberate.
After all, governments don't want nations of people who actually think for themselves and are prepared to stand up for what they believe in despite what everyone else thinks. We are much easier to manage when we are herded together and when we are all concerned about fitting in. When we are part of a group mind.
In animals that are predated (such as humans), being separated from the group - or cast out of the group - usually spells death. So that we have a primal need to fit in. It is this that keeps us in line, but is also our biggest regret when we know the end is near.
Also, the way the world has been set up means that the wheels of commerce are largely driven by low self-esteem and the notion that you can buy such a thing by purchasing designer goods or performance cars. And of course, images of impossible perfection are presented to us at every turn.
There is a constant background drum beat that we are not good enough.
Our mistake is to buy into it.
"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face."
"Yours is the energy that makes your world. There are no limitations to the self except those you believe in."
"I wish I could show you, When you are lonely or in darkness, The astonishing light of your own being."
"To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself."
Thich Nhat Hanh
"Tell me how a person judges his or her self-esteem and I will tell you how that person operates at work, in love, in sex, in parenting, in every important aspect of existence - and how high he or she is likely to rise. The reputation you have with yourself - your self-esteem - is the single most important factor for a fulfilling life."
"People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within."
"All things splendid have been achieved by those who dared believe that something inside them was superior to circumstance."
"Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it or what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you will ever own."
"The hardest challenge is to be yourself in a world where everyone is trying to make you be somebody else."
E. E. Cummings
"The way you treat yourself sets the standard for others."
"Trust yourself. Think for yourself. Act for yourself. Speak for yourself. Be yourself. Imitation is suicide."
"All that you need is deep within you waiting to unfold and reveal itself. All you have to do is be still and take time to seek for what is within and you will surely find it."
"Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one."
"You can’t build joy on a feeling of self-loathing."
"It's not your job to like me...it's MINE!"
"If you aren't good at loving yourself, you will have a difficult time loving anyone, since you'll resent the time and energy you give another person that you aren't even giving to yourself."
Barbara De Angelis
"Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are."
"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."
"Be yourself, everyone else is taken."
"You cannot be lonely if you like the person you're alone with."
Dr. Wayne W. Dyer
"There is nothing noble about being superior to some other man. The true nobility is in being superior to your previous self."
"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
Click the appropriate link if you would like to buy The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying from Amazon UK or US.