Our Big Ideas series features key concepts drawn from Brian Johnson’s PhilosophersNotes, a compendium of brief PDF and MP3 summaries of 125 great books on life wisdom and personal development. Find and download the full-length PhilosophersNotes PDF and MP3 summaries for this book — free! — in the online version of this article. Or check out the full collection of all 125 PhilosophersNotes at PhilosophersNotes.com.
Nathaniel Branden’s book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem is, as its subtitle proclaims: “the definitive work on self-esteem by the leading pioneer in the field.” Branden’s style is rigorously smart, yet still approachable.
In this Note (as with all the others), I’m less interested in giving an intellectual overview of the subject and more interested in pulling out some of the many Big Ideas we can immediately apply to our lives. So, let’s get to work. We’ll start with . . .
Practice Makes Perfect
Self-esteem is not an idea or an affirmation. It’s a practice. (Notice that many of Branden’s chapters start with “The Practice of.”) “What determines the level of self-esteem is what the individual does,” he writes.
It’s nice to talk about ideas, memorize inspiring words and get an intellectual understanding of something. But it’s what we do that leads to our self-esteem. Branden continues: “A ‘practice’ implies a discipline of acting in a certain way over and over again — consistently.”
So, let’s remember it’s not about memorizing inspiring words or having stimulating conversations, it’s about practicing and living our core truths.
1. The Practice of Living Consciously
The practice of living consciously is the first pillar of self-esteem.
Throughout the book, Branden writes about the practice of sentence completions as a powerful tool for living more consciously.
“Sentence-completion work is a deceptively simple yet uniquely powerful tool for raising self-understanding, self-esteem and personal effectiveness. It rests on the premise that all of us have more knowledge than we normally are aware of — more wisdom than we use, more potential than typically shows up in our behavior. Sentence completion is a tool for accessing and activating these ‘hidden resources.’”
Basic idea: Take a sentence stem (like “Living consciously to me means . . .”) and create six to 10 completions of that sentence. The only rule is that each ending needs to create a grammatical sentence. Write quickly, don’t stop to think, and as Branden advises: “Any ending is fine, just keep going.”
Try these on:
• If I bring 5 percent more awareness to my activities today . . .
• If I pay more attention to how I deal with people today . . .
• If I bring 5 percent more awareness to my insecurities then . . .
• If I bring 5 percent more awareness to my priorities then . . .
2. The Practice of Self-Acceptance
Branden beautifully articulates the need to practice self-acceptance: “We can run not only from our dark side but also from our bright side — from anything that threatens to make us stand out or stand alone, or that calls for the awakening of the hero within us, or that asks that we break through to a higher level of consciousness and reach a higher ground of integrity. The greatest crime we commit against ourselves is not that we may deny or disown our shortcomings, but that we deny and disown our greatness — because it frightens us.”
In addition to the acceptance of our light, he advises us that “nothing does as much for an individual’s self-esteem as becoming aware of and accepting disowned parts of the self. The first steps of healing and growth are awareness and acceptance — consciousness and integration.”
3. The Practice of Self-Responsibility
“I am responsible for my choices and actions,” Branden writes. “To be ‘responsible’ in this context means responsible not as the recipient of moral blame or guilt, but responsible as the chief causal agent in my life and behavior.”
We’re responsible when we’re able to respond to life’s challenges as healthy, autonomous human beings — not as victims, blaming this or that for our challenges, but as individuals who own our abilities to manifest our desires as we engage in life.
4. The Practice of Self-Assertiveness
“To practice self-assertiveness is to live authentically, to speak and act from my innermost convictions and feelings — as a way of life, as a rule,” Branden notes.
The essence of this pillar is to be real. To drive this point home, remember the idea that “authentic” and “author” come from the same root. To be authentic is literally to be the author of your own story. Are you?
Branden continues: “Warren Bennis [the founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California and a pioneer in the contemporary field of leadership studies] tells us that the basic passion in the best leaders he has studied is for self-expression. Their work is clearly a vehicle for self-actualization. Their desire is to bring ‘who they are’ into the world, into reality, which I speak of as the practice of self-assertiveness.”
5. The Practice of Living Purposefully
“To live purposefully,” Branden explains, “is to use our powers for the attainment of goals we have selected: the goal of studying, of raising a family, of starting a new business, of solving a scientific problem, of building a vacation home, of sustaining a happy romantic relationship. It is our goals that lead us forward, that call on the exercise of our faculties, that energize our existence.”
So, what are your goals? What deeply inspires you? These aren’t things that you think would impress others, but the visions that deeply resonate with your highest values and ideals.
Branden notes: “People rarely ask themselves, ‘If my goal is to have a successful relationship, what must I do? What actions are needed to create and sustain trust, intimacy, continuing self-disclosure, excitement, growth?’”
First question: What do you want? Second question: What must you do? As Branden reminds us: “Purposes unrelated to a plan of action do not get realized. They exist as frustrated yearnings.”
6. The Practice of Personal Integrity
Without practicing personal integrity, the preceding practices disintegrate. “Integrity is the integration of ideals, convictions, standards, beliefs — and behavior,” writes Branden. “When our behavior is congruent with our professed values, when ideals and practice match up, we have integrity.”
Do your ideals, convictions, standards, beliefs and behavior all line up?
And, perhaps even more important, do you have a sense of what your ideals, convictions, standards and beliefs are to use as a basis for measuring how you’re doing?
Small Improvements, Big Results
“These practices are ideals to guide us. And — this can hardly be overemphasized — they do not have to be lived ‘perfectly’ 100 percent of the time in order to have a beneficent impact on our lives,” Branden writes. “Small improvements make a difference.”
Perfection is not the standard we’re looking for here. Why? Because it’s impossible to attain. Remember to honor the power of small improvements as we develop our self-esteem and live more conscious lives.
Nathaniel Branden, PhD, is a lecturer, practicing psychotherapist and author of 17 books, including Taking Responsibility and My Years with Ayn Rand. His work has been translated into 18 languages and has sold more than 4 million copies.