Live More Fully By Paying Attention To This Dead Guy

nathaniel branden

Pay attention to this dead guy who had a bizarre love affair with the controversial Ayn Rand while married to his first of many wives.

Oh, that’s not enough?

Pay attention to this dead guy who built a lifetime practice focused on self-esteem, a concept that seems more than a bit out of favor these days. But perhaps this is because many people have an incorrect perception of self esteem.

Self-esteem isn’t about getting a trophy, a star and a congratulatory hug for simply showing up at life’s occasions. Not everybody ‘wins.’ However, it is about being worthy of happiness, a quality we generate within ourselves through our own thoughts, behaviors and actions.

Self-esteem isn’t about wallowing lazily in a lovely world where everything automagically goes your way. Instead, it is defined by an ability to face and manage life’s frequent and inevitable challenges.

Self-esteem isn’t about self-love, which is often construed by skeptics to be consistent with narcissism. Instead, it’s about self-acceptance (see below for more on this concept).

Self-esteem isn’t something you ‘give’ to others. Rather, it requires your own work and development for yourself. Yes, you can create an environment that encourages children to cultivate their own self-esteem, but the seedlings must grow into healthy plants on their own.

To say that Dr. Nathaniel Branden, aka the forementioned ‘dead guy,’ led a complicated personal life is an extreme understatement. But we owe a huge debt to him for his contributions to the field of self-esteem. That said, I don’t understand how his findings have been so misinterpreted. But let’s not even argue the point. Because if one looks at Dr. Branden’s book, “The Six Pillars of Self Esteem,” she/he can optionally throw away the self-esteem label and instead use these principles as a guide for living a more fulfilled, meaningful, productive, ethical and positively inspired life. Don’t believe me? Read on.

Six Practices for Building Self-Esteem, or Whatever the F You Want to Call It Instead

Here is a brief description of the six pillars in Dr. Branden’s own words.

1. The practice of living consciously: respect for facts; being present to what we are doing while we are doing it; seeking and being eagerly open to any information, knowledge, or feedback that bears on our interests, values, goals, and projects; seeking to understand not only the world external to self but also our inner world, so that we do not [sic] out of self-blindness.

My comment: It’s up to us as individuals to improve in this area. That’s because societially we are arguably facing a ‘lack of consciousness crisis’ due in part to the usual culprits: tech gadgets, social media and the news media. And no, I’m not a Luddite who churns my own butter, but wouldn’t that be tasty?

2. The practice of self-acceptance: the willingness to own, experience, and take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions, without evasion, denial, or disowning – and also without self-repudiation; giving oneself permission to think one’s thoughts, experience one’s emotions, and look at one’s actions without necessarily liking, endorsing, or condoning them; the virtue of realism applied to the self.

My comment: This is an important distinction from how self-esteem skeptics might define ‘self-love.’ Self-acceptance implies owning up to our own failings. It means we accept rather than reject any part of ourselves, with our flaws and all. We may not ‘like’ this part of ourselves and may strive to ‘do’ better in the future, but we accept our imperfections, again, without necessarily being resigned to them. In other words, there need be no, “This is just the way I am,” types of cop outs here.

3. The practice of self-responsibility: realizing that we are the author of our choices and actions; that each one [of] us is responsible for life and well-being and for the attainment of our goals; that if we need the cooperation of other people to achieve our goals, we must offer values in exchange; and that [the] question is not “Who’s to blame?” but always “What needs to be done?”

My comment: This is the hallmark of any personal development program. It sounds easy in principle and is difficult in practice, due to societal conditioning. Please note an important distinction: an adverse circumstance in your life may very well not be your fault. However it is arguably your responsibility to address and attempt correcting it.

4. The practice of self-assertiveness: being authentic in our dealings with others; treating our values and persons with decent respect in social contexts; refusing to fake the reality of who we are or what we esteem in order to avoid disapproval; the willingness to stand up for ourselves and our ideas in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts.

My comment: To be blunt, this is mutually exclusive from feeling like one needs to ‘break glass’ and/or behave like a douchebag in order to get her or his way. Notice Dr. Branden’s term, “in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts.” I am putting all office douchebags, including myself in a former life, on notice here. Case in point: if someone calls you a ‘strong cup of coffee,’ that is not a compliment.

5. The practice of living purposefully: identifying our short-term and long-term goals or purposes and the actions needed to attain them (formulating an action-plan); organizing behavior in the service of those goals; monitoring action to be sure we stay on track; and paying attention to outcome so as to recognize if and when we need to go back to the drawing-board.

My comment: Arguably this is among the more straightforward of Dr. Branden’s principles. And yet, how many of us set goals, build plans, measure results and course-correct for all the major areas of our lives, and not just our career.

6. The practice of personal integrity: living with congruence between what we know, what we profess, and what we do; telling the truth, honoring our commitments, exemplifying in action the values we profess to admire.

My comment: I would quadruple underline the word ‘congruence.’ This is about better aligning our thoughts and beliefs with what comes out of our mouths and, most importantly, how we act.

At this point, if you are still not with me, let’s play a devil’s advocate mind game.Think about the consequences of playing the infamous George Costanza ‘do the opposite’ skit in each of these areas. George behaved against what his instincts indicated he should do and landed a new girlfriend, a killer job with The New York Yankees and a sweet apartment in Manhattan. But moving beyond the world of nostalgic TV sitcoms, how do we and those we influence – including our children – gain from our thinking less consciously, rejecting ourselves, blaming others more, behaving less assertively, living purposelessly, and operating with no integrity?

Again, ditch the fecking label if you want to. But I can’t be convinced these pillars aren’t vital elements in living more fully.

Great. So What Do I Do Now?

First, I’d strongly consider adding Dr. Branden’s seminal book to your reading list. It goes into exhaustively more detail on these six pillars. It is lengthy, It is dry. It is humorless. It is not an easy read. And it is absolutely worth it.

Second, and the book provides specific instructions on this in the six chapters highlighting each of the pillars as well as in the Appendix, consider practicing Dr. Branden’s sentence completion exercises for a period of time. A few years ago I  completed a few 30 day stints with a morning and night practice of sentence completion exercises. While it’s not easy, and no, I have not attempted the entirety of what I’m about to describe, it will definitely increase your in-the-moment awareness by highlighting areas of your thinking and behaviors that merit further exploration. Just go here and read through the instructions and sentence stems for the first of two 30 week exercises. Lest the potential of spending more than a year on a personal development journey seems insane, Mr. Branden suggests taking no more than 20 minutes per day for this practice.

And notice how many of these practice sentence stems are focused on one’s interactions with other people versus engaging exclusively in self-introspection. Improving in these areas is perhaps an ideal way to become a more peaceful and pleasant human being who operates as a positive role model for others.

Better grades and more athletic trophies for the kids? Loftier job titles and mo’ money for you? Sure, that all sounds awesome. At the same time, I’ll take behaving in the world as a more peaceful, pleasant and positive role model any day.

As is so often the case I have some work to do. Namaste.



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