How an abundance of self-esteem is pretty self-destructive

Be yourself. There is only one of you and you can do anything. Shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars. Believe it and you can achieve it.

I believed it, all of it, and I am still waiting on my achievements. I am the product of supportive parents, white middle-class privilege, a university education, and every opportunity a child could want. Yet as I approach 30, I am handing out resumes in a mall. It’s not a change in circumstance that I can blame for my current situation. My failures are due to the dismal, stormy marriage of my expectations and my ability, coupled with a healthy dose of reality. And I am not alone.

Pic by Devon Stewart (Click for more in new tab)

According to Statistics Canada in 2001, one in five university graduates worked at jobs that required, at a maximum, a high-school education. As it happens. 2001 was the year I enrolled in my Theatre Arts BFA. While perhaps I didn’t know that exact statistic, I can’t say I was unaware of the risks. People warned me that theatre was a risky pursuit; that making a living at it was next to impossible. I heard statements to this effect over and over, but didn’t listen because I believed in myself.

I have come to find that very few directors hire actors based solely on their self-confidence. Television shows don’t staff their writers rooms with people who ‘just know they can do it’. It turns out that the few liberal arts jobs that exist in this country are pretty sought after, and if you want to pursue a career in the theatre you’d better love yourself enough to do a bunch of work for free. Standing at a till pays rent a lot quicker than all the self-actualization you can cram into eight hours a day.

It’s easy to blame the arts industry or the economy at large. I have friends convinced that, though their undergraduate degrees didn’t provide the results they had hoped, surely a Masters will open more doors. I still hear from those who claim that I’m just bitter; that naturally I haven’t maximized my potential because of my my piss-poor attitude. They could be right, of course, or they could just be keeping their own insecurities at bay; desperate to rationalize another year of living with roommates, punching a timecard, wishin’ and hopin’.

Mine is the generation of the participation trophy, the special snowflake, the ‘It Gets Better’. We’re the kids who show up at American Idol, butcher a ballad, and yell at the judges who criticize us, “You just jealous! I’m gonna be famous and that’s a fact!” We’re the adults with chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and restless leg syndrome. By believing that the world owes us something, we are the ones who are greatly disappointed – sometimes to the point of chronic pains and conditions – when we can’t call in our debt.

I don’t believe our parents are to blame for instilling these attitudes in us either. They were told when they were children to be seen and not heard, to quit their cryin’, and to never walk around thinking they were ‘somebody’. When it comes to those negative approaches, how could one be anything but reactionary when parenting their own kids? The problem is that the person with no self-esteem is as likely to end up bagging groceries or folding sweaters alongside the person with too much of it.

If I could go back and counsel my younger self, I might say, “Don’t just believe in yourself, believe in your achievements, what you have actually accomplished. Then work from there.” I might point out that while your family thinks you are wonderful, most families think their kids are the best thing since sliced bread even though there are some real shitboxes out there. I might tell myself to prepare for failure in the same way I had always envisioned success.

Make a plan for the shortfall, not just the windfall. Before you ‘dazzle the world’, you have to learn to really live in it. Although I really wouldn’t say any of that to a younger me. I’m sure a younger me wouldn’t have listened to a word of it.

About James Ostime

James Ostime writes while you go to whatever your job is. He has written several plays for teenagers for festivals and competitions across the country. He has contributed to the book First in Canada: An Aboriginal Book of Days and the magazine Prairie Forum for Canadian Plains Research Centre. He has been a featured monologist on SoundXChange and Definitely Not the Opera for CBC Radio. Starting in January, he will pen a monthly column for Saskatoon Well Being Magazine. He [tweets here] and he [blogs here]. He lives in Edmonton.