Eckhart on Low Self-Esteem and Anxiety

By Eckhart Tolle

QUESTION: I’m 34 years old and have a good job and a good home; I’m married to a wonderful man. I have bad anxiety, and I have no idea what I want from my life. I have low self-esteem and I get defensive easily. I’m rarely content or grateful. My thinking is so negative. I need approval from others.

ECKHART: This doesn’t seem to be a question but there’s a question hiding in there. First, I’d like to congratulate the questioner on her self-knowledge because she is aware that she’s anxious. Not everybody who’s anxious knows that they are anxious. They are just taken over by anxiety, and it is virtually their normal state. If you ask them, “Are you anxious?” they reply, “No, I’m not anxious.”

The question, “I have no idea what I want from my life,” looks like the beginning of the place of not knowing, which is good. “I have low self-esteem,” indicates that you have the awareness that you have low self-esteem. “I get defensive easily,” again, this indicates that you know that you get defensive; the question is… in the moment of getting defensive do you know that you’re getting defensive, or do you just know it afterwards? “I’m rarely content or grateful,” is a good self-observation, too. “My thinking is so negative,” is another good piece of self-knowledge. You can ask, in this moment, what other thoughts are going through my head?

If you apply this awareness to the present moment when these things arise – defensiveness, low self-esteem and anxiety — you’ll see that certain repetitive thoughts in the mind are the voice in the head that tells you – this is low self-esteem. There might be certain emotions that go with the thoughts, but the basis for low self-esteem is the thoughts that you tell yourself about your low self-worth. The questioner knows that she has low self-esteem, and if she can recognize the thoughts in the moment of low self-esteem arising, she may realize the repetitive, conditioned thoughts are not necessarily true. Perhaps, the low self-esteem started in childhood – it often happens to people whose parents are very critical or tell them they are never good enough. It might have started there; it’s a conditioned way of thinking.

The awareness that’s already present in the questioner needs to be there in the moment when these thoughts arise — to recognize them as thoughts — and then, you are no longer completely trapped in what these thoughts are saying. In other words, your sense of being is not in the thought anymore; it is in the awareness of the thought. To use an analogy, the vastness of the sky is your awareness and the clouds are your thoughts.

Remain the sky (the awareness) and allow the clouds (the thoughts) to come and go. You are the awareness behind the thoughts. This applies to any kind of negative thinking – it arises, you recognize it as automatic– it’s a thought. You are the awareness that knows this (low-self esteem) is a negative thought pattern. This way you are no longer feeding the conditioned thinking, so you are taking your identity out of thinking and no longer renewing old patterns.

If your awareness can grow, which means deepen, because it’s already there to some extent – then those conditioned patterns will diminish and get transmuted.

Another point mentioned in the question: “I get defensive easily,” defensiveness happens very quickly in human interactions; it’s an automatic pattern. You may only recognize it afterwards, and say, “That was defensiveness again.” These are all ways the ego tried to protect itself– the ego being the mind-made self. Defensiveness will come up with any lie just to keep its ego identity intact.

A Course in Miracles has a lovely saying, “Whenever you become defensive about anything, know that you have identified with an illusion.” That’s interesting. For example, you say that the distance from here to the moon is 350,000 kilometers or so – and the light takes just over one second to travel from the moon to the Earth. Then somebody else says, “No, that’s completely untrue; it actually takes one minute.” This is just a difference of opinion, but you know that the other person is wrong. If you say, “No, that’s not right,” is that defensiveness? It depends on how you say it. The question is…are you identified with your mind, which has a position that happens to be true, but are you identified with that mental position? Do you derive your sense of self from thought? If you’re identified with the thought, you will get angry and defensive with the other person who is completely wrong and you might say things like, “You always doubt me.” That’s the ego trying to protect itself.

The A Course in Miracles saying applies because you have identified yourself with an illusion. The illusion is not that it takes one second for light to travel from the moon to the Earth; the illusion is that you identified with the thought — a mind pattern — so you are strengthening an illusory identity by strengthening your mental position– that’s unconsciousness. This shows how a difference of opinion can degenerate into a huge conflict because the ego becomes defensive. Alertness is required on your part, so that you know when the ego arises.

The key is your awareness. When awareness deepens all those patterns you mentioned will weaken. There’s already a considerable amount of awareness in this questioner. The awareness isn’t the person, but it’s deeper than the person. You apply the awareness to the present moment when things arise, but not in some abstract way, for example, “Will I ever become a person who is not negative? I can’t get rid of my patterns,” that doesn’t matter; this moment is what matters. So just apply your awareness to this moment; you can’t change things into mental constructs – “How can I change, I don’t want to be that kind of person anymore?” Forget it! This moment is where you apply Presence. I sometimes say, “The sword of Presence that cuts through time.”

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