Dealing with Low Self-Esteem and Shame, Part 2: The Quest for Perfection


This article is the second part of a four-part series on low self-esteem and shame, written exclusively for by Richard Harnett.

Click here to read Part 1

Some of us try to forestall The Judge’s harsh verdict by doing everything flawlessly. This method only works for a while, because The Judge is relentless in finding mistakes and errors. Nevertheless, each verdict stiffens our resolve to do better next time. We are seeking to placate a figure that is never satisfied and thrives on our misery. Good luck with that!

Still we believe we can quiet The Judge’s criticism of us by improving our performance. And so we turn our attention to the smallest detail of what we are doing, hoping to get it right this time. We lose sight of the big picture, we don’t realize how much delight The Judge takes in our torment.

Since The Judge is a part of our own personality, it is a figure we somehow need. It drives us to succeed, and we believe that without it we would lose all ambition and become lazy. It tells us what we ought to do. But its demands and its criticism are unending, and we become overburdened with the obligations it imposes on us. We need to find a way to moderate its influence.

All of this oppression affects us emotionally. We may become sad and deeply depressed, we may feel lonely and unwanted, we may explode with disproportionate rage, we may become arrogant and grandiose, or we may give up and become sloppy and careless. We are trying to cope with an opponent who does not fight fairly. So what can we do?

The Judge is one of our subpersonalities. We have adopted it without realizing all the consequences. Now it bosses us around all the time, and criticizes us when we fall short. We need help. We can present our predicament to a good therapist, counselor or friend, and externalizing the problem in this manner will alleviate some of the pressure we feel. And we might keep in mind this advice that Dr. Carl Jung gave to therapists who need to see and accept themselves as they are, before they can accept patients as they are:

But what if I should discover that the least amongst them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most insolent of all offenders, yes, even the very enemy himself -- that these live within me; that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness, that I am to myself the enemy who is to be loved -- what then? (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, pg. 235)

If we are to deal successfully with our low self-esteem and our shame, we might begin by considering how we could treat ourselves with kindness. Imagine how The Judge would react if we treated it with some kindness. It usually expects to be treated with defiance or submission. We would need to draw upon the source of kindness within ourselves, a force that encourages us to be authentic. This force might take the form of another subpersonality, a more balanced one we might call the Healthy Self in us. This figure is more like the person we want to be than The Judge is.


Low self-esteem is the result of our experience of disapproval in one form or another. This rejection is always undeserved and unwarranted.

Family of Origin: Our parents may have mocked us and put us down, we may have been abandoned, betrayed, or neglected. We may have been subjected to verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. And we may have been expected to hide what was done to us.

Current Relationships: We may be involved with someone who is abusive, demeaning, or dehumanizing.

Cultural: We may experience prejudice against us because we are alcoholics, addicts, female, black, Hispanic, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, evangelical, poor, elderly, overweight, physically disabled, sexually different. We may not be occupationally successful or religiously obedient.

Self-Hatred: We may have internalized the unfair judgments of others so much that we castigate ourselves for being imperfect and making mistakes.

Not only do we feel inferior as a result of such disapproval, but we might accept the negative judgment and become ashamed of ourselves as well.

Click here to read Part 3

Richard G. Hartnett, MA, MS, LCADC is a former Jesuit priest who now lives with his wife, Kathy, by a lake in northwestern New Jersey. He has served as the chaplain at Hazelden New York, pastoral counselor at the Chemical Dependency Department of the International Center for the Disabled in NYC, and continuing care counselor at the outpatient Chemical Dependency Program of High Focus Centers in New Jersey. Currently he maintains a private practice in New Jersey. He is the author of The Presence at the Center, Renewing Your Fourth Step, The Three Inner Voices: Uncovering the Spiritual Roots of Addiction and Recovery, and Sobriety and Inspiration: Entrusting Ourselves to the Source of Our Healing and Creativity.


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