Letters to Yalom — #4 — Self-Esteem vs. Death Anxiety
Dear Dr. Yalom,
Here’s another question about Existential therapy for you from a budding psychotherapist. I’ve very much enjoyed sending you my thoughts on Existential therapy, and with or without a response, I always get a lot from it!
Lately, I’ve been pondering the idea of death anxiety. From what I’ve read about it in your work and other works on Existential therapy, there are a variety of defenses against this common fear. One of the defenses is relying on an internal locus of control, and feeling like one is invincible or will live forever, based on one’s contribution to the world, a sense of being extraordinarily gifted or special, monetary possessions or other accomplishments. I guess the idea is that people (unconsciously) believe that if they can leave their stamp on the world, or are special enough they won’t die. I’ve also heard the phrase “We are all one, not more than one, not less than one,” in relation to this idea. So it seems like the general understanding is, don’t get too excited about yourself or what you’re doing, because it will all pass away. You aren’t special, I’m not special, and we’re all just beetle food in the end.
That being said, how do we balance a healthy sense of self-esteem with this idea? Should I tell my clients to say to themselves: “I’m special and gifted, but not too special and gifted?” I personally have grown up with a variety of skills and abilities that I don’t see often in other people. Hence, I believe that I am special, but what does the term “special” mean Existentially? Am I fooling myself by believing that I’m specially gifted? One thing that I’ve noticed in my work is that people really need to believe in themselves, but where do we draw the line between healthy self-image and denial of death anxiety?
I guess my question is: how do we balance self-esteem with Existential reality?
Although I know that this is a question I have to answer for myself as a therapist, any of your thoughts would be much appreciated.
Kate L Stewart, MA