Self-esteem and abnormality

William James proposed that self-esteem is the ratio of successes to pretensions. By this he meant that we judge the way we feel about ourselves by whether we attain our pretensions or fail to attain them. Pretensions are just another way to express the claims we make about ourselves. We certainly do make many claims. When we can attain those claims we are happy. When we cannot, we are not feeling well about ourselves. As such, our self-esteem suffers. The key to happiness then is to set appropriate pretensions and attain them, or modify those that are too lofty.

Psychoadaptation is about adapting to one’s constraints. Each context has its own rules governing what is considered success; constraints. These constraints set the thresholds to which we strive and hope to attain. For instance, in the academic realm, attaining a college degree is now considered a normative albeit lofty achievement. Indeed, having a college degree is becoming the new minimum acceptable academic accomplishment to be considered successful. Yet, even that is actually it’s not enough. The college one attends is a measure of one’s intellectual capacity. Have you ever noticed, my reader, how individuals attending a community college respond to questions about the college attending? It’s pure shame. As such, going to prestigious institutions like Harvard, Yale, Penn, Stanford, Berkley, or some other private institution is supposed to be an indicator of supreme intelligence and ultimate success. Those individuals who matriculate to and graduate from these types of institutions, whether private or public, wear a large but false medal on their chests they strut around with, shouting out with feigned humility, “I am special”. Indeed, by our societal standards they are, for they have achieved maximum adaptation to the highest of contexts. For that, they do deserve praise, but that praise is short lived, at least I’d hope.

Life is all about adaptation, and adaptation to one’s contexts is an awesome achievement. Indeed, it’s normative. However, being normal isn’t always the highest achievement. Abnormality has its place in the universe of achievements too. I posit that it’s not only interesting, but essential to move society forward. Abnormality means seeing the flaws in the macrosystem and finding solutions that stretch the limits of our current conceptions. Self-esteem comes from esteem. Esteem comes from being esteemed by others. Without that esteem, there cannot be self-esteem. Self-esteem is built on successes in normative endeavors; endeavors that are within say two standard deviations of the mean. Okay, well, that means that 95% of all individuals would agree that what was done is awesome, as 95% of population values are within plus or minus two standard deviations of the mean. However, moving beyond the normal means being in that other 5%; being abnormal. I love being abnormal.

Abnormality is a very uncomfortable place. However, the greats have always gone there. Most avoid abnormality because they cannot handle the insult to self-esteem and all the booty that one forfeits with abnormality. Imagine the praise one receives from peers for attaining some cultural standard. People propitiate the successful person as if she were a deity. What’s worse is that the successful individual takes that praise in as if it is fully deserved. I guess it is deserved if one likes being limited, but there is so much more beyond, so much more than what is seen. Even with infinity, there is a beyond. The person living psychoadaptation senses the beyond and challenges the limitations of the normative.

I love James’s definition of self-esteem. However, too many people set their pretensions based on the zeitgeist; the spirit of the times. Our economy is built on exploiting the needy to meet societal expectations. People believe that they must attain certain goals to be successful and base their self-esteems on their success at achieving these false goals. Indeed, they subscribe to the notion that we can be great if we graduate with the right degree from the right institution or drive the right car or have the perfect body, or have the right sneakers. However, that felt love is ephemeral and as uneasy as a wooden plank 15 feet above stormy water. Tastes change like the wind changes the ripples on a pond. What remains constant is our desire to achieve a higher Self. The Healthy Self finds new challenges to pursue and adapt to. It is actually easy to find flaws in the normative constraints once one has adapted to the contextual constraints of a given contexts. Some contexts don’t change their constraints. That should make it easy to find flaws. Indeed, it does. But the participant must want to find the flaws and rebel against them. Most people don’t because mastering the constraints and the praise achieved for that mastery is just too savory. I can see why one would want to perpetually bask in the praise, but that’s not for me. I have learned to praise myself for higher achievements.

People love being esteemed. Esteem from others translates to self-esteem, for one needs a context to adapt to, and others to establish the threshold for success. People may act humbly, but their fake humility is actually pride for their achievements. The healthy Self doesn’t share when sharing isn’t accepted. Those who want others to see their achievements wear them proudly. Living psychoadaptation means not only surpassing small achievements, but setting new goals that surpass what others comprehend. Hence, abnormality. Being normal means being within a standard deviation of the mean. The mean is another word for average. Since 68% of all population values are within plus or minus one standard deviation of the mean, most people want to fall within a standard deviation of the mean. However, some people are considered special, even if normative. Every population allows for outliers. These are individuals who are generally three standard deviations above or below the mean. Three standard deviations of the mean encompasses 99.7% of all population values. So, being outside three standard deviations of the mean makes one really different. Not really though, in my view; it just makes them at the extreme of the population of normal people.

Psychoadaptation loves adaptation. However, the adaptation is supposed to be temporary, at least for the special. When one adapts, one’s pretensions and successes are equal and self-esteem is maximized. However, the truly special person sees the flaws in the system and transcends them. This is difficult as transcending flaws means refusing to accept the praises rained upon them for more than a moment. Victory isn’t sufficient for the person seeking transcendence. What is favored is progress toward the ultimate goal; wisdom. Wisdom is a spiritual state that requires transcendence of earthly norms. The person living psychoadaptation is not satisfied with earthly achievements and desires to move toward a more universal consciousness. That is something far different from adapting to one’s earthly contexts. The college one attends doesn’t help achieve it. The car one drives will not achieve it. One’s physical appearance will not achieve it. To achieve this special state of a Healthy Self and to live psychoadaptation, one must continue to progress to higher levels of adaptation, until progression is no longer possible due to age, health, or death. This is not governed by earthly states. Not college degree, money, car, clothing, or looks will attain it. Only knowledge of one’s limitations and a pursuit of a better self, acknowledging those limitations, will achieve it.


Psychoadaptation for daily living

Any therapeutic approach should be useful without the help of a therapist, well at least in the long term. Psychoadaptation is the term I coined to connote psychological adaptation. As we progress in years of life, we encounter various situations requiring adaptation. It is the ability to adapt to a changing environment that allows us to succeed as human beings.

At its root, psychological adaptation requires an understanding of the constraints of any given environment. Each environment has its rules (constraints) to which one must adapt if one is to be successful within that context. To adapt, one must let go of one’s present worldview. We each have beliefs about the world and what it takes to succeed. Yet, as we encounter the diversity that is life, we learn that our adaptations have limitations. These limitations prevent many from succeeding in life in general, as encountering novel constraints is distressing. Novelty means new constraints to which we must adapt. This also means that our present worldviews are inadequate, and this is not a savory feeling.

No person likes to be wrong. Yet, life requires us to experience being wrong often. When we are wrong, we experience disequilibrium, a negative and very distasteful feeling most people would prefer to prevent. Yet, with time and experience adapting to novel contexts, disequilibrium becomes less unsavory. For the most successful human beings, disequilibrium is not only less distasteful, but actually welcome as it reflects positive movement.

Psychoadaptation is about moving forward. The successful person will move forward, and welcome disequilibrium. To succeed, thus, one must accept change. I like to think of successful individuals having a fluid self; a self that is malleable without destroying one’s essence.  Yet, it’s not enough to just say one is malleable. One must learn to live adaptation. To do so, one can start by allowing the self to experience novel situations, experience the disequilibrium associated with novelty, accept it, and repeat the experience until adaptation has occurred.

A therapeutic approach based on Psychoadaptation was a goal of mine when imagining my worldview. However, I am not a licensed therapist. Although having a masters degree in counseling from San Diego State University, I have not conducted therapy with the exception of a practicum and some observed experiences during my studies. However, as a researcher and professor, I have read well and am able to put together what I’ve learned through reading the literature into a comprehensive worldview that I believe has heuristic appeal. Indeed, readers and students have asked me often to explain how Psychoadaptation translates into therapy. That’s what I’m doing now in writing this piece.

All therapy starts with the establishment of trust. It’s incumbent that the therapist listen intently to the client with empathy to convey to the client that the therapist is interested in a very profound way in what the client has to say. By using minimal prompts such as nodding, leaning forward with an open posture (not crossing one’s arms), the therapist conveys an intense presence.

Being present allows the therapist to establish trust. This trust opens the client to expressing deeper thoughts and emotions; the reason the client has come in for therapy. Listening is uncritical and unimpeded by judgment. This non-judgmental therapeutic style is driven by a desire to fully understand the client’s worldview and in Psychoadaptation it allows for the therapist to appropriate the client’s contexts, contextual constraints, and adaptations.

With the passage of time, whether in a single session or after several sessions, the therapist takes a less passive stance and introduces disequilibrium by challenging some of the client’s statements. A critical role of a therapist is to mirror societal norms to the client. Clients enter therapy because of faulty adaptations, or adapting to sub-cultural constraints without understanding macrosystemic constraints. To succeed in therapy, clients need to learn the mainstream social norms, judge their adaptation to these constraints, and initiate adaptation to those constraints. In this way, the therapist acts as the vehicle through which adaptation begins.

The therapist is the generalized other. George Herbert Meade proposed that individuals appropriate cultural norms during development and view all transactions through a filter he referred to as the generalized other. The generalized other is the collected mainstream person who judges a citizen’s adaptation to cultural norms. He noted that we use the generalized other in tasks as common as selecting what to wear on a given day. For instance, when I look in the mirror, I’m not judging my appearance through a personal lens. Instead, my judgment is based on the collected perception of the generalized other. That’s why I try my best to coordinate my outfits instead of wearing mismatched pants, shirts, shoes, and socks.

The generalized other does more than help us dress. It also guides how we choose to drive, where we hang out, what we eat, and the people with whom we affiliate. The therapist is the generalized other, and uses that power to evaluate and guide the client’s progress. Indeed, it is the therapist who deconstructs the client’s present worldview and scaffolds the new worldview. The therapist doesn’t provide the new worldview but rather acts as a guide to discovery, for it is imperative that the client learn to evaluate her own worldviews in relation to current social norms, and to modify them when fit is poor.

The Psychoadaptation therapeutic process is slow. However, therapy doesn’t have to last very long. Therapy must be affordable for clients and shall not be beyond the range of any human being desiring to become a better person. Thus, the therapist must teach adaptation. To evaluate adaptation, one possibility is to place the client in novel situations and observe the client’s behavior. It would be most productive to place the client in those contexts that are most frightening to the client. Of course it’s not always possible to be with the client in different contexts. However, using technology, we can recreate the context virtually and discuss the feelings (psychological and physiological) the client experiences as she navigates the context. This can also be done through guided imagery, and physiological responses can be accessed via heart rate monitors, galvanic skin response, or blood pressure. Once the client is able to navigate those contexts without negative emotional or strong physiologic responses indicative of fear, we can conclude that adaptation has occurred to that context, and the client is ready to move on to different contexts requiring adaptation.

All therapy, regardless of the therapist’s orientation is about adaptation. There are differences in how the therapist approaches adaptation however. In Psychoadaptation , the goal is to help the client learn to adapt to her key contexts at the micro and macrosystem level, never losing the macrosystemic perspective to the immediacy of her face-to-face contexts. In addition, a key goal of Psychoadaptation is to encourage clients to challenge themselves; to look for disequilibrium. Psychoadaptation requires the experience of disequilibrium and the ability to overcome it’s negative consequences. In essence it requires one to sit with the discomfort. For instance, to the person with a fear of public speaking, this means being able to stand in front of people on stage with all eyes upon the speaker, and being able to accept the negative feelings devouring the speaker. Adaptation to that context to someone not willing to pursue a healthier self would be to either flee the context, never volunteer to speak, or use a crutch to hide from the audience (e.g., over-reliance on slides to distract the audience). The Psychoadaptation -oriented therapist would help the client sit with the negative experiences, embrace them and speak fully allowing for the discomfort. For it is by experiencing the discomfort that the person eventually adapts fully to the context and is able to move forward to a fuller life.

Psychoadaptation is for everyone, but not everyone will be able to handle the process in the same fashion. While some people can handle much distress, others may only be able to handle small amounts at a time, or only move forward under supervision. Thus, there is no specific duration proposed for therapy. Like all therapy, how long it takes to observe progress and to believe the client is prepared to venture into the real world practicing Psychoadaptation is person-specific. However, a good therapist shouldn’t understand her role and only serve the client as a guide to living Psychoadaptation .

  1. Understand the client’s current contexts and worldview
  2. Teach the client about mainstream cultural norms, being the generalized other
  3. Evaluate the client’s fit to the mainstream cultural norms in real or virtual contexts
  4. Teach the client to sit with her disequilibrium
  5. Ensure the client understand how and is able to live Psychoadaptation in her real life outside therapy

The fifth and last part of the therapeutic process is the most complicated because it requires the therapist to be confident in her own self as a therapist. She must be able to let go of the client and allow the client to live for the client’s own self. If the therapy went well, the client shouldn’t need the therapist anymore. Only then does one know that the therapy is ready to terminate and the client is ready to go out on her own and live Psychoadaptation .



Self proposes solutions and moves the body to action. The body, however, has its own mechanisms of effect. These mechanisms are the heart, lungs, and muscles, along with connective tissue and bones. The body wants to respond in its own fashion, but its movement without the self is no more than reflex.

The self governs the body. The self is the manager; it’s the little person sitting in the head, the cockpit. It pulls the levers and presses the  buttons that move the arms and legs and push the massive structure forward towards a goal. Yet, it’s not the body that generates the goals; it’s the mind and self.

Self is the sum total of one’s experiences, along with the appraisal of those experiences. The Self is both experience and appraiser. The Self is both the executive and the written appraisal of one’s action. The latter is what we call Self-concept.

Self leads, like the commandant leading his troops. The arms are the army. The legs are the navy. The trunk is the Marines. The head is the air force. Together, these massive bodies work in tandem to help the Self achieve its aims. These aims were generated from the data of experience. Each Self reflects upon the past to better understand the future, and plots a direction for success. Without the Self, the body and all its parts would be nothing but a conglomeration of flesh and bones moving toward a meal. The meal, though would be served to a conquistador, and our flesh would be the main course.

Self governs all. Self is the savior we await.