Feeling good about oneself.
How hard is that?
A phrase that jumps to mind is high self-esteem. It would seem that feeling good about oneself would mean that you, well, esteem yourself highly. I’m not a psychologist, but I am going to borrow the research of one, Dr. Kristin Neff:
Self-esteem is an evaluation of our worthiness as individuals, a judgment that we are good, valuable people.
Intuitively, I agree. Why else would we shift blame, make excuses, or inflate our own achievements? We do not want to be average. We definitely do not want to expose our mistakes and weaknesses to our friends and co-workers. We want to be special.
For me, a high self-esteem means I did exceptionally well at something (my to-do list is completely checked off). A low self-esteem means I messed it up (did not get A, B, C done because I did X, which was stupid). That last part, “which was stupid,” is a judgment of myself. Even if it is true.
Historically, self-esteem has been considered critical to mental health. It means being good at the things we value (religious faith, health, astrophysics, drinking beer, BASE jumping) and being admired by others for it. Studies show that kids with high self-esteem perform better in school. The connotations of low-self esteem are almost too shameful to describe. A wimpy, ugly-ish kid who gets teased and keeps secrets comes to mind. I don’t want to be that kid. I want to look as successful and happy as they do in shampoo commercials.
The more I read of Dr. Neff’s studies, the more this theme of achievement, results, measurements, comparison, etc. crops up. Does a high self-esteem lead to a better performance? Does a rigorous performance lead to a high self-esteem?
Feeling worthy and valuable as a human being is important for every heart beating on this planet.
But I think that if you have to perform for it (and the perfectionist aspect of my own personality would love to compete for it), aren’t we stunting our own ability to be happy? For me, the entire concept of self-esteem is deeply flawed by definition: an evaluation.
It is based on judgment, both of self and others. It is also affected by their judgments of you. And perhaps not everyone struggles with judgments, but I come from a long line people who struggle with judgments. It’s not a burden I’d like to be buried with.
I believe I have found the root of the root of feeling good about oneself.
Dr. Neff’s research demonstrates that it is self-compassion that fuels positive, accurate good feels about yourself (if self-esteem is the energy drinks and doritos of a diet, self-compassion is the quinoa and green tea). Compassion is an intimate awareness of the suffering by oneself and others with the wish to alleviate it. Self-compassion means directing that inward; quite frankly, how many of us are more patient, kind, ____ with others than with ourselves?
She considers three components crucial to effective self-compassion:
- Self-kindness versus self-judgment
- Common humanity vs. isolation
- Mindvulness vs. over-identification when relating to painful experiences
Disclaimer: self-kindness isn’t some kind of feel-goodery coverall that means that everything you do is great and fine and acceptable. Knowing and accepting yourself is less about whitewashing “everything I do and am and say is ok” over your life and more about claiming ownership of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Instead of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, create positive thoughts by embracing negative ones (for example, as a teenager I had always felt that bulimia was an external force acting on me, separate from myself. It was not until I was able to accept my own unhealthy urges, my own judgmental thoughts, that I felt empowered enough to start turning away from them and began to get healthy).
Self-kindness is not self-indulgence. Don’t set your intent in yoga to be the healthiest you and immediately eat an ice cream cake after class. However, when you have a piece of birthday cake later, be gentle and understand that it’s a treat and that you exercised today. Talk to yourself in the tone you would use with your best friend.
“Common humanity” just means the exact opposite of isolation: you aren’t the only one that royally screwed up, the only one that isn’t the wife/boyfriend/son/friend they think they should be, the only one who deserved to be treated differently, the only one with hurts and scars. It is humbling when that truth genuinely sinks in. Common humanity is not self-pity. Do not compare wounds; instead, recognize that same flicker of suffering across another’s face.
Mindfulness is something near to my heart and deserves its own post. In short, mindfulness is a leaf in a stream. Notice it, watch it, allow it to float by. According to Buddhist definition, it is observantly experiencing life in the present moment, unattached, with acceptance. It relates to suffering in a similar way as common humanity: you cannot suppress or deny pain and have compassion for it. In many ways, it’s a reality check.
Without exaggerating or solipsistic meandering, mindfulness turns over the pain (“pain” is a generic word for any negative thought, urge, experience, memory, feelings, etc.) with curiosity and honesty, examining the facts. And, when the facts are in, you may realize something that you’d like to change. From this place of acceptance, you can choose to exercise self-kindness as well as relate to others (common humanity), and suddenly you are in very fertile thinking.
Self-esteem may be easier to measure and enticing to pursue, but I think the question I am left with is whether I’d like to view myself more positively, or more accurately. And in answering this question, I find myself traveling down a difficult trail that I very much like.