Beyond 101: Self Esteem (part 1)
Go Google “improving self esteem.” I’ll wait.
I did this, too, because who am I to tell you what to do? I found, and you’ll find, 1000000 articles titled “X Ways to Boost Your Self Esteem Now.” When I read that, I mentally subtitle them: “with minimal effort and instant results,” because it seems to me that, as a culture, we’ve come to expect mental health to come in the same box that Tylenol does. Take a pill, feel better.
Anyone who has chronic pain, or takes a pill for their mental health, can tell you that’s not how this works.
I can imagine (very, very vividly) that if the ‘jerk brain’ in your head is yelling louder than anything else, if you would dearly love to feel better than you do now, that you’ve done some of this Googling already. I can imagine this because I’ve done it. The tips and tricks are not useless, not at all. The articles espouse everything from dressing nicely to “setting aside perfection.” None of these are bad ideas, all of them can help you live a happier life.
When I read them, I feel overwhelmed, anxious and even more like a failure. Sure, I’ll just SET ASIDE PERFECTION. No problem. I’ll do that right after I decide to love myself and also cure cancer. If I could choose these things, wouldn’t I have already done so? I’m not stupid. I’m aware that perfectionism is not the best lifestyle choice. I’m aware that the constant negative self talk that runs through my head on loop is not helpful. Problem is, there’s no off switch in my head. Maybe there is in yours. Mine is not like that.
Eating healthy is a good one, you see it on many self esteem lists. Sure–I’ll get right to eating healthier. Right after I wade through the mountain of shame, self hate and cultural messages around every morsel of food I’ve ever consumed. I’ll work on those negative thoughts, right after I realize I’m even having them like every second of every day, because I can’t hear what is so routine to me.
In reality, what happens is that I’ll get to tip 12 of 25 and turn off this website because it’s a minefield of my own failures coming back to haunt me. I know the answers, I don’t always know how to get from here to where I want to go.
Maybe it’s just me, but I have never thrived in a 101 environment. I had to go deeper in every way before I was able to truly look at myself in a different way. No fix ever came from the outside, guys. Nothing, not one thing I tried, worked. I can put a lot of band aids on a cut that’s bleeding, but if I have severed an artery, band aids aren’t going to do shit.
Now if I’m reading this article, I’m both agreeing and asking one question: what the fuck does “go deeper” mean?
For me, and that’s all I can really tell anyone, is that going deeper meant being willing to look at the ways I was betraying myself. Self esteem and self trust are so close to the same thing, they might as well be so.
I started with emotional experience. What was I really feeling, basically all the time? Not trying to change, alter, think my way out of, reframe these feelings. This is mindful practice, and it is invaluable. It isn’t a tip, or a trick, or a hack. It’s simpler than that. It’s five minutes of explaining and a lifetime to master.
Pay attention. How does my body feel right now? How about now? And now? Over and over and over. How does this choice make me feel, and how about this one? This took literally years to get to the point where I can tell without really working too hard, how I feel and how I will likely feel about something. Not because I was unaware of emotions before, but because being mindful took away the desperate need I had to “think better.” I stopped trying to change my thoughts and feel differently and just started to notice them instead. Your mileage may vary. I’m sort of dense, it could easily take less time for you. I needed to work very hard at this.
Pro tips on mindful practice from someone who still struggles with it:
Worrying constantly is actually a way to ignore the deeper emotions. Worry and panic are not instructive emotions. They’re destructive and distracting. Fear isn’t worry, either. Fear has a far different quality, and you’ll never know it until you begin to sort out the differences between your thoughts and your emotions. This is a lifelong endeavor, not a thing you do one time.
Same thing applies to that negative self talk. All the hateful messages that play on loop are a distraction from the deeper experience. Which is why trying to replace those messages with positive ones is only marginally effective. It does work, but not if you’re not experiencing and giving permission to the bigger emotions underneath.
If you have a big emotion and your first instinct is to play a video game (sorry), read a book or turn on Facebook, you’re not being mindful. You’re doing what Brene Brown (hallowed be her name) calls “numbing out.” There is nothing wrong with enjoying books or video games. There is a problem when you’re using these activities to ignore what’s happening inside.
Seriously use your body as a hack. If you’re not sure what you’re feeling except miserable, check your body. What’s tight? What’s hurting? What’s loose and unconcerned? Is something tingling or numb? Do a body scan. Then wait an hour and do another. This is why yoga is useful for mindful practice–yoga sticks you right inside your body.
Still unclear what the hell I’m talking about? Start here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nwwKbM_vJc. Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of my personal heroes.
I am convinced that there is a key to happiness. I believe there is a path to wellness, even in minds that struggle with illness. I think it starts with mindful practice. I’ve seen it work for myself and others enough to be bought in. If we don’t start where we are, we truly can’t go anywhere else. This is good news, at least for me. I am always excited when there are answers.
In part 2 I’ll discuss what the next step was for me, because years of mindful practice weren’t quite enough. There was another thing I had to do. Until then, here’s a few books I like on mindful practice: