A friend in my men’s group said something this morning that kind of blew my mind. He said, “self-esteem is not a judgment, it’s an action.” Usually when we think of self-esteem we think of feeling better – a subjective evaluation of how I think I’m doing. My friend is suggesting that self-esteem is me treating myself well, that the focus needs to be on the action – the feeling will come on its own.
It’s worth looking at the definition of esteem, which is “to have respect and admiration…” for the object of our esteem. It’s not about how the object of our esteem feels! The definition is about the one doing the esteeming, not about the person being esteemed!
Hang in here a moment – this means esteem is a gift or honoring that comes from outside of the person being esteemed… Which makes self-esteem seem a little tricky. This question will help pull it together:
“Do I respect and admire myself?”
What is it to respect and admire? The first thing I notice is that respect and admire are both verbs, which reinforces my friend’s original observation. Now, what are some of the qualities of respect and admiration?
When I respect someone I let them be who they are, I don’t try to tell them what to do, I support them without judgment, I let them have their own experience, I try to withhold my unsolicited advice. When I admire someone I see in them an example of what I’d like to be, and sometimes through that vision, I become aware of my own gifts and shortcomings and am inspired to be better.
Now I can ask:
Do I let myself be who I am?
Do I support myself without judgment?
Do I allow myself to experience my life as it is?
Am I an example of who I’d like to be?
Am I aware of my shortcomings?
Do I inspire myself to be better?
These questions take me beyond merely feeling better about myself, and point down a wider path that I can begin to walk: I can take action. I can choose to do the better, the right, the healthier thing. I can catch myself when I judge myself harshly. I can give myself a break. I can give myself encouragement instead listening to my inner critic. I can open myself to challenges and opportunities rather than shutting down or trying to control. I can be grateful for where I am and from where I’ve come. I can notice my growing edge and step up to it. And I can look at myself in the mirror and be OK with who I see.
It’s helpful for me to remember that this is a journey and an exploration, not a checklist. This is learning skillful means – an action to practice, not something to convince myself about.
I hope you find this helpful…
If you’re in counseling or thinking about starting counseling, you probably want to change something in your life. Some changes are straightforward, like the new software program you have to use at work, and some changes get hung up in our psychology. We can tell the changes that get hung up because we get distracted when we try to implement them or the change doesn’t last very long. “Getting more exercise” fits in this category for a lot of people. When we try to “just do it” or reward ourselves in order to change we often end up feeling frustrated, discouraged and judged by ourselves and others. If change were a matter of just making a decision and acting, we’d all be happy and wealthy, right?
What if satisfying, long-lasting change wasn’t about imposing some new idea about how we “should be” but was about being more of who we actually are? This approach to change asks that we become more fully invested in where we are now rather than focusing forward into the future. When we are present in this moment the next step (change) arises naturally from the spaciousness of our acceptance. Just like a journey; we don’t start a journey at the end, we have to be at the beginning first and proceed step by step. If the beginning is done well, the whole trip will be more satisfying.
Allowing natural change by nurturing spaciousness means accepting ourselves as we are now and lightly holding the change we’d like to make. A tree doesn’t grow (change) with a goal in mind, “My goal is to be 100 feet tall!” It just grows (changes) from one moment to the next as tall as its biology and environment will allow. Of course people aren’t trees but maybe, rather than trying to force some idea we have about where we should be, we can practice allowing what’s next to show itself and go from there.
For more on this you can check out:
The Paradoxical Theory of Change, Arnold Beisser, M.D.