Self-esteem is passé. And comparison is dumb.
I know I’m supposed to be talking – and writing – about self-appreciation rather than self-esteem. Well, Albert Ellis the American psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy is quoted (as an early voice, now among many) saying: “Self-esteem is the greatest sickness known to man or woman because it’s conditional”.
Listening to a recording of Ellis on Youtube, I hear him explaining the futility of self-esteem in a strong New York City accent. I know what he is saying is true – that to regard oneself conditionally is to do one’s self a disservice. But even so, I sense that discussions of self-esteem, self-appreciation, self-worth, self-belief, self-confidence and so on, quite soon venture onto the court of semantic Ping-Pong. PDQ. I find myself returning to ‘self’ and ‘esteem’ as a joined-up concept.
Of course, self-acceptance means that you accept yourself without the conditions of doing well, being especially good looking, attaining high grades or reaching a personal summit of any sort. You accept yourself on principle, whether you succeed or fail. End of. (If only.)
There’s a hypno-therapeutic parable used to illustrate such a point, about a very young child learning to walk. Revving-up chubby little legs to stand up and move forward, the child will fall and fall again in a metaphor for seemingly unending frustration. Describing this scene, the hypnotherapist chooses just the right moment to point out “… And at that moment of falling … little Janet or John gets up and tries again!” (Hurrah!) … then whispering “Scarcely, if ever, is heard the lament ‘Alice is already walking! I can’t do it! I’ll never learn how! Not Never!’ ” (Rescued by the double negative!)
Often, the client smiles a knowing smile, as that moment of trying and failing to walk is recalled as having long passed. Understanding that a large number of people did get through this challenge, there is an ‘Aha Moment’ of realisation of the need to pay more attention to one’s own achievements, and to resist experiencing the triumphs of others as a personal affront.
However, in today’s social and professional interactions, increasing competitiveness has led to a rise and rise of achievement anxiety. With fear of missing out being styled as FoMO, many people in a range of sizes – heights, weights, ages and competencies – fear being left hopelessly behind in a cloud of dust as peers, colleagues and competitors charge ahead on the game board.
Research has shown that children as young as 15 months old know when things are unfair and therefore, when they are losing out. In this way, before we even have the words to form the thoughts, we begin to torture ourselves with thoughts about our inadequacies. If you were the one who was left out, it is likely that you’ll have drifted into the area of ‘there must be something wrong with me’.
When you think there’s something wrong with you, that initiates a shame reflex. And from the incipiency of shame, the impulse to compare oneself unfavourably to others is laid down in neural pathways as a habit. You’ll cast sideways, furtive glances at others, trying to see and comprehend what it is that they do or don’t do, that gives them a seeming edge. Following from this, there is a tendency to find yourself wanting.
In this dis-esteeming of yourself, ‘dissing’ your skills and achievements as you check yourself against an ‘Ometer’ … you learned the dark art of self-diminishment. This provides the inner critic with some choice lines to hiss in your inner ear at the most critical of moments.
Unlearning this practice can happen simultaneously with learning how to ‘do’ self-appreciation. And everyone needs to do self-appreciation in order to stop the self torture. That is the best way to give yourself a break and get out of your own way.
Tips for growing both self-esteem and self-appreciation:
- Given that you are unique, practice believing that comparing yourself to others is a thinking-error.
- Remember the first things you learned how to do … like walking, talking, touching your nose or your toes. Congratulate yourself on this. Remember, you learned many things without a manual and perhaps with erratic instruction.
- Go easy on yourself. When you hear your inner voice telling you something really Nas-Teh, come back with a retort like – “How can I do well when you’re always riding my back?!” Argue! Fight back!
- Give yourself something to show your appreciation: flowers? a fancy pen with a brand new notebook? an invitation to yourself for a cup of tea? hosting a celebration dinner for one? (… okay, maybe two)
- Think about what you enjoy. Make a point of doing something you like doing [at least] once a week. Set yourself a challenge to go ‘one step further’ with whatever you choose.
Let me know how it goes …[/vc_column_text]