Thursday, March 7, 2013

Re-Evaluating "Self-Esteem." Again.

In our culture today, we use a lot of different terminology to talk about the concept of having a positive view of - and feeling towards - one's self. "Self-esteem" is the juggernaut of the 80s and 90s, but many of us veer away from it today in favor of terms like, "self-respect," "self-confidence," or "positive self-image." One may talk about being "kind to myself" or "loving myself," in a moment of sensitivity, or we may use the phrase, "accept myself for who I truly am."

I would posit, though, that for all these semantic variations, we're not having a particularly good conversation about the topic. In fact, I think we're really very confused when it comes to even defining the state of mind they're trying to describe, let alone taking healthy action in the right direction. Certainly, we all want to feel good and that requires feeling comfortable with our sense of who we are in the world, but how do we go about actually getting that?

How, in short, do we go about feeling "good enough"?

Well, we start by answering the question this phrase begs: "good enough" for what? What's our standard for "good enough," anyway? And if we don't know that, how can we go about living up to it?

In studying traditional psychoanalysis, I've recently been introduced to a lot of complex ideas about where our sense of personal standards comes from. Complex...but not particularly surprising or counter intuitive.

One of my new psychology gurus, Joe Burgo, writes:

"In my experience, you can’t obtain real self-esteem from the outside.  Yes, it’s important that our parents praise and encourage us as we grow up.  We internalize that praise, along with their values and standards and those of our teachers, peers and social environment; then, once they’ve become a part of us, we must live up to those standards if we’re to feel good about ourselves. "

I don't know about you, but I find this notion of self-esteem to be exceptionally illuminating. Most of us, I think, go through life trying to improve our self-esteem through futile attempts to talk ourselves into being inordinately impressed with ourselves, or maybe trying to feign complacency about our actions and achievements and calling that feeling "acceptance."

How about instead of that, we all take a page from Dr. Burgo's book and try adopting a very simple, two-step process to self-esteem:

1. Set a personal standard for yourself

2. Live up to that standard

Easy as cake, right? Wellll....the really tricky part, as I'm discovering, is in the near-infinite complexities of step 1. See, we don't really get to consciously set our personal standards from scratch - we learn them as a result of social pressure, peer messages, values taught by our families, and through internalizing expectations others seem to have for us. Oh, and if you're reading this right now and thinking, "That's not how I am! I'm a free thinker and I decide things for myself!" then (a) you're in denial about the inherent, subconsciously conformist nature of the human psyche and (b) you are, ironically, responding to strong societal pressures that get placed on all people to be "free thinkers"...or at least, to think of themselves as such.

See...we like to tell ourselves that we are always living up to our own standards because frankly, that's a hell of a lot easier than actually living up to them. But at the end of the day, this kind of self-deception sucks because deep-down, we know better, and that knowledge makes us both guilty and terrified that someday, everyone we love or might have loved is going to discover that we are, in fact, a fraud.

Luckily, there's an easier way to do things: set standards for ourselves that are actually achievable in the first place. Hell, while we're at it, why not go ahead and reform all of our expectations into standards that we're already capable of meeting? 

Now, if you're like me, your savage inner perfectionist will balk at this idea pretty strongly. "Standards I can already meet?" you might say, "Why, that's unthinkable! How will I ever improve myself that way?"

Well, see...that's the great thing about standards; they don't have to be static. In fact, they really shouldn't be. You can have a standard for yourself that says, "I must be a good person," or you can have a standard like, "I must always strive to be the best person I know how to be and to work to be better." The latter is actually achievable, whereas with the former, you're setting yourself up for some pretty nasty disappointment...disappointment which - let's be honest - most of us will deal with via denial and justifications. In other words, we'll try to convince ourselves that whatever we did or failed to do, there's nothing wrong with it, we're a good person, etc. We do this because we find it pretty damn unbearable to realize that we aren't living up to our own standards.

At other times, of course, we may discover that our standards are unachievable not just because they aren't fluid enough, but because they're completely and utterly ridiculous. For instance, I recently made the discovery that somewhere deep down, embedded and hidden in my subconscious, I had the standard of, "I must do absolutely everything that I do better than anybody else does."

Before you laugh, bear in mind that so many of these kinds of directives are things we build into our psyches when we're still children. Logic and reasonable standards don't enter into it, nor will we know or notice if some of the standards we're creating are physically impossible or mutually exclusive. We may expect ourselves to get everything right the first time we try it, or to keep everyone around us happy. We may feel it's utterly unacceptable to feel certain normal, inevitable human emotions.

The tricky part, of course, is figuring out what those standards are so that you can address them in this manner. It's important to do it, though; if you don't control and shape your standards, they will forever control and shape you.

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