Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sunday Sermon [Self-Esteem]

¡Hola! Everybody...
Well, it’s back to the office tomorrow. There’s lots of work to be done this year. Who knows what might happen...

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-=[ The Naked City ]=-

There are 8 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.
-- The Naked City

Some of the following I am sure you will disagree with...

With the coming of the “new year” come renewed attempts to “fix” things, to start anew, with a fresh perspective, to leave all baggage behind. And with the new year come the voices of doubt, saying you will fail. And in a very real way, most people (about 3/4) will have quit their resolutions before the third week of this month.

Change -- it ain’t that easy. Well, it’s not even an issue of ease or hardship. I know most of you like it rough, but rough or hardship doesn’t translate to change. No, it’s about being smart, not how hard you can get or receive it, and most people like punishment.

One of the first questions I ask people, either individually or in groups is, “What do least like about yourself?” I’ve done this with literally thousands of people over more than a decade and here some of the responses:

  • I’m stupid/ silly/ disorganized
  • I’m boring/ dull/ predictable/ serious/ unmotivated/ ignorant
  • I’m too shy/ afraid/ anxious/ fragile/ passive
  • I’m fat/ ugly/ unfit/ lazy
  • I’m selfish/ arrogant/ critical/ vain/
  • I’m judgmental/ angry/ greedy/ aggressive/ obnoxious
  • I’m an underachiever/ a procrastinator (<-- my fave)/ failure/ loser

That’s just a small sampling of the responses I usually get. The list is almost infinite. While we all have our personal dislikes, all these responses point to one basic theme: “I’m not good enough as I am and there is something wrong with me.” It’s a message our mind sends us repeatedly.

It doesn’t matter how hard we try or how much we achieve, our thinking self (what I call the “Mini Me”) will always find something to dislike, some way in which we’re lacking, incomplete, not good enough. Part of this comes from the way our brains evolved. The fight or flight response that helped our ancestors survive (the “don’t get killed!” trigger) by making them constantly compare themselves to other members of the clan, to ensure that they didn’t get rejected, or caught out there on Broadway all alone while a predator made a meal of them.

And this wiring served to constantly draw their attention to their weaknesses so they could improve upon them and in that way live longer. The problem arises when the thinking self’s tendency to point out ways in which we’re not good enough leads us to feel we’re inherently unsuccessful, unworthy, unlikable, inadequate, unlovable, or whatever version of self punishment you prefer. There’s a term for that and it’s called “low self-esteem.”

What is low self-esteem? It’s an opinion, an opinion you hold about who you are. High self-esteem is a positive opinion; low self-esteem is a negative one.

What matters here is that ultimately, self-esteem is really a thought constellation (bunch of thoughts) about whether or not you’re a “good person.” Here’s the really important fact: whatever your self-esteem, it is not a fact, it’s an opinion. That’s right, it’s not the truth. It is nothing more than a highly subjective judgment. You might, at this point be thinking that having a good opinion of yourself is highly important and necessary for success.

Well, not necessarily. Let’s consider the components of an opinion: it’s merely a story, nothing more than words. Secondly, it’s a judgment, not a factual description. So self-esteem is basically a judgment that our thinking self makes about us as a person. Suppose we decide that we want “high” self-esteem. How do we go about getting it? Normally what we tend to do is a lot of reasoning, justifying, and negotiating until, maybe, we convince our thinking self that we’re a good person. For example, we might use our good job performance, our healthy exercise or diet regimen, or our charity work as a way to convince our thinking self that we are a good person. And if we can pull that off, if we can really believe that story about being a good person, then we have “high” self-esteem.

The problem with this approach (and why I detest affirmations) is that you constantly have to justify this good opinion. You constantly have to challenge those “not good enough” stories. And all this takes a lot of time and psychic energy. In fact, it’s like playing a never ending game of chess. Imagine a chess game where the pieces are your own thoughts and feelings. On one side of the board, you have all your “bad” thoughts and feelings. On the other side, you have your good thoughts and feelings. Meanwhile there’s an ongoing war between them: the positive thoughts and feelings attacking the negative thoughts and feelings. We spend an enormous part of our lives caught up in this inner struggle. And it’s killing us because unlike a real game of chess, this game has a never-ending supply of pieces. One piece (thought/ feeling) gets knocked off, there are ten more to take its place.

A problem with positive affirmations is really quite simple. Positive attracts negative (and vice versa), it’s how our brain works. For example, tell your child not to drop a glass of water and guess what you’ve done to the child? You have consigned him to think about dropping the glass of water. In order to get rid of a negative, you first have to think about it. There’s a similar corollary with positive affirmations. Suppose you’re repeating things like, “I am a wonderful human being, full of love, strength and courage.” The problem with this approach is that no matter how often you say that shit to yourself you don’t really believe it, do you? Another problem with affirmations is regardless of whether you believe they’re “true,” it naturally attracts a negative response. In order for our minds to make sense of the world, it needs to have a reference point. In other words, in order to understand “night,” we must have a reference point “day,” to make sense of it. Opposites attract. Try the following:

Read each sentence slowly and try your hardest to believe it. As you do, try to notice what thoughts automatically pop into your head.

  • I am a human being
  • I am a worthwhile human being
  • I am a lovable, worthwhile, human being
  • I am a competent, lovable, worthwhile human being
  • I am a perfect, competent, lovable, worthwhile human being

What happened as you tried to believe those thoughts? For most people, the more positive the thought, the more resistance they experience, with thoughts arising such as, “Yeah right!” “Who are you kidding?” Yes, some people do manage to identiofy with the affirmations and feel wonderful, but only temporarily. Soon the “chess game” will re-engage and the war will be back in full effect.

Now do the exercise with one more sentence:

I am a useless piece of garbage.

What happened that time? Most people will automatically produce a positive thought as a defensive response and say something like, “Now hold on a minute there, I’m not that bad of a person,” or, “No way can I believe that.” Again, some people will merge with that thought and feel miserable for a while.

This is a cycle of suffering my friends. The reality is that there an infinite number of attacks and counter attacks, but is this really how you want to spend your life? Fighting your own thoughts? Constantly trying to convince yourself you’re a good person? Continuing to justify your self worth?

Well, what about stopping the war?

You’re at the mercy of your thoughts and feelings. If your self-esteem is low, you feel miserable; if it is high, you feel wonderful, but you’re constantly struggling to maintain it. What would your life look like and feel and if you dropped the self-esteem game altogether? What if you let go of the habitual tendency to judge yourself as a person? Sure, your thinking self will continue to spew thoughts and judgments, but if you see them for what they are -- just words and not facts -- and let them go like passing clouds, you could gain some measure of sanity.

For example, you could observe as a response to a negative thought, you can acknowledge, “I’m having that thought that I’m not good enough, again,” thanking your mind for sharing and moving on.

You real self isn’t your thoughts. Your mind is like the open sky, your thoughts -- whether positive or negative -- are like passing clouds. Hoe does the concept of ending the chasing of the clouds, of staying instead with the Big Sky of your mind, sound. Perhaps you will be introduced to a larger picture. Maybe, just maybe, you might catch a glimpse of the possibility of living without the self-generated drama or war.



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