Forget Self-Esteem

 

 

Some people pursue feeling good about themselves like a hobby. It reminds me of the little boy  prodded by his mom to kiss his aunt at the family reunion.  As far as it’s contrived, forced, and not genuine, neither the aunt nor the little boy get anything out of it. It seems self-esteem comes through other means than by grasping for it or trying to manipulate it into being. I’d like to share this excerpt from Ron Siegel’s contribution to NICABM which was recently posted online. Siegel, a Ph.D, and one of the leading lights on mindfulness studies said,

 

“There has been a lot of work done recently – Kristin Neff has probably done the most research on this, and Chris Germer has done a lot of work with this – basically showing that self-esteem doesn’t contribute to happiness.

 

So, I work with folks a lot to try to help them see how the whole quest for self-worth is actually a doomed enterprise, and that seeing the way the mind creates these feelings that either I am worthy, or I am unworthy, or I am good, or I am bad, or I’m capable or I’m incapable – that these are just an endless, narrative report card that keeps passing through the mind.”

 

In Rapid Resolution Therapy, we zero in on this disturbance as we consider with participants how a wolf thinks while chasing a rabbit. The wolf, whose mind can’t consider itself, like a human mind can, would never think, “Oh, I wonder if my coat is glistening today?” Her mind is totally tuned-up, present-focused on what she’s doing. If the wolf catches the rabbit she doesn’t pause to feel good about herself, either. She actually doesn’t feel anything about herself at all.

 

If you ask a concert pianist how he feels right after a magnificent performance, he might say that he feels exhilarated, but when you ask him why, he’d explain it was because he was totally into the music. He got absorbed in it, he gave himself to it. But it wouldn’t be because he was appreciating his own qualities, like his finger dexterity, as he played. The whole question of how he was feeling about himself during the act of performing would strike him as absurd. Likewise, if you were to interview an Olympic sprinter right after running a career-high time or an NFL pass receiver making catch after catch as his team marched downfield, the answer you’d get about how they felt would be something like, “I dunno, I was just in the zone, it felt great.” There is an exquisite, joyful awareness of time, movement, the act of creation, and intense involvement as the play or the symphony develops, but it is not about one’s self. At the height of this kind of experience, the self actually disappears. The headlights are out not in.

 

Some  get stuck on the notion that they don’t feel good because of how someone else once treated them. It’s a done deal, they think. I was mistreated, therefore I missed out. Or they think it’s a mysterious puzzle that they and their therapist must solve in order to feel good again.  I like Jon Connolly’s story about the psychiatrist who showed one guy an inkblot. The patient said, “The family is all in the garden. How nice.” He showed it to the next patient who reacted, “My God, get that man away from that little girl. How horrible!” Now what did the psychiatrist learn about the inkblot? Nothing. He already knew about ink and forming ink blots. He sure might have learned something about the two patients, however. We need to help people get it that when they bump up against certain people in life, they are the ink blot.  We can’t learn anything about them through the actions or reactions of others.

 

I listen closely to the language of troubled people. Somewhere along the line they bought into the mistaken idea that there is a hole within them that has to be filled, some experience, talent or trait that other people have in an unknown quantity, that if they just had enough of it, they’d be happy. Now they have to go out and get it, as if it’s outside somewhere. What they’re after they often call confidence or self-esteem. It’s a bunch of hogwash. It’s not how it works.

 

Keeping the headlights out is a truth we ought to be transmitting more and more to clients who come in our doors. There is a mountain of pure baloney out there, promulgated through popular literature, self-appointed “coaches” and traditional counseling theory that would send people in the wrong direction. They read or listen to all the pap and become experts in analyzing themselves, measuring themselves against some ideal, going further and further in manipulating and thus objectifying themselves. There is an implicit unfriendliness in this, a rejection going on here that deeper mind does not miss. They are getting further away from the joy of participation, of giving oneself unselfconsciously to the task at hand, the creation of  beauty in the moment.  That, it seems to me, is what paves the way to mastery and confidence,  happiness and deep contentment. Just ask any wolf.

 

 

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