Struggling with self-esteem? You're not alone.
I had a difficult childhood. Both of my parents were alcoholics. There was always conflict in our home. I feel like I’ve dealt with all that in several stints of therapy. I now have a career I enjoy and am in a stable relationship with a good man. I haven’t lived with my parents for over 30 years and they are both deceased. So why do I still struggle so much with self-esteem?
Kevin: I tell my patients to give up on self-esteem. It’s a losing game. The more you try to convince your small self that it is adequate, good enough, or lovable, the more you give the wounded version of you fuel for reminding you of any and all available evidence to the contrary. Once we give up on improving self-esteem, we can move on to cultivating Self-awareness. What do I mean by Self-awareness? I mean practicing being conscious that there is something much larger than your small ego self flowing through you. You can call your large Self “Love,” or “Compassion,” or “Sacredness.” Some might even call it “God.”
My favorite line from the Prayer of St. Francis, which I heard frequently as a child, is sometimes translated as “Make me an instrument of your peace.” I learned it as “Make me a channel of Your peace.” That’s a simple summation of what I mean by Self-awareness. I am a channel through which a larger-than-me-Self flows. The small self flows with doubt, self-judgment, shame, and many other difficult energies. The large Self flows with love, compassion, peace, courage—all the highest energies with which human beings can live.
So how can we practice Self-awareness? Whenever I focus on my breath I imagine that I am taking in all the energies of the larger-than-me- Self in which I am immersed. It’s like playing a child’s game of being a fish in a Great Ocean who is still trying to figure out what water is. As I breathe I begin to sense that this larger Self is the truth about who I am. My small self tells me that the self-doubt and self-judgment it runs through my mind are to protect me from thinking too highly of myself. In fact, they rob me of a basic sense of peace and joy. The small self only gets glimpses of the truth of who I am, who you are, or who anybody is.
Suppose a caterpillar came to me for therapy. “I’m just crawling and munching my way through every day,” it might tell me as it conveys its struggle with low self-esteem. It might even say, “The other day some strange, fluttering, colorful winged creature landed on my back and gave me a good scare. It seems I’m just a nobody on the low end of the food chain.” Imagine how hard it might be to convince the caterpillar that it’s crawling life is not its highest form and that the strange winged creature is!
Sometimes patients tell me they are frustrated to find themselves back in therapy dealing with things they thought they had healed years ago. I show them a little plastic Slinky that I keep in my office. I tell them that personal growth is not a straight line. I stretch the coil vertically between my hands and we talk about how, as the coil loops around and around, it almost revisits the same location, but it advances a bit with each loop. Likewise, whatever we’re working on healing in life requires revisiting our wounds repeatedly and progressing with them in an upward spiral.
Alcohol can be a shortcut a wounded caterpillar uses to feel a bit of the winged life. Too much of it just kills the larva before it can ever go through metamorphosis. I hope you will be patient and gentle with the process of healing your early life pain. Even though he’s been gone nearly 20 years, I still find myself talking to my father in my morning quiet time. “Thank you, Dad,” I say, and then pause a while. And then, “I forgive you, Dad.” And repeat. Loop by loop, upward spiral.
Read more from Kevin and his Soul of Therapy column.
- When do I sense an energy larger than myself? What if that energy is like the butterfly landing on the caterpillar?
- The 14-century monk Meister Eckhart said, “You may call God love, you may call God goodness. But the best name for God is compassion.” What do you call the larger-than-you-Self that flows through your life?
- How can I practice many times per day the awareness that I am flowing with a larger-than-me-Self?
- What healing path am I still walking in an upward spiral?
On a recent morning, I was sitting in our meditation garden as the sun was rising. I was feeling heavy with the daily news of the COVID-19 crisis. All my small-self thoughts were waking up in me for another day. Then this nested meditation came to me:
i am conscious.
I am Consciousness Itself.
I am Consciousness Itself,
God made manifest.
I am Consciousness Itself,
God made man. I festively enflesh “Let there be Kevin!”
© 2020 by Kevin Anderson
Send your questions to [email protected]. Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.