Low self-esteem is hard to lift. Unlike high self-esteem, which is primed to respond rapidly to even slight praise—You love my new haircut? Me too!—low self-esteem is notoriously stubborn. It's based on long-term, fundamental, deeply held, if incorrect, beliefs.
Raising lifelong low self-esteem is a full-time practice, at least until we can wrestle it out of the danger zone at the extreme low end of the spectrum and into the effervescent, self-tolerant but not yet narcissistic golden band comprising the middle. In this practice, I scan every experience for opportunities to challenge, re-channel, and if possible, exterminate the negative energy that is low self-esteem.
A guided tour last month of south-central Nebraska, framed around viewing sandhill cranes during their annual mid-migration stopover along the Platte River, yielded several key self-esteem takeaways.
Takeaway #1: This was only my third guided tour ever. But on guided tours, you probably won't already know any of your fellow travelers. This gives you the gift of starting every conversation as a blank slate. At home, amidst acquaintances and relatives, we feel expected to act and talk in certain ways. Far from home, amidst strangers, no expectations burden us. In being new to our new traveling companions, we're new to ourselves.
Takeaway #2: Everyone who signed up for this trip did so because we shared a common interest. Having an automatic, surefire topic to fall back on helps erase our social anxiety and our fears of being boring or annoying. Tongue-tied? Turn the topic into questions. Did you get some good pictures? What was that wingspan again?
Takeaway #3: Spending time with animals can raise our self-esteem. Not in some speciesist conceit—Hey, cranes! Can you send texts? I can!—but in the awe that dawns as we see all the world's species as separate yet connected. We with low self-esteem tend to compare ourselves relentlessly to every other human being. But we don't compare ourselves to other species, so spending an hour with dogs or ducks or snakes is in that regard sweet relief.
Whether it's a cricket's chirp or the grand ascent of sandhill cranes, we celebrate animals' natural beauty, charm and skills. Non-human species have little or no knowledge of self-esteem. Sure, losing a potential mate to the top rooster hurts, but animals teach us that life goes on, that bashing ourselves for being allegedly less pretty, smart and/or skilled than others is a time-sucking and uniquely human luxury.
Takeaway #4: Guided tours are controlled environments. We choose to go or not go, but others do all the organizing and facilitating. Thus we cannot blame ourselves if anything goes wrong. And since the people who plan guided tours are professionals, little to nothing is likely to go wrong. My self-esteem rises when they produce a perfect tour, because I was clever enough to delegate them to arrange my access to a realm—wild birds—that interests me.
Takeaway #5: Nebraska is a friendly place. Surely it is not the earth's only one. I happen to live in a high-profile, much-visited region whose popularity makes many of its residents jaded, snarky and aloof. By contrast, the sincere, unpretentious hospitality that infused nearly every Nebraskan encounter made me feel surprisingly worthwhile. This manifested into a major meditation, elegantly elemental:
If you want to feel better about yourself, go where you'll feel welcomed.
By people. By animals. By landscapes. By history.