Self Esteem for Smart People (Part Two)
So, now you recognize that you really need self-esteem, no matter how bad a rep it's gotten from misuse and overuse; going through your whole life being tricked by your own broken thinking into making poor decisions is just too sucky a prospect.
So what now?
This step is so easy and works so well that I'm both amazed and highly pissed-off that nobody ever mentioned it at any of my schools:
III. Find things you think are cool and DO THEM. Yup, that's it. And no, it's not an overnight quick-fix-in-a-pill (and sadly, maybe that's why they never mentioned it in school), though you will be pretty amazed at how fast it works. Let's go into it in a bit more detail:
Make a short list of things you think are awesome: Things you really admire other people for doing; things you've dreamed about doing; things that just seem badass for no real reason you can discern. They can be big or small, but keep an eye out for ones that require a lifestyle-change — you will want to do at least one of those, because the payoff is more permanent.
Here's an example. My list of Things I Find Cool included "martial artists", "eastern mystics", "big colorful tattoos", and "travel / exploration / adventure, especially of other countries". Now, the big colorful tattoo was comparatively easy — not the easiest thing I've ever done or anything, but overall it took a little planning, a little saving and five hours in a chair. And I did get something out of it, for sure — I love my tat and occasionally other people do too, which is great. But look at the timeline on "martial artists" and "eastern mystics": What's that take, like, three or four decades to master, if you're lucky? But it's a lifestyle change, rather than an action, and that makes a huge difference: You don't have to wait the whole thirty-plus years to get anything out of it, and what you get is *way* different than what you get by making a smaller change.
Let me put it this way: My tattoo made me love my skin more. Studying martial arts and meditation made me love my LIFE more. (The travel I'm still working on. ;)
Notice how low self-esteem tends to make you think, "I hate my life"? That's why making lifestyle changes is such a great fix for it. I made a change — just six years ago; I'm hardly a master of anything — that stitched something I love into the fabric of my life, and now I don't hate it anymore (even when it gets icky, as of course it still does sometimes). And I hadn't been going to my first taiji class for a year before I really started to get this benefit: It didn't come immediately, because it takes a little time to go from "yay I'm taking some taiji" to "holy shit I am a martial artist" — for me it took about six months before a switch flipped in my head and I realized that I would study this stuff no matter what for the rest of my days; that there was no difference anymore between myself and someone who studied martial arts. And that, therefore, the fact that I find people who study martial arts awesome meant…I had to find *myself* awesome.
Magic. Also, I should add, that when you pick your "big hobbies" based on what you find cool, it's a lot easier to stick with them — or at least it was for me, and I've started and dropped approximately a zillion things in my life. But I kept up my martial arts studies through sickness, through injury, and through several really major life-changes, including moving 800 miles away from my original and beloved school. It's the cool-factor that helped me stick with it that far.
And awesomeness breeds awesomeness, too: If you break down my thrill with martial arts into some of its component parts, you'll find other things I necessarily find awesome, too. Martial artists (at least the kind I admire) have great balance, are healthy and fit, are calm and collected, are confident and polite and willing to teach…and therefore all of those became things I wanted, and almost unconsciously started going to get, for myself. I think I'd started and abandoned a thousand fitness programmes before martial arts, but once I got into martial arts, getting more fit (and working on my patience and calm and all that, too) was almost automatic. I wouldn't dream of going a whole day without stretching, exercising, practicing and meditating, now; even though my "actual class" is only once a week. And that means that instead of loving the one class, I love something about every single day.
Something that's not dependent on anyone else; that I get the credit for in my head, as well as the direct benefits of. WHAM, self-esteem.
I talked last time about how there's an "exercise" and a "basic health" component to self-esteem, that are sort of the emotional flipside to the same components of physical health. The above is the exercise — and like physical exercise, it works; you just have to do it!
But let's make a point about the health side, too, because as I said last time, there's no faking or fudging this bit, no more than you can be physically fit while eating only junk food.
Assuming that you've taken the Step II from the last post and recognized that you have emotional needs, and that it's your responsibility to get them met, it's time to figure out what they are.
IV. Determine your emotional needs, and treat them like K-Rails.
This is not as simple as the last one, sadly. Emotional needs can be a real pain in the arse to suss out. Especially if you're not used to thinking or caring about them — again, compare this to someone who's used to eating only junk food; it can be hard for them to realize that broccoli is good for them. Your emotional needs are probably not the things that the thought of losing panics you the most about — they might be, but that might also be your destructive tendencies talking. (For a simplistic example, if you asked a drug addict what they were most afraid of losing, or what was most important to them, what would they say? Yup: the drugs.)
You're not looking for what tastes good, emotionally; you're looking for what makes you healthy. The guidelines for this aren't anywhere near as simple as Ye Olde Food Pyramid, either — lots of people have Ideas about what you *should* need emotionally, but there's a much larger variety of healthy options here, and it can be really difficult to suspend what other people think, or what your culture suggests, and focus on what really works for you.
One thing that I've found helps is to approach it more objectively, by asking the higher-order questions "What do I think the purpose of my life is?" and "What are the responsibilities I want to make sure I'm attending to?" Here's an example of how those answers can translate into emotional needs:
I think the purpose of my life is to accept that I'm alive and be thankful for being here, even when it's hard. [Translation: I need to be at least somewhat at peace, and not feel suicidal.]
I think my life's purpose is to grow spiritually and to teach others what I've learned. [Translation: I need the freedom to study and pursue spiritual knowledge, and the access to people required to share it.]
I think my life's purpose is to use my skills to produce the best art I'm capable of. [Translation: I need the tools to improve my natural skill, and the time and freedom to make art.]
I feel like it's my responsibility to be a great parent. [Translation: I need the time and energy to spend on/with my children.]
I feel like it's my responsibility to pursue environmental causes and leave the world a better place than it was before me. [Translation: I need the time/energy/money/freedom to pursue those activities, and I need to eschew things from my life that interfere with them.]
I feel like it's my responsibility to not harm anyone with my words or deeds. [Translation: I need to know and understand myself and my behaviors, and to avoid relationships that are inherently harmful.]
Make sense so far?
The next part of this task is to "use them like K-Rails". What I mean by that vernacular is that one's emotional needs should serve as nigh-immovable bumpers that guide your choices: If you slam up against them, you turn. They keep you on a path that you can live with…and they keep you from hating yourself for your choices, even when your choices turn out badly (as they sometimes will, because life is just like that). If you're not going at cross-purposes to your emotional needs, you won't hate your life, even when you make mistakes, even when things don't turn out the way you want, and even when things are utterly disastrous for a time.
Like the Buddhists (or the smart ones anyway) say, real happiness is the kind that doesn't depend on external conditions: Real happiness comes from the fact of existing in the manner which you are. Doing things that *you* find awesome and making sure your emotional needs are met are two things that will lead to real happiness.