I’ve heard this story about something that happened when The Dalai Lama first came to the U.S., and think it’s worth repeating.
During the Dalai Lama’s first speaking tour, someone asked him why, in all of his talk of compassion and kindness, he never talks about self-esteem. At first, The Dalai Lama didn’t understand the question and asked for clarification. According to the story, the explanation brought him to tears.
The Dalai Lama wept because it had never occurred to him that people would feel badly about themselves.
I believe this story points to an essential truth – feeling bad about yourself is not a natural state. It’s a cultural phenomena, something we learn from childhood.
Now there are things that happen to people that damage their self-esteem – childhood abuse, parental abandonment, other traumas. But the problem of low self-esteem is more pervasive than that.
In fact, low self-esteem is one of the things I refer to as a common cold of psychotherapy. I often see people in therapy sessions, struggling to feel good about themselves, often falsely believing that the difficulties in their lives are a sort of referendum on their self-worth.
In addition, the media are littered with messages that we’re not okay. Most of those messages come from advertisers who tell us we don’t wear the right clothes, don’t smell right, don’t eat the right foods, need to lose weight, don’t drive the right car, etc. All of this, of course, comes with the message that “you can feel good about yourself if you buy our product.”
But it goes even deeper than that. In his book The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts suggests that our difficulties feeling good about ourselves stem from the myriad of conflicting messages we get starting in childhood. We’re encouraged to be spontaneous, but follow the rules; be a free spirit, but don’t rock the boat, etc. It’s extremely confusing and leads us to wonder if our basic wants, desires and choices are okay – if we’re okay.
All of these things – trauma, abandonment, the constant drum-beat that we’re not all right and the contradictions inherent in just learning to navigate the culture – combine to inform the way we think about ourselves. It’s easy to internalize messages like:
· I’m a failure,
· There’s something wrong with me,
· I’m not enough,
· I’m doing my life wrong,
· I’m not competent, etc...
But what if it turns out that our assumptions about ourselves are incorrect?
In her book, That Which You Are Seeking is Causing You to Seek, Zen teacher Cheri Huber writes, “The way you think you are is not the way you are. It’s just the way you think you are.”
I have a wall hanging with a quote from Buddha. It says, “Happiness does not depend on who you are or what you have. It depends solely on what you think.”
In other words, you can choose how you view yourself. It’s that simple. But it’s not easy. It may require time and effort to shake off years of programmed attitudes and assumptions about ourselves that inhibit our ability to feel good about ourselves.
It can be done.
One place to start is to consider your thoughts. We all have this narrating thought stream that we hear in our heads – our thoughts. Sometimes they’re flowing quietly in the background. Sometimes they’re more intense, like when we feel our mind is “racing” when we’re under stress.
Although our thoughts tend to be loud and easily capture our attention, our thought stream is actually a tiny, tiny part of who we are.
We are not our thoughts. We are just the space through which they are moving. They are tiny baubles floating through the vast space that is our consciousness.
Imagine a large circle. This is your mind. There are two lines running parallel, a few inches apart, through the middle of the circle. Between those lines is the part of our consciousness that we’re aware of. Now imagine running through the middle between the lines is a very, very thin dotted line. It’s so thin, you have to really look to see it.
That’s the thought stream – a tiny line that runs through the relatively small part of our consciousness that we are actually aware of.
That part of us, that I refer to as the radio station of the mind, is not who we are, though it would have us believe it’s who we are. If you really listen to the radio station, here are a few things you’ll notice: It constantly changes the subject – every few seconds. It’s the voice of worry and anxiety. It’s almost never focused on the present moment – rehashing a conversation from yesterday, or creating a scenario about tomorrow, often with a negative slant. And it tends to state the incredibly obvious – you’re in the middle of something really difficult and it says “this is really hard,” as if you didn’t already know that.
The radio station of the mind can be a major contributor to our suffering if we let it decide how we should see the world. I recently saw a quote by Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron: “We do not suffer because of events. We suffer because of what we tell ourselves about events.”
Indeed, our experience is always in two parts: There’s what actually happens. And then there’s what we tell ourselves about what happens.
I spend a lot of time in therapy sessions helping people change how they internally narrate the events of their lives – moving away from the habitual negative self-assessment, to a narrative that helps us feel calmer and safer.
For example, I do a lot of work with trauma and abuse survivors. And I’ve noticed that trauma, especially childhood trauma, often leaves people feeling like they are somehow damaged, that there is something wrong with them. But I believe we can learn to view these difficult and traumatic events as things that happened to us, rather than events that define us.
We can change our thoughts at any time. It just takes practice. Here are a few exercises that can help:
A daily meditation practice goes a long way toward taming the thought stream and helping us distance ourselves from it. We can’t shut it off most of the time, but meditation will help us separate from it, and learn to relate to it differently. I’ve heard it said that we can’t always control our thoughts. But we can learn to stop having our thoughts control us.
When you notice negative thoughts, or you feel anxious, usually nothing bad is happening in the present moment. Instead of dwelling on negative thoughts you can replace them by saying to yourself “I am safe in the present moment” three or four times. Or you can just say “I’m okay, I’m okay” a few times until you start to feel calmer.
It also helps to bring your attention to your breathing. Try taking ten slow deep breaths. This will help slow your mind and give you a little distance from the radio station.
Daily affirmations are also helpful. Take a few minutes every day to affirm in your own mind that you are safe and well and okay. You can simply repeat to yourself “I am safe and well and okay.” There are lots of books on daily affirmations. Some of my favorites are by Louise Hay and Marianne Williamson.
The Dalai Lama was once asked to describe his religion. He responded “My religion is kindness.”
Let’s start by being kind to ourselves, by remembering that we are good people. Perhaps we have been wounded somehow. That is not a referendum on our character or ourselves as human beings. The negative thoughts we have about ourselves are simply the waste byproducts of difficult or traumatic experience.
We can train ourselves, train our minds to remember we are good and whole and well, even when we don’t feel that way. We can start by directing our thoughts to our wellness and affirm that we are good people.
I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful. As always, if need help with difficult issues, or you think it’s time to talk to a therapist, feel free to call me at (812) 371-6330, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.