In my previous articles in this series on self-esteem, we’ve considered how low self-worth surfaces as an array of psychological, emotional, and relationship challenges, and then we looked at how we misunderstand what we actually mean by self-esteem, seeking it in futile ways. We’ll now turn our attention to how we can free ourselves from the debilitating grip of self-denigrating beliefs and thoughts that script those lives tragically limited by low self-esteem.
I often assist my therapy clients in surfacing and articulating their core beliefs about themselves. Subtle or overt messages or treatment, typically in childhood, set up and mold our sense of self. Those who struggle with their self-worth have invariably secured negative imprints of themselves. These themes may play out in one’s head as “I’m not lovable,” or “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m not smart enough,” or simply ”I’m a loser.” Once we internalize these messages, we integrate these beliefs deeply in our psyche. The beliefs become self-fulfilling. Our potential as human beings collapses and narrows as our limiting beliefs of self become our truth. And we act out our lives correspondingly.
When you engage life with such destructive notions of yourself, your experiences typically concur with your belief. If you think you’re not good enough, you’ll choose relationships with people that will conform to that expectation. If you maintain that you’re not smart enough, that predisposition will impact your learning and your grades, as the thought that I’m not smart enough will interfere with your ability to learn. If you think you’re a loser, you can imagine the results.
Even more problematically, if you’re fortunate enough to have experiences that are an exception to your typically low self-image, you might simply dismiss the positive experience as a fleeting aberration. This enables you to maintain your negative beliefs. So a person who treats you well must have something wrong with them, or you might sabotage the relationship so as to relieve your dissonance. If you do well on a test or work assignment, you don’t take the opportunity to reconsider your belief about yourself and default instead to you just got lucky. In other words, our self-limiting beliefs try mightily to maintain their hold on us, even in the face of contradictory evidence. This is well illustrated by the famous Groucho Marx’s quote “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”
The first step in improving your relationship with yourself occurs by reflecting and asking, “What if it isn’t true?” What if I am lovable or smart or good? If I believed that, might I experience my life accordingly? What if if my dad had loved me more and encouraged me rather than criticizing me? What if my mom had helped me with my homework and gotten me a tutor instead of scolding me for being stupid? What if my parents had enjoyed a loving relationship with each other, rather than the angry, conflicted environment I grew up in? What if dad hadn’t been an alcoholic and lost his job? Clearly my life would have been different – and so would my beliefs about myself. In turn, I’d be experiencing my life differently.
People often refer to themselves as damaged or dysfunctional. I take issue with those words. Machines can become damaged and not function. Humans are not machines. We are beings who may suffer and struggle as we endure being wounded. But for our healing to begin, we must stop wounding ourselves. Your inner healing requires that you undertake this process.
Stuck in a Groove
Suspend your critical beliefs and create the space for a new experience of your self. These beliefs are perpetrated day in and day out, moment in and moment out, by a relentless avalanche of old thoughts that platform and source the destructive, prevailing beliefs. Learn to see what your thoughts are instructing. Are they your ally or your critic? The thoughts you attach to become the life you live. Our thoughts operate at warp speed, and in the course of a day, you will likely have thousands of thoughts that diminish yourself.
You can learn to slow down this process, see your thought, and not become your thought. This is teachable, as I’ve worked with countless people in developing this acuity, enabling their lives to prosper. Don’t be tricked by what your thoughts are telling you, for they are indeed trapping you.
Old Thought Defends its Territory
Old thought defends its territory and cements your negative relation with yourself. Instead of saying, “I’m a loser,” think instead, “I’m having a thought which is telling me I’m a loser.” You can then appreciate that you have that thought – albeit, perhaps non-stop – and that thought is shaping your life. See the thought; don’t attach to it and become the thought. These and similar thoughts, borne of your primary beliefs about yourself, are the foundation of your low self-esteem.
That Sounds Hard to Do
At this point, a thought is likely arising in your head, which is telling you that what I’m proposing sounds hard to achieve. Notice the thought; it’s trying to keep you stuck. But it is just a thought. See it and disable it. It is not your ally. Working out and getting into shape isn’t easy, but we may choose to do it. Getting good grades and graduating from school isn’t easy, but many of us elect to do so. Being a parent is certainly challenging, but hopefully we don’t surrender to the task. Anything worthwhile may very well require effort.
Are You Worth it?
If you commit to improving your relationship with yourself, you can achieve it. But you must look squarely at your beliefs and recurring thoughts and choose to transcend them. And recall from my last article that the pathway toward this transformation is to embrace your vulnerability, not to mask it or disguise it. Acting strong is weak; giving yourself permission to be you is courageous. It requires effort, but you must choose. Achieving self-worth requires that you believe you’re worth it. This must be followed by a willful intention whereby you commit to the process of valuing yourself.
To learn about Mel’s upcoming, live videoconference – The Self-Esteem Workshop – click here.
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