The more I learn about self-esteem, the more I realize that it’s not about taking care of what I want, it’s about taking care of what I need. It’s less about treating myself and more about parenting myself (read more from Heidi Priebe).
Staying up late, ordering takeout because I don’t have any motivation to cook for myself and I’m feeling like a stubborn child, eating things that I know will make me physically ill, holing up in my house like some kind of sage-hermit-hybrid, letting my living space remain cluttered, putting off fixing my car, convincing myself I’m too weak to work out and — just one more rest day couldn’t hurt are all pieces of evidence telling me that I don’t, in fact, love myself. I hate myself.
Clearly, loving myself isn’t something I have figured out quite yet…
I’m absolutely brilliant at loving other people and giving them advice on how to love themselves. But as soon as their affirmations and affections fall back onto me, I squirm uncomfortably while every thought in my brain is whispering fervently — “lies.”
A stream of excuses and rationalizations will fill my mind, saying that if they really knew me, they wouldn’t be telling me these nice things. That once they really find out how much of a failure I am — how bad I am at meeting my own needs and prioritizing what really matters to me — then they would finally understand. They would hate me too.
I see the good in others regardless of whether they can see it in themselves. I marvel at how kind and intelligent and giving and loving they are, and I worry about whether or not they believe what I tell them.
Despite what I’ve practiced, I’ve always outwardly preached and understood that no one can save me but myself. I know from experience that telling someone how great they are doesn’t matter unless they find a way to believe along with me.
The more I understand about how self-esteem actually works, the more I buy into the idea that it’s less about shifting my mindset through affirmations or positive self-talk, and more about taking actions that actually demonstrate the effort that I believe I’m worth.
At the end of the day, I only have control over my own behavior.
Can’t I just have a rulebook on how to fix myself already?
Every self-help book or essay on self-esteem that I’ve ever read identify that knowing what you want is key in cultivating self-love. But what if I don’t actually know what I want? And how do I figure it out? Someone please just tell me what to do!
A good friend of mine suggested recently that I should start by looking at the primary “issues” I’m currently facing and identifying concrete and contrary actions I can take to remedy them. Together, we came up with Isolation, Money, and Self-Image.
To remedy my tendency to isolate, I could start going to groups based on my hobbies (via meet-up, process or therapy groups, networking groups, writing groups, knitting groups, hiking groups, yoga groups, etc.).
I could spend more time with the friends I already have, perhaps involving these hobbies. I could go on a date. I could take a class. I could visit a friend who lives in a different city. I could join a Facebook Group or other internet forum and engage in conversation about something I care about.
I could move to a new place where I know more people. I could get a different kind of job with different socialization options. I could get a dog — that would literally force me to get out of my house on a daily basis and start moving — see self-image.
To address my financials I could start going to Debtor’s Anonymous meetings on a regular basis — which would also help me renegotiate my priorities around my needs instead of my wants.
I could design my budget around basic needs like shelter, transportation, food, and clothing, and take a closer look at where my money could be better spent in order to take care of me. I could get a higher paying job, or a second job with a wider assortment of benefits.
I could explore debt consolidation options and ask for lower APR (Interest) rates on my current debts. I could ask for help from my family.
To consciously work on my self-image, I could embrace meditation that specifically addresses limited and negative thought patterns. I could develop a daily ritual of taking a bath or shower to reduce stress and help me feel clean.
I could invest my time and money into talk-therapy with a practitioner I trust. I could practice getting into a regular sleep schedule. I can engage with people that I love. I can try deciding not to look in the mirror if it isn’t helping me like myself.
I can wear clothes that don’t constrict or bring focus to any areas that might make me feel I’m not small enough, big enough, or just “enough.” I can move my body — even if it’s just stretching inside or walking around the block.
But that just tells me what I DON’T want. How do I figure out what I DO want?
At the most basic level, I don’t actually WANT to hate myself. I want to survive. In order to do that, I have to take care of my needs, and in order to do that, I have to focus on meeting my own requirements to be a functioning human being.
What does that involve?
Well, it involves ensuring that I have shelter, love, food, finances, health, and belonging.
This is what I truly want: I want to have faith that I will always be taken care of. I want to know that I live in a world of abundance rather than scarcity. I want a community of friends and colleagues that I feel connected to and inspired by. I want a partner who shows up for me and my needs along with their own. I want to be financially solvent and stable because of my own efforts. I want to treat my body with respect and care. I want to discern between what is within my ability control and what I have absolutely no control over.
At the end of the day, I only have control over my own behavior, and this is where the parenting part comes in. Seeking self-gratification over self-care is very much the behavior pattern of a two-year old.
I’ve been acting like a child, and in order to work on my self-esteem, I need to start treating myself like an adult.
This means only focusing on what is within my control to change, and choosing to move through discomfort, instead of wallowing in it, or self-soothing with patterns that hurt instead of help.
It means going to bed at a reasonable hour, and not looking at my phone before I’ve sat down to meditate, or at least take a few breaths before engaging with the world. It means choosing to eat things that will help my body heal, instead of creating more of a burden. It requires a lot of convincing and cajoling to get out of my house and connect with other people. It means that I choose to spend money on installing heat in my home instead of on paying off my debts. It means that I focus on changing behavior and taking action rather than standing still, no matter how difficult or painful those changes may be.
It means that I choose what’s right instead of what’s easy. And keep making that choice, moment after moment, day after day. No matter what comes. @LeighHuggins (Click to Tweet!)
Leigh Huggins is a contributor to 1M1L, an online publication focusing on sustainability, and a top writer in relationships for Medium.com. Her work focuses primarily on personal growth, relationships, health and wellness. She loves using her personal experience to illuminate relevant cultural or political phenomena.
Image courtesy of Jernej Graj.