Self-esteem has been a major buzz-word for decades. We focus on the positive traits and achievements of our children to show them they are valuable, so they can have a healthy level of self-esteem. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, I think it’s important for people to recognize the good in themselves. But what about the things inside us we don’t like so much? Self-esteem can focus so much on the positive, it completely ignores, or even denies the existence of, the negative. Mistakes, failures, bad thoughts or choices, these are certainly a part of us all. Can I still feel good about myself when these shadow traits rear their heads? Maybe not.
Self-esteem is a fragile thing. It takes a hit when we discover we aren’t the best, or we do something we regret. Mistakes can make us doubt any positive thoughts we had about ourselves and our abilities. But if, instead, we accept ourselves as we are, we can weather the ups and downs of life knowing we are ok. According to the yoga tradition, we are all perfect at our core, just as we are. We don’t have to be fully enlightened to learn from that belief. I can live my life realizing that good things and bad will come and go, but I accept myself regardless of my circumstances. I will still feel pain or loss, but I know that beneath that I am still ok. Aside from a lifetime of meditation and introspection, how can we work towards self-acceptance?
It starts with allowing all aspects of ourselves to be present. Don’t deny feelings or emotions thought of as “bad” and don’t cling to those that are “good.” Everything is welcome, without judgement. Also we have to give ourselves a break. Ok, a lot of breaks. We work toward viewing our choices with compassion and forgiving ourselves liberally. After all, we really are doing the very best that we can in every situation. Try repeating that to yourself the next time you make a mistake. I find that regret and guilt weaken substantially in the face of such understanding.
A funny thing happens when I become more self-accepting. I feel better about myself, but I also become more compassionate toward others. I recognize other people are doing their best with what they’ve been given, and I remember that I can’t possibly know what challenges they’re facing. Imagine a world where we all truly believe that of others. Empathy and forgiveness instead of judgement and hate, and the recognition of other human beings trying to live their best life possible. It starts with acceptance of ourselves.
I have a lot of patients with chronic neck and shoulder tension. One woman who came to see me for irritability and depression described her nearly constant pain, headaches and restless sleep. I asked her what helps with the pain, and she said regular massage had totally resolved it in the past. Of course my next question was why aren’t you getting massages now? What followed was a long list of reasons, which boiled down to the fact that self-care was near the bottom of her list of priorities. Work and family always beat out her own needs, even when she was clearly suffering.
Many of us believe that an hour out of our week for a massage, or exercise, or a yoga class, is an hour that should be spent doing something more important. Like finishing that report at work, taking the kids to another activity or scrubbing the bathroom. Time spent addressing our own needs is time wasted. This type of thinking often obscures a deeper belief: that I’m a bad or selfish person if I take time for myself, or that I’m not worth as much as everyone else. But I’m here to tell you that not only are you worth it, your self-care is essential to the success of everyone else you’re supporting. There is a reason the airline video tells you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. If you are not operating at full capacity, you can’t possibly care for anyone else. Think of my patient. She is irritable and depressed because she is in pain. She isn’t sleeping because of the pain which makes her more irritable and depressed. In this frame of mind, she is more likely to lose focus and make a mistake at work, or snap at her kids when they ask for help with homework. The very things she finds most important are suffering because of her pain and stress.
I am going to suggest another radical idea: be a little more self-centered. Focus on your own needs first, so you will have the energy and strength to devote to your other priorities. Being self-centered means resting when you’re tired and getting enough sleep every night. It means eating healthy foods, exercising your body, and doing something to relieve stress like meditation or yoga. It also means going to the doctor when you’re due for a regular physical. You may be reading this list and thinking well, duh! But how many of these things get pushed aside on a regular basis, because they just don’t seem as important as the other items on your to-do list? Being self-centered will help ease stress and fatigue, and improve a sense of well-being. Practice addressing the needs of your body and soul, and see the difference it makes in the rest of your life. I know what I need to do for myself each day, but sometimes I need to remind myself that I am worth that effort, because a lot of people are counting on me, just like people count on you.
I use my Google calendar to record every appointment and event. I make sure to allot plenty of time to drive to work, and I check the weather so I know how to dress myself and the kids. All of this makes me feel in control. But what about when things don’t go as expected? Last week I faced waking up to a sick child, finding the dog in a pile of torn up tissues when I was ready to walk out the door, and forgetting a container of chicken on the counter that I’d planned to use for dinner. No huge emergencies in the grand scheme of things, but none of these were in my plans! How I handle these kinds of curveballs is directly related to how attached I am to my expectations.
Let me explain. If I live my life believing I can actually control it, then I also believe that things ought to happen exactly as I expect they will. My calendar contains the events of the day, recorded at the times they will actually occur. When that inevitably doesn’t happen, I will be frustrated and angry because my thoughts will spin a tale of how unfair this is and how it shouldn’t be happening this way. Or, I’ll be anxious and overwhelmed as my mind carries on about how I’ll never get everything done now. My attachment to expectations has successfully ruined my day. I may react by trying even harder to control tomorrow! Conversely, if I do my best to plan ahead, but recognize that I don’t actually know what is going to happen each moment, my mindset will be completely different. Things will come up, but I can watch each situation arise and address it as it comes. Then my thoughts aren’t tied up in fear or frustration, and I can focus on solutions. Two opposite attitudes with two different emotional outcomes, like two different ways to wade in the ocean: One stands rigidly, waiting to be knocked over by the waves, while the other floats on top.
Trying to control life is as futile as trying to direct the waves of the ocean. That doesn’t mean we should give up planning and organizing, it just means we have to recognize the limits of our control. Set up a daily schedule, but keep an attitude of acceptance when things come up. What happens when I’m trying too hard to control life? I feel a tightness in my belly and a pounding heart while I have repetitive thoughts about forgetting something important. When I recognize these feelings, I know I have to stop and take some deep breaths. I practice lengthening the exhale, until it’s double the length of my inhale. Then my body becomes calmer, my mind more present. My breath reminds me to release my expectations and ride the waves of each moment. Mindful living means acceptance of this moment, as it is, rather than wishing it would turn out the way I expected.