Each summer I pick a project. A few years ago mine was to develop my self-esteem. According to David Burns, that should only take ten days. But nine months later, I’m still not there.
From June to August last year, this was the routine: load up the double stroller with any floatable object in our house (wings, inner-tubes, noodles, life vests), drag them (and two sinkable kids) to the pool, score some beach towels from the lost and found, and plant ourselves under one of the few coveted umbrellas.
As soon as we hit the snack bar and caught up on the daily gossip from Mr. Snow Cone, I pulled out Burns’ book, Ten Days to Self-Esteem, which is about the size of a floating raft, the word “self-esteem” taller than a fruit freeze pop. But the woman under the next umbrella was reading ADD and ADHD for Dummies, so I didn’t feel so bad.
My mind wandered back to my first session with my therapist, almost two years ago. “Why are you here?” my therapist asked me.
“Because I feel like a Krispy Kreme doughnut,” I replied. “I have no center.”
“The lack of self-esteem is one of the most painful symptoms of depression,” writes Burns in “Ten Days.” “The central belief that causes low self-esteem is ‘I’m not a worthwhile human being. I am inferior to others.'”
My problem (and I doubt I’m alone) is that (I still have to use present tense, but will hopefully change to past tense soon) I have a very conditional definition of self-esteem: I earn self-esteem by my accomplishments, my charitable works, and my popularity. My thinking comes from a Calvinist work ethic, which is widespread in our culture. This perspective is groovy and peachy when life is running smoothly, because it motivates a person to work hard and sprint towards her dreams.
But oy vey when the car (or mind or body or spirit) stalls — or (like last year for me) when your best efforts flop miserably.
When I couldn’t contribute my talents and skills toward some project, or volunteer my time toward a noble cause, or gain the respect and love of people around me, I fell apart, into an abyss of anxiety and depression. “I’m a failure,” I repeated to myself.
However, you have to start somewhere to build self-esteem, says Burns. He describes the process of gaining self-esteem like climbing up a ladder. On the first rung of the ladder is “conditional self-esteem:”
“You decide to like yourself because of your strengths rather than hating yourself because of your weaknesses. You stick up for yourself and defend yourself against your critical inner voice. For many people who feel inadequate, this can be an extremely important first step.”
Then you can climb up the next rung on the ladder, to “unconditional self-esteem:”
“You realize that self-esteem is a gift that you and all human beings receive at birth. Your worthwhileness is already there and you don’t have to earn it. It suddenly dawns on you that you will always be worthwhile simply because you are a human being. It ultimately makes no difference if you are fat or thin, young or old, loved or rejected, successful or unsuccessful. Unconditional self-esteem is freely given.”
Um. Maybe I’ll get there next summer? When I give up stealing beach towels from lost and found, gossiping with Mr. Snow Cone, and making fun of the mom reading about ADHD.
The third run of the ladder is sort of like Dante’s Paradise. (Funny, I chose his Purgatory for my high school English paper, because I found the climb to the beatific vision much more interesting than either heaven or hell.) Here, you give up the very notion of self-esteem and abandon the view that there are worthwhile persons and worthless persons. The third rung adopts a Buddhist perspective that considers self-esteem a useless illusion.
All of us want to feel special and worthwhile, so this radical step might feel as good as taking a humongous book on self-esteem to the pool. But Burns says it can be immensely freeing and practical. I don’t know if I believe him (probably why self-esteem didn’t happen for me in ten days like it was supposed to), but this is what he says about giving up your self-esteem (the right way):
“The death of your pride and your ego can lead to new life and to a more profound vision. When you discover that you are nothing, you have nothing to lose, and you inherit the world. Instead of worrying about whether you are sufficiently worthwhile, each day you can have goals that involve learning, personal growth, helping others, being productive, having fun, spending time with people you care about, improving the quality of your relationships, and so on. You will discover unexpected opportunities for intimacy, for productivity, and for joy in daily living.”
That’s a big promise. One recommendation for Burns: use smaller type, please. I’d like to read you at the park, too.