“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” – Rumi

There’s a funny thing about depression and self-esteem. Even when we feel like life is good, maybe even great, and we have everything we could possibly want, we somehow can’t believe it. We wait for the other shoe to drop. Why? Because we’re not even aware of the fact that we have a long history of denying ourselves joy.

The pattern is pervasive. We make jokes that undercut how well we are feeling at the moment. It’s almost superstitious. If we said out loud, “My life is wonderful. I am happier than I ever could have imagined. I’m excited about the future,” the whole thing will instantaneously go up in flames.

I hear comedians like Eddie Pepitone and Jen Kirkman make jokes about it all the time. “I don’t mean to brag but I was recently in London…” They excuse themselves each time they mention something the least bit good in their lives: “My wife and I went to — and excuse me I don’t mean to rub your face in how wonderful my life is but yes, I have a wife who loves me…” While it’s a joke, it’s also very revealing. They’ve tapped into a sad fact about self-esteem.

When your self-worth is low, you don’t expect good things to happen to you. You don’t even expect average things to happen to you. When they do happen, you’re certain it’s a mistake. One day the love of your life will get a letter in the mail, they’ll wave it in your face and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, dear. I’ve got the wrong house. I’m supposed to be with the woman across the street. I’m supposed to bring joy and unconditional love into her life. See ya.”

On top of that, we skip praise — we go deaf because someone is paying us a compliment. Listening to Marc Maron’s podcast “WTF,” I notice him skip thoughtful, even epic compliments from guests who look up to him: “Okay, moving on…”

These are brilliant comedians. All have popular stand-up specials. All have successful podcasts. Somewhat paradoxically they are masters of self-deprecating humor.

It makes sense that I’m a fan. I’ve always loved bitter sarcasm, but I haven’t always loved myself. No matter how much work I’ve done over the years, the fact that I’m now capable of saying honestly that “I love myself” doesn’t count for everything. My default when I do something well or life seems good is still: Don’t get a swelled head. It’s so sad that it’s funny.

Just like I have a very low maximum threshold for praise, I have a low tolerance for positive feelings and good things happening in my life. Not to brag, but I’m really good at denying myself joy without even realizing it. My self-esteem knows the language of debasement. When I feel good, an inner voice checks me. It sounds like: “That’s not that great,” “It’ll all go wrong. You’ll lose.” or “You could have done better.”

My grandmother’s friend, an octogenarian widow named Elsa, recently told me about all the joy in her life. With a great big smile on her face, Miss Elsa told me that she had only had only one son. He had four children. He recently remarried a woman who also has four children. Elsa had a great, beaming smile on her face, and tears were rolling down her cheeks. “I have such a large family. I’m really truly blessed.”

But misery loves company.

“Who would want so many grandkids?” asked my grandmother. “Half of them aren’t her relations.”

What did Miss Elsa do that one would deny her joy? What did I do to be undeserving of joy? Nothing.

It’s difficult to remove an underlying, involuntary process that cuts me down to size sometimes. But I can have an answer for that dreaded feeling that rises up telling me, “You’re about to lose it all because that’s your place in the universe.” This is my answer:

  • I deserve joy as much as anyone.
  • This pessimistic attitude I’m picking up on isn’t my attitude. It doesn’t reflect my beliefs or my experience of the world.
  • I won’t let unhappiness and negativity prevail out of habit.
  • I may not know the language of joy, but I don’t have to in order to live it.

“Tompkins Sq. Pk.” by James Jowers from George Eastman House Flickr.