For the first 35 years of my life, my self-esteem was primarily based on grades. I made good grades, so you would think that meant I had high self-esteem, but I didn’t. This is true of any external measure of worth: the positive feeling you get from an accomplishment is short-lived. But I didn’t know that at the time.
I remember when I was in my first year of grad school, another student had just defended his dissertation. He rented a limo and decorated it as though he had just gotten married and was driving around town, honking his horn. I thought that was a great idea and that I would do the same thing to celebrate once I got my Ph.D.
But that wasn’t what it was like at all. I thought that I would feel smarter or whole or something. Instead I felt…exactly the same. Maybe even worse. Because by this point, I realized that there was no goal I could accomplish that was going to make me feel better about myself. I had reached all my goals; there was nowhere else to go. So I got depressed instead.
These days I don’t talk about self-esteem at all in therapy. Instead I try to convince clients that they are inherently worthwhile, regardless of their accomplishments. This is a tough sell in our culture. Initially they say they don’t believe in inherent worth. They see themselves as a stock whose value rises and falls depending on their performance.
But like I said in my last post, for an agreeable person, I’m pretty good at arguing. And this is one of those arguments where I know I’m right. So I use whatever it takes to convince them of their worth.
Many of them do start to believe it, not so much because of my compelling arguments, but because I believe in them. Deep down we all know that we are inherently worthwhile; we just need someone to tell us that we can trust that part of ourselves.
So if you didn’t have anyone to tell you to trust that part of yourself before, you do now.