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Olympic Dreams and Self-Esteem

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I’ve really enjoyed watching the Olympics over the past 2 weeks. During the Winter Olympics 0f 2014 I wrote a post about my dream of being an Olympic athlete. I didn’t so much care about being the greatest athlete of all time, but I wanted to be a part of the opening ceremonies, live in the Olympic Village (without getting stuck in an elevator for 40 minutes like Del Potro), and exchange pins with other athletes.

During this year’s Olympics I was struck by how many stories there were about gold medalists (usually men) who felt lost, depressed, even suicidal after their success. How they turned to drugs, alcohol, got in trouble with the law, wandered around purposeless, sometimes homeless, not knowing what their next goal should be. Michael Phelps’ story is probably the most surprising one of all. What would the greatest Olympian of all time have to feel depressed about?

This is the myth that continues to haunt us in our search for happiness. We believe that achieving greatness will transform us into someone who we will finally like. It will bestow upon us a sense of self-worth and belonging. We will feel purposeful, useful, and lovable.

In a previous post I wrote about how I had a similar experience after I got my Ph.D. I was expected to get an education beyond college. Preferably medical school, but in one of my few acts of rebellion, I chose clinical psychology instead. Even in my first year of grad school I had fantasies about how smart and accomplished I’d feel after getting my doctorate. Only to find out that instead I felt…exactly the same. Actually, maybe even a little worse. Because if having a Ph.D. didn’t make me feel better about myself, I realized that nothing would. I had nothing left to channel my energy into. No fantasies about how I was just one accomplishment away from achieving my dream of not feeling sucky.

There are other versions of the dream of transformation. They involve six figure salaries, weight loss, a youthful appearance. The perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect children. Everything we ever wanted is waiting for us…right after we accomplish this one thing. Oops. Not that one. The next one. Or maybe the next one.

Yesterday on the ride home from our annual Cincy Tennis Tournament trip, I was telling my friend that my job in therapy is to tell my clients over and over again that they are OK, just the way they are. Every week they bring in a different set of problems, different flaws, different confessions, and I say those are all OK, too. You’re still fine. On the one hand, that may seem like a strategy that is too simple to be transformative, but you should try it some time. It’s surprisingly difficult to believe we’re fine the way we are. That’s why change takes so long; we need to hear it all the time. We are never fully confident that we are good enough.

It’s clear that Michael Phelps still enjoys winning gold medals. It’s obviously still a thrill to train to be the best, to see that his hard work has paid off, and to know that he’s still the greatest. But he also seems more at peace about retiring. After all, he is not just the greatest Olympic athlete of all time; he is also a father and a soon-to-be husband. Will he come back to the Olympics in 4 years? Maybe. But if he does, it will be because he loves the competition–not because he is nothing without it.

I, too, think about accomplishing goals differently than I used to before my Ph.D. I’m still competitive and I want to win, but now it is more about the process of getting better than the result of any particular match. I do think that competing hard, playing fair, and executing my game plan say something about my character. But win or lose, when I walk off the court, I’m still the same person I was before the match began. I’m still me.

And I’m becoming increasingly comfortable with that.

About Christy Barongan

I didn't know it at the time, but I wanted to be a psychologist so that I could figure out how to be normal. I think many people come to counseling for the same reason. What I've come to learn is that feeling good about myself is not about trying to be normal. It's about trying to be me. But it's a constant struggle for me, just like it is for everyone else. So I thought I would approach this task with openness and honesty and use myself as an example for how to practice self-acceptance.

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