RSS Feed

Search Results for: self-worth

Self-Worth

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.

Perception is Reality

cec13ed184a2041487d54b4afdc010ee

In “A Beautiful Mind” John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, talks about how he learns to cope with his hallucinations by ignoring him. That is a pretty amazing thing to do for someone who has schizophrenia. There are several disorders in which the person’s thoughts are so convincing, despite being false, that it is difficult to cope with them by deciding that you’re not going to listen to them.

For example, someone with anorexia may truly see herself as being fat, even though intellectually she knows that she is not. But her inner critic is so persecutory in its insistence that she not eat, not take up space in the universe, that she ultimately gives in. People with eating disorders often conceptualize their inner critic as having a relationship with ED, and ED is the most abusive partner I have ever met in therapy.

Or someone who is psychotic might be convinced that he is going to win a million dollars because Publisher’s Clearing House has told him that he may have already done so. And despite the fact that the check has not arrived in the mail after several years, he makes outlandish purchases based on the prize money that he is convinced is on the way.

I do not have delusional thoughts, but sometimes my obsessive brain tries to convince me of things that are not as insidious but still cause me to suffer. No one gives a crap about me. I am incompetent. Sometimes I can convince myself otherwise with objective evidence, but sometimes my inner critic is relentless in trying to convince me of the veracity of these assertions. It will repeat them hundreds of times a day. The effort to refute them is exhausting.

My psychiatrist tells me that I should put myself out of my misery at the beginning of this barrage by taking an Ativan as soon as the thoughts begin. But often I don’t because, despite all I’ve said about the importance of taking meds, sometimes I still don’t want to. And because, unlike depression, anxiety feels so normal that sometimes I forget that it is not. The meds definitely help. Most of the time I know that when the thoughts come, they are not true. But sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep them at bay.

Practicing mindfulness helps, too. One of the benefits of practicing is that it helps you understand the nature of the mind. Even for “normal” people, this is how the brain works. Random thoughts will pop up. They may not be based in reality, may not reflect what you actually believe. And in the next moment, the thoughts may be completely different.

But it’s really hard. Maybe if I dedicated my life to meditation like Buddhist monks do, my inner critic would be less effective in undermining my self-worth. Or maybe Buddhist monks don’t suffer from mental illness.

But my psychiatrist supports my mindfulness practice, in addition to my meds. He confirmed that it works, even for people with mental illness. But it takes a long time, and it happens very slowly. I know it works because I remember what I used to be like. And now when I go several days without meditating, in my moments of weakness the thoughts creep in and become more convincing.

So I continue to practice, and in the moment, I feel loved, competent, and worthwhile. So I’m writing this post to remind myself that this is true because, in the next moment, I may feel differently.

Olympic Dreams and Self-Esteem

5d138c6f6fa54d8bd059d029c3966666

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.

Undeserving, Part 2

cd74f09dd7b4a7be6a65c11106701757

There’s a scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Will and Skylar are in bed, basking in the glory of love, when Skylar asks Will to move to California with her. This scene ends in an argument in which Skylar asks Will to look her in the eye and tell her he doesn’t love her, and he does. Even though he obviously loves her.

People think that when we get the thing we want–the loving relationship, the great job, the coveted degree–we will be happy. But sometimes when we get what we want we get depressed, like I did after I got my Ph.D. Or we start a fight, like Will did. Or we sabotage our marriage, like my first husband did.

I’ve had several students in the past few weeks who became suicidal in the midst of good fortune. I explained to them that sometimes we have to bargain with that part of ourselves that tells us we are not worthwhile. If you just let me have this one good thing, I promise I will pay for it by making myself suffer. I still won’t let myself believe I deserve it. Which they totally understood.

After having this conversation several times on Friday, I finally understood that this is what ended my first marriage. Everyone told me he thought he didn’t deserve me, which I sort of understood on an intellectual level, since he called himself a poor, half-breed bastard. But I never really believed it, because I thought he was the best guy I had ever known. And I still think that.

And I realized intellectually that he tried to end our marriage a month after we finally got the house of his dreams, and we were finally making money, and our lives were finally stable. But it still didn’t make sense in my heart, because even after we signed the divorce papers, he told me it was the saddest day of his life. Which was consistent with what he said on our wedding day, which he said was the happiest day of his life.

But on Friday, I finally understood how he felt. He didn’t deserve to have all of these good things happen to him. He felt like my clients did, who became suicidal when they were about to get what they wanted. Except instead of killing himself, he destroyed our marriage. And it hurt my heart to feel how worthless he felt. I could finally feel his sadness instead of my own.

When I explained the bargain we make with our inner demons to one of these clients, he commented on how overwhelming it was to believe he thought he was that bad. But I reminded him that there is also a part of him that knows he is good. Which is why he is in therapy. Why he is alive today.

This is also why, at the end of the movie, Will decides to move to California with Skylar. Because even though some part of ourselves may tell us we are undeserving, we can ignore that part and choose to love ourselves, anyway.

Undeserving

You are listening

Today I was reminded of how difficult it is for me to take in good things about myself. I had several small things happen: A friend who said he would miss me. A reminder of how much my parents love me. A client who said I had helped him. In all 3 cases, something in me wanted to resist believing that these things were true. Which is puzzling, because I want them to be true. Why is it so hard to believe good things about myself?

I can give you all of the psychological theories that attempt to explain this paradoxical phenomenon, but I won’t, because people don’t seem to find them as interesting as I do. So I will just say that from my personal experience, I believe it comes down to a question of my worth.

I would say that it’s a universal thing to question our self-worth, but perhaps my perspective is skewed, since my observations are primarily based on my clients and from people who ask me for help. Perhaps there are people who know their worth, but if there are, I’ve never met them.

Lately I have noticed how much the word deserve comes up in my self-talk. You don’t deserve to have a coffee because you slept late. You don’t deserve that compliment because you didn’t really do anything to help that client. You don’t even remember who he is. You deserved to lose your ex because you weren’t a good wife. It sounds terrible to write these things out loud, but they’re true. This is what I hear in my head.

I am often struck by how much more easily many of my clients can be persuaded that they deserve good things because I tell them they do. My therapist tells me the same things, and has done so for years, but I still don’t completely believe her. Why is it so hard for me to be convinced? Do I feel more worthless than my clients do? And if so, how is it that I am able to help anyone?

I saw a client last week who talked about how she feels like she has some fundamental flaw. A crack in her foundation. I said the exact same thing to my therapist several years ago. I didn’t tell her this, of course, but I reassured her that many people feel the same way. Eventually she was able to reframe this metaphor as the cracks that result when a house settles. The cracks that make it unique and give the house character. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

This is a good example of how sometimes you learn as much from clients as they learn from you.

Perhaps it is my client’s comment that has inspired me to be more mindful of when I use the word undeserving. From now on, when I catch myself using it, I’m going to replace the word with something else. I’m not sure what that word is yet, but I am open to suggestions, if anyone has ideas.

Beginnings and Endings, Part 2

My job follows the academic calendar, so today is my first day back at work. I was never one of those kids who looked forward to the beginning of school. I didn’t care about seeing my friends; I didn’t want to have to do homework. I didn’t want to have to go to bed and wake up early. I pretty much have the same mentality now that I did when I was in elementary school. Some things never change, I guess.

My summers follow a distinct pattern: I have a hard time transitioning from being stressed and having to be super-productive to not having a whole lot that needs to get done. Boredom doesn’t do justice to the intensity of how badly I feel during that adjustment period. It’s more like, my existence is a complete waste of time. I have nothing of value to offer to the world. I know it’s is my inner critic talking, but it still makes me question my worth. I think that’s why most people would rather be stressed than bored: it makes you feel more useful.

However, by the time I have about 2 weeks of vacation left, I start panicking about having to go back to work. I don’t want to feel stressed out again–to be on call, have back-to-back clients, rush to get my nightly routine completed. By the end of the summer, I feel like I could quit my job altogether. But I have no one to support me, so that’s not an option.

This summer I had the added adjustment of being alone for the first time. Braking down on the side of the freeway alone. Attending weddings alone. Spending holidays and weekends alone. At least when I was working, I was guaranteed to see people every day. Over the summer, I had to make plans to motivate myself to leave the house, and sometimes I couldn’t do it.

Plus, I was also going through the steps to finalize my divorce, so I no longer had the illusion that I could return to the more stable state of matrimony. I didn’t date anyone or even have someone I could fantasize about dating. Well, I guess there’s Federer, but even in his case, the most I could imagine was being one of the nannies for his new twin boys. Not terribly romantic.

Despite the struggles with boredom, reversed sleep cycles, and solitude, I think the highs and lows actually helped me tolerate my emotions better. I would remind myself that boredom and loneliness are painful sometimes, but I’ll be busy eventually. (Usually the next day, because I played in 7 tennis leagues and captained 5 of them over the summer.) And when school starts and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll remind myself that I have a long break to look forward to at the end of the term.

I think it also helped that I spent the past 2 weeks on vacation with family and friends. It was the highlight of the summer, but it was also hard to be around people 24-7. Now that I am accustomed to extended periods of solitude, I realize how much I need down time to feel sane. So by the time my vacation ended on Friday, I was ready to go home. Ready to catch up on tennis, blogging, and even work.

This summer was a good reminder of how, even when something seems intolerable, that feeling will pass. And you might even find value in the experience that you hated so much at that time.

Be Productive! Or Not

You know that saying you can never be too rich or too thin?  I think they should add productive in there, too.  Because as much as I would love to be richer and thinner, I judge myself the most harshly for not being productive.  Which is weird, because I am the queen of productivity.

Even if I only have a few minutes to spare between clients, I have to do something. Write my progress note. Answer an email.  Read a paragraph of an article.  Check my blog stats. I can’t just sit there and wait for the person to show up.  That would be wasting time.

I feel the same way about watching TV. I need to do something else at the same time–like knit, or make jewelry, or do something blog-related. Or I have to get up during every commercial break and do something useful, like pick out my clothes for the next day. Sometimes I’m so obsessed about what I’m going to do during the commercial that I can’t focus on what I’m watching. Even if it’s something I love, like a tennis match with Federer or a UVA basketball game.

This need to be productive makes it hard to cope with down time. Because of the nature of my job, I will have prolonged periods of stress followed by prolonged periods of having nothing to do. My drill sergeant will try to fill in the gap by making up a bunch of mandatory chores. Do some laundry! And then go to the gym! You’re wasting money on that membership! And figure out some way to make more money!

It makes my time off so depressing that I can’t get out of bed until I am propelled by shame because I’ve slept the day away. And then I cram in all of the things that the drill sergeant wanted me to do in a short period of time. Sort of like procrastinating until the night before the exam. Which I never did when I was in school, because that would have been unproductive.

This is another reason why I prefer the concept of self-worth over self-esteem. In order to have high self-esteem, you have to earn it. You have to accomplish something, or make money, or get in shape. This proves that you’re important. This justifies your existence.

And even when you are successful at being richer or thinner or more productive, it doesn’t really lead to high self-esteem like it’s supposed to. Because you didn’t do anything special. You just made up for what you should have been doing all along. You were underachieving before. So there are really no winners in this game of moving targets. Not for me, at least.

Today I saw 9 clients.The maximum number of clients that I can schedule in one day is 7.  But today I had to squeeze in 2 emergencies. I was brain dead by the time I got home. So you know what I decided to do at 11 o’clock tonight? Finish this blog post on productivity. Which I started during my lunch break.

It’s always good to end the day with a little irony.

 

No Good Reason

EE04C40A-6A7B-4EAA-B632-9ED06E0AA050

Most people who come to therapy for depression berate themselves for not having an excuse for their feelings.  Even when they can identify the stressors that led to their depression, they claim that these aren’t good enough reasons to be depressed.

Sometimes people try to make them feel better with the “count your blessings” approach.  This usually makes them feel worse, because now they don’t deserve to be depressed since they have so much going for them.

In cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), therapists challenge irrational beliefs as a way to help clients see that their depression isn’t logical.  Sometimes this works.  But sometimes they know their depression isn’t logical, and pointing this out makes them feel even more ashamed for not being able to control their feelings.

For clients with the “no good reason” problem, I have found that the most useful strategy is to debunk their myths about feelings.  Since you probably believe these myths, too, I thought I would go through my whole therapy spiel.

1.  Feelings don’t have to be rational.  That’s why philosophers make such a big deal about distinguishing reason from emotion.  Sometimes they coincide, and it feels better when they do.  It feels better when we can say I’m sad because I’m sick of winter versus I’m sad and I have no idea why.  But we don’t have to know the reason why for our feelings to be valid.

2.  There is no right or wrong way to feel.  We have a lot of implicit rules for what we should be feeling in a given situation.  Take my Ph.D. example in my post on self-worth.  I thought I would feel ecstatic after defending my dissertation.  Instead I got depressed.  Positive events don’t always lead to positive feelings.

3.  We can experience positive and negative feelings at once.  Researchers say that we can’t do this, but I think they’re wrong for reasons that are too complex to explain in this blog.  But I’ll give you an example to prove that I’m right.  People cry at weddings because they are both happy and sad at the same time.

4.  Your feelings aren’t your fault.  We like to believe that we have more control over our feelings than we actually do because…well, because it makes us feel more in control.  But this illusion comes at a cost.  Which is why I wrote the posts on blame and free will.  You didn’t choose to be depressed, and it’s not your fault that you can’t stop the depression.

5.  If you try to make yourself stop feeling, you’ll just make things worse.  Because this will involve some level of deception, like denying or suppressing or minimizing your feelings.  And at some point, this will blow up in your face when you least expect it.  Plus it will make you less empathic when other people tell you how they feel, which will lead to relationship problems.

Although I can write logically about these myths, I still fall prey to them, because feelings aren’t always logical.  Knowing isn’t enough to solve the problem; you still have to practice.  Which is why I practice mindfulness and self-acceptance.  And I encourage you to do the same.

So the next time you catch yourself saying that you have no good reason for your feelings, remind yourself that you don’t need one.


The Me Generation

Everybody’s talking about the Me Generation–including me, because the students that I see in counseling are a product of this generation.  These are the kids who have grown up in an era where no one keeps score in sports.  Everybody is a winner, which is why everyone gets a trophy just for showing up. 

These kids have also been told that they are special and brilliant and deserve great things, whether they’ve earned them or not.  Some researchers argue that these messages are creating a narcissistic epidemic in which today’s youth are superficially connected, attention-seeking, vain, and materialistic. 

And there is some evidence for these claims.  After all, “selfie” was the 2013 word of the year.  People can have hundreds of followers without doing anything particularly interesting.  And the rising popularity of Twitter is evidence that every random thought that someone has throughout the day is newsworthy.

Perhaps it is because I am not a product of the Me Generation that I have been reluctant to participate in social media.  I didn’t want to get caught up in competing over who has the most friends because I knew I would lose.  And as much as I am interested in getting to know people, I don’t really care about when someone is going to the gym or what they had for dinner. 

I also don’t like to have unauthorized pictures of me floating around in cyberspace because I’m afraid I’ll look fat in them.  Plus I don’t know how to strike that pose that all the young people do that’s supposed to make you look more attractive.  Because I don’t like pictures of myself, I’ve only posted about 3 selfies, and they were all with someone else.  That’s more like a selfie+1.  Which is not as narcissistic, if you ask me.

However, my blog has forced me to participate in social media, and I have to admit, it’s not all bad.  Yes, it allows narcissists to have a bigger audience, but it also gives the introvert an opportunity to have a voice.  And sometimes it can accelerate positive social change.  Before, there might have been one person on the playground strong enough to stand up to a bully.  Now, there can be millions of them.

Personally, social media has allowed me to stay in touch with people who I would have never heard from before FB.  And I have connected with people through blogging who I would have never met otherwise.  Plus, if Pope Francis can take a selfie, it can’t be that narcissistic.

Critics of the Me Generation claim that all of the unconditional acceptance that psychologists recommend is to blame for this narcissistic epidemic.  I don’t think that’s accurate.  In a previous post I talked about the difference between self-esteem and self-worth.  Self-esteem is about accomplishments and self-worth is about inherent value.  Focusing on trophies, appearance, and success are ways to instill inflated self-esteem, but not self-worth. 

Instead of telling kids that they are all winners, we should be telling kids that they are still worthwhile, even when they lose.  Even when they become old and gray.  Even when their 15 minutes of fame are up. 

Until that happens, we haven’t truly taught the next generation what it means to believe in themselves.

Addiction

I’ve been thinking a lot about addictions lately.  Even before Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death.  I have never been the addictive type.  My history is so clean I would have made a great political candidate, if I didn’t dislike politics so much.  But Richard Rohr, my spiritual guru, says that everyone is addicted to something.  So I’m trying to be honest with myself about what that might be.

At times my hobbies have been like addictions.  When I first started knitting, I would crank out so much stuff that I made all my Christmas gifts in a month and still had scarves to give away.  Same thing with making jewelry.  I sold a lot of what I made, but all my profits went towards buying more beads.   And I can sing Karaoke for hours.  I hosted a small Karaoke party over the summer and we sang for 6 hours straight.

But knitters tend to be fanatical bunch.  Jewelry makers can be, too.  And for a Filipino, my Karaoke usage is average, at best.  Plus these hobbies tend to go in phases.  I’m in a knitting phase now.  I would describe my interest in these activities as obsessive rather than addictive.

The next addiction candidates would be tennis and sugar.  These two things are a consistent presence in my day-to-day life, and I cannot imagine living without either of them indefinitely.  Giving them up would require some kind of intensive inpatient treatment program, and even then the probability of relapse would be high.

But playing tennis and consuming desserts has not significantly impaired my functioning, and I’ve been able to cut back.  I am only playing 3-4 times a week to prevent injury.  And I don’t eat 3-4 desserts a day any more.  So I would classify myself as a heavy user but not an addict.

As I was thinking about this post, one of my FB friends messaged me and asked me to write something about codependence.  And that’s when it hit me:  I am addicted to unhealthy relationships.  Ostensibly because I want to help people, but needing to be needed is a form of addiction, too.   In the post on solitude I talked about how ashamed I feel for tolerating so much crappiness to avoid being alone.

Based on my experience as a therapist, I know that many people have the same problem.  Often clients come in for a relationship addiction.  Their friends and family are sick of listening to them.  They know they should break it off, but they can’t.  They live in secrecy because they’re still in contact with the other person.  If someone came up with a detox program for unhealthy relationships, they could probably make a fortune.

I guess in a way I have completed my own self-imposed detox program.  And for the first time in 30 years, I did not use another relationship to ease the pain.  I rank this accomplishment right up there with defending my dissertation.  Maybe even higher.  Because after my dissertation I got depressed because there was nothing left for me to accomplish.  But as far as relationships are concerned, it’s all up from here.

Interestingly, I started this blog right before the breakup.  It wasn’t conscious, but I guess at some level I decided that the energy I was investing in my relationship would be better spent writing.  And blogging helped me tremendously during the breakup process.  I don’t think I could have made it this far without it.

So until someone comes up with a detox program for unhealthy relationships, I would highly recommend intensive blogging as a treatment strategy.