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Tag Archives: self-esteem

Can’t You Take a Compliment?

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As much as I want to believe good things about myself, I am really bad at accepting compliments. It’s puzzling. Another one of those things I file under the “we’re not as rational as we think” category.

Like, once when this guy complimented me on my legs, I said, “Are you making fun of me?” I actually said that out loud, to his face, instead of the more common response of “thank you.” I really thought he was insulting me. That is how compliments get processed in my brain.

Can you imagine how hard it would be to be in a relationship with someone who, every time you gave them a compliment, they heard it as an insult?

That’s exactly why I’m not dating anyone. I don’t want to put some unsuspecting guy through that kind of torture.

Or like, when I was in grad school, my advisor thought I was great. He was always complimenting me in front of other students–which they found annoying–and he would tell everyone how I was the best grad student he’d ever had.

And you know what I thought? I thought he must have pretty low standards. He must not be a very good psychologist if he thought I was the best grad student he’d ever had.

So not only do I take compliments as insults, but I also think less of the person who has given me a compliment.

And yet, when someone gives me a compliment, I cherish it. I repeat it over and over in my mind, trying to make myself believe it. Trying to make myself understand that they were actually talking about me.

I’ve been thinking about all of these compliments that people have given me over the years. Even the ones from high school–which was a long time ago. And I have to say, it’s much more pleasant than the things I usually obsess about. It kind of makes me feel full of myself, but it still feels pretty good.

Perhaps I just have some kind of delayed processing disorder where information doesn’t compute in my brain until years later.

These days, I try not to seem as crazy on the outside as I feel on the inside. When someone gives me a compliment, I have trained myself to say “thank you.” I do not insult them. I do not try to undo their compliment by saying something insulting about myself.

Actually, now that I think about it, I still kind of do that. Because when someone says my hair looks nice, I usually reply with “Thanks. I finally washed it.” So I guess I still need to work on that part.

But still. I’m getting better at it. We may not always be rational, but we can become more aware of when we’re not being rational and try to align our feelings with our behavior.

So if you feel like giving me a compliment so that I can get more practice, I promise I won’t insult you.

Self-Handicapping

Yesterday Sloane Stephens lost at the U.S. Open to Johanna Larsson, an unranked player. This is sad news for American tennis fans, because Stephens is predicted to be the next great female American player. In musing over why she has not yet lived up to her potential, the commentators observed that Stephens doesn’t play with the same intensity as the top players, perhaps because she is afraid of losing while playing her best.

I had the good fortune of attending a warm-up tournament to the U.S. Open a few weeks ago, and after looking at my photos, I, too, noticed that Stephens did not put the same effort into her shots that the top players did. For example, here is a picture of 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, hitting his famous forehand.

Notice how intensely focused he is on watching the ball and how he jumps into his shot. This is an aggressively hit forehand.

Now here is a shot of 17-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, hitting her equally famous serve.

Again, notice how she is in the air when she hits her serve and the intensity of her facial expression. In fact, she looked downright pissed off and scary in most of the pictures I took.

Now here is a picture of Sloane Stephens hitting a backhand.

In contrast, notice how casually she is hitting the ball. This looks more like the kind of shot you would see in a practice session, where players aren’t trying to hit that hard. So I think there is some truth to their hypothesis that she is afraid to play her best tennis.

In psychology, this phenomenon is called self-handicapping, and it is fairly common. I have worked with students who were so afraid that they would not get an A that they didn’t turn in any work and got an F in the class instead. They all believed that if they had put in the effort, they probably could have gotten an A, which helped to preserve their self-esteem. Sort of. Because they ended up on academic probation, which they were embarrassed and ashamed about.

To my knowledge, I have never sabotaged my chances of succeeding, but I can relate to the fear that my best effort might not be good enough. I have always wanted to be a therapist and thought I could be a good one–until I got to the clinical portion of my training in grad school. Then I started to worry: What if I suck at it? What if I’m no good at this thing that I’ve wanted to do all my life? What am I supposed to do then?

My worst fear came true: I did suck at it at first. I had several supervisors tell me that my anxiety was interfering with my ability to do therapy. (This was the first time I contemplated the possibility that I may have an anxiety disorder). Even though I ordinarily freak out when I’m given negative feedback, I wasn’t that upset. I knew that I could get better if I worked at it. And I think I’m a decent therapist now–although there’s always room for improvement.

The same is true for tennis. I’m not really afraid to go out there and play my best and lose, because my best performance today isn’t the best I can ever hope to play. At least I don’t think so. I always think I can get better, even as I get older. If this is a delusion, then at least it is one that serves me well. That’s why I look so intimidating in this photo:

So if you see me on the court, watch out!

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.

 

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.

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.

In My Head

So remember how I was talking about the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?  I went to see it because I always liked the short story when I read it in high school.  I could relate to someone who lived most of his life in his head.

All my life people have told me that I think too much.  I thought that as I advanced in my education this would change.  It didn’t.  My classmates in grad school thought the same thing.  My colleagues tell me the same thing.  Not as a criticism–just that they’re surprised that I have so much time to think.

The reason why I can’t fall asleep is because I can’t turn off my brain.  I started that New Year’s post at 4 a.m., despite my best efforts to talk myself into waiting until I woke up.  That I could get up early like a normal person, which would have been a few hours from then, so I wouldn’t even have to wait that long.  But no.  My brain wanted to write the post right that minute.  I was pissed off at it, but what can I do?  My brain has a mind of it’s own.

As soon as I wake up in the morning I want to talk to someone.  That’s one of the hardest things about being alone.  It’s not like you can just call your friends as soon as you wake up and say, hey stop what you’re doing.  I want to tell you about this weird dream I had last night.  Granted, it would be in the afternoon, but still.  They have spouses and children and jobs.  They don’t have time to listen to my dreams and random associations.

Often when I’m walking around the mall or the grocery store or even just turning a corner, I run into someone because I’m oblivious of my surroundings.  I actually have to remind myself that someone might be on the other side of the door so that I don’t freak out.

Remember that whole Waco siege that went on for 2 months back in 1993?  I was in grad school at the time and I had no idea it was happening because I spent my free time watching reruns of the Flintstones and Gilligan’s Island.  After the attack my classmates were talking about it and I was like, what’s going on in Waco?  They were appalled and I was humiliated.

So I force myself to watch the news occasionally so if something happens like a typhoon hits the Philippines or the government shuts down, I’ll know what people are talking about.

But you know what?  Blogging is actually a really good thing for people who think too much.  Even if I have to wake up and pee in the middle of the night and decide to check my stats, that’s kind of crazy, but you sort of have to be obsessive about your blog if you want it to succeed.  And writers are always coming up with subject matter at random times because they’re constantly thinking about writing.

So that’s why I’m writing this blog so early in the morning.  Now maybe my brain will let me go back to sleep.

I think this doodle kind of looks like a brain.

 

Stress Management

Sometimes stress management is stressful.

Apparently, it is possible to follow all of the guidelines for reducing your stress and still be so overwhelmed that you can barely function.  In fact, if stress management were a course, it would be the kind where I was going to all of the classes and doing all of the homework and extra credit and still failing the tests.  Which is a C for me, but still.  All that work should be getting me an A.

I am still sick, which really pisses me off.  It’s been almost two weeks now.  I know that I cannot control how much rest my body needs to recuperate, but being exhausted is making it hard to do my job, play tennis, and enjoy life in general.  Usually I am the kind of person who is singing Christmas carols in July, but right now the thought of getting out the 5 Christmas ornaments I was going to put up throws me into a panic and I can’t think about it.

And I know you’re not supposed to compare yourself to other people, but it makes me feel inadequate to think of all of those people out there who have spouses and kids in addition to jobs.  And they probably cook dinner for their families and keep their homes clean and get all of their errands done, even when they’re sick.  And they’re still better tennis players than me!

This is why therapists still need a therapist.  Because even if you know the answers, it’s different when someone else says them to you.  It’s different when someone else says It’s OK that you’re still sick.  It’s not your fault.  It doesn’t make you weak.  It doesn’t make you a failure.  I can say those things all day long to clients and mean it, but I can’t give myself permission to believe it.

It does help to keep a journal.  That’s one way of gaining perspective.  Sometimes I’ll look at entries where I was depressed and anxious and berating myself for not having a legitimate reason to feel this way–even though I tell clients that you don’t need to know the reason why for your feelings to be legitimate. 

And then when I read about all the stuff that was going on at that point in my life, I think, what the?  Why in the world did I think that going on vacation with my anxious mom and depressed dad and having my boyfriend’s ex-wife attempt suicide and leave him with custody of his ADHD son were not good enough reasons to be anxious and depressed?!

That’s another reason why it helps to talk to someone objective:  sometimes you can’t see the reason, even if it’s obvious to everyone else.

I guess I’ve had unrealistic expectations about what stress management can accomplish.  At some level I assumed that if I took all of the correct steps to manage my stress, then I would be stress-free, even though my life has never been stress-free.  In fact, I seek out challenges because if something is too easy (i.e., not stressful), then it’s boring.  I choose to work with people with psychological problems.  I captain 5 tennis teams a year!  Nobody does that when they’re trying to live a stress-free life.

So maybe I need to have another goal.  I’ll have to think some more about what that goal should be.  For now, maybe I can just have the goal of not beating myself up for being stressed out.  That would definitely be a good start.