This article was written collaboratively with colleagues Donna Jacobs and Pam Paris.
Where did I go?
Who do I see when I look in the mirror?
Who am I without that nagging voice telling me that I’m not good enough?
What’s left of me when Facebook is closed down and I am no longer counting my hundreds of friends?
Where do I go when no one is looking and the noise has stopped…. and it’s just me?
For years people have been seeking therapy for depression, anxiety, marital problems, addictions, and a variety of other psychological challenges.
Today, in our practices, we encounter these same issues but find that their occurrence, quality, and severity are more stubborn and tenacious than ever before. These are worrying trends. Our clients seem to be reporting a vast array of psychological and physical symptoms, and are experiencing more anxiety and more feelings of being out of control.
There is an increase in people reporting dissatisfaction with their relationships. Eating disorders have become more prevalent, treatment resistant, and are presenting at a younger age. We are seeing more addictions and the need for treatment than ever before. Our clients are expressing a general sense of alienation. Our young people are complaining of feeling lost and empty, and worrying that they are not good enough.
Isn’t our current generation the one being raised with positive attentive parenting? Theories of self-esteem abound, self-help books on raising happy kids and feeling better about ourselves flood our bookstores. Yet…there does not appear to be a correlation between the abundance of information and the translation of that information to psychological health.
What went wrong?
One of the pervasive trends we have been observing in our clinical practices, is the externalization of self-worth. We seem to be looking more and more to external messages to establish our personal value as individuals. Self-worth is increasingly being determined by grades, trophies, praise, and other arbitrary markers. We are relinquishing way too much of our own power, not realizing that the power to define ourselves and make ourselves happy actually comes from within.
Our technologically enhanced world dictates that quantity determines quality– we are by virtue of what we have, we define our value by Facebook friends, or Instagram comments. We believe we are seen as successful by other’s assessments of our possessions and material goods. We are only as good as others perceive us to be. We look to our environment for reinforcement. We see ourselves through the eyes of the judge du jour. What we don’t know is that there is no “one size fits all” finish line. The only trajectory that truly matters is our own.
What does this mean?
Theoretically, this suggests that an externally oriented self-esteem may create a false self, the mask that is seen in public. The biggest problem with a false self is that it may crumble when life’s challenges unfold and the structures of praise and achievement cannot sustain it. However, the inner, authentic self, that may not have been given as much attention or reinforcement, is likely to be the greater source of our strength.
What has happened to our inner voice? Why do we no longer listen? How is it that we have allowed the noise to become so loud that we are distracted from our most basic self-knowledge? Knowledge that can only be derived from our own core…our self.
Instead of listening…we have found ways to escape.
Escaping ourselves comes in many forms. Immediate relief is one of the more common ways we escape and avoid distress. Distress is not comfortable and today we are not patient. We are not prepared to sit in the discomfort caused by having to wait for the relief. We want it now.
People in difficult relationships are more apt today to leave their partners than to sit in the discomfort of the conflict that may actually lead to resolution or reconciliation. With so many readily accessible outlets providing immediate relief and escape from a difficult relationship, staying and working it through seems not always* to be an option.
People are more apt today to drink and use substances than to sit in the discomfort of their pain. The path of least resistance is to dull the pain, numb it away with drugs or alcohol, rather than staying with it to discover what is scratching at the core and causing the difficulties.
People are more apt today to binge eat or starve, than to sit in their discomfort. Immediate relief can be achieved by swallowing excesses of food or by denying food to numb the fear or loneliness. It can be painful to have to look within and find what is causing the discomfort.
Even parents are affected by the external noise. We seem to be raising children in a race to the finish line. The external motivation of achievement and competition has been overemphasized and children are stressed to perform and keep up.
So, to answer what went wrong is to say that we are more apt today to find ways to escape ourselves than to listen to ourselves.
When we stop running and turn our attention inward we may be surprised at what we find. What we just might find is…our true self.
We are discovering that there is a need to shift our focus and revisit self-esteem. We believe that traditional definitions of self-esteem have become synonymous with concepts such as self-worth, self-regard, self-confidence, and as a result have become diluted, misunderstood and meaningless.
What we refer to as the self is the core part of us that comprises our identity, beliefs, values, likes, dislikes, needs and wants. It serves as our moral compass and guides our decisions. It is the basis of our resiliency when we face crises or challenges. It is the inner voice that guides us, cautions us, sends up flares when things go awry. The acknowledgement, trust, and revealing of the self is what is being ignored. It is the piece of the puzzle that is missing.
We, as professionals, want to teach our clients to live from the inside out. We are so bombarded by noise, external messages, the “shoulds” and “should-nots”, that it has become essential to our well being to shut off the noise. We want to quiet the noise so that we can begin to listen internally. To recognize the strength and existence of this core is the beginning of the development of the self. It is the essence of self-esteem, which is why we propose putting the self back in self-esteem.
The inner voice is there, but somehow people have learnt not to trust it, so they turn away. We need to build strong, confident, resilient individuals who can risk to be themselves despite the pain, limitations, struggles, weaknesses, shame, discomfort…all of it. We need to move beyond the challenges to make room to build the self.
The self is not a static concept but rather one that evolves through the lifespan. Although our self will change depending on our life circumstances, we believe that all individuals have the potential to discover and become their best selves.
As we move toward strengthening our core self, we recognize that each developmental stage challenges our sense of self. Children derive core self from their sense of belonging with their caregivers, adolescents from their search for individuation, and adults from various familial, peer and career challenges. Each of these stages is fraught with potential difficulties that may work against development of self. If we develop an understanding of where we got lost and stopped listening, we can then build towards our own authentic, true self.
- We believe that building a strong self can enable us to face our challenges.
- We believe that a strong self can arm our youth to make better choices and put them less at risk for addictions and self-harm behaviors.
- We believe that with a strong sense of self, life can be more manageable and less painful.
How to Find the Self?
How do we re-discover, re-connect with, and start listening to that elusive self?
In order to understand how we stopped listening, we have to first define the influences that interfered with the process. This journey begins with our family of origin.
We develop a sense of who we are by observing others, watching cues, and analyzing dynamics even before we have a conscious sense of what we are doing. In the early years of a child’s life, parents are the most significant influence on their child’s emerging sense of self. Parents are the source of the positive and negative experiences a child will have. Children will look into the eyes of their parents and interpret what they see. Parents are essentially the first mirrors children see themselves reflected in.
Mirrors are defined as how we see ourselves through the eyes of others.
However, mirrors can sometimes be inaccurate. The mistake people make is to take the message that is reflected in these mirrors as a definition of themselves, rather than that of the person holding the mirror. Accepting these inaccurate mirrors can negatively affect ones’ sense of self.
To illustrate the concept of these mirrors:
You may have a father who mirrors back “you aren’t good enough”.
This father’s reaction may be more of a statement about his own unhappiness or his own dissatisfaction with his life. Because of his insecurity, he may have unrealistically high standards such that nobody can please him.
Try asking yourself the following questions:
1) Do you believe that you are not good enough?
2) Is your fathers’ mirror more a statement about him than about you?
You have a mother who reflects back “you are here to make me happy”. This mother might be someone who has unfulfilled needs or has never felt secure in her relationships. You may be a replacement for her unhappy marriage. You may feel so responsible for her feelings that it becomes difficult to differentiate your feelings from hers. You may have learned that the way to receive love and acceptance is by fulfilling your role to make her happy.
Try asking yourself the following questions:
1) Do you believe that your role is to repair your mother’s loneliness or unhappiness?
2) Is your mothers’ mirror more a statement about her than about you?
These are only two examples but there are so many configurations that it is impossible to illustrate them all. What is most important is your ability to understand the messages of the mirrors and how they have impacted you. Then you can learn to move beyond them to a more constructive place free from the messages’ influence.
Here’s an exercise to help you begin to differentiate yourself from someone else’s mirrors and reclaim your self…
- Think about a consistent, negative message you tend to give yourself. This is usually a statement such as “I’m not good enough”, “no matter how hard I try nothing ever works out”, “I’m not loveable”…etc.
- Write it down…read it over many times.
- How does this statement make you feel?
- Now ask yourself if this statement is true or an accurate assessment of who you are? The goal is to challenge the statement.
- Write down the opposite statement…read it over many times.
- How does this altered statement make you feel?
- What have you discovered?
You may begin to recall the origins of that statement. You may recall that it is a statement that was imposed upon you by someone in your family of origin, perhaps your mother or father. As a child you accepted their assessment of you because you held (hold) them in high esteem and you naturally assumed that if they thought that way, then it must be true. You internalized this perspective and embraced it over time as your own.
The good news is that today as an adult you have many more resources, more maturity and insight to be able to question, challenge and alter what may be a distorted mirror.
Now, try turning the mirror around to face the one making the statement. There you may find that the true reflection is of the other…not of you.
In conclusion…this is only the beginning.
The search for self is a journey that spans a lifetime. It is a journey that has the potential to take you to emotional stability, relationship successes, and personal peace of mind. It is a journey fraught with missteps all to be mined for meaning and growth.
We have learned so much from our clients and have discovered along with them, the power derived from self-discovery. We are constantly impressed with their hard work and gratified by their progress. We have all experienced life in a family and we all come out of that experience with our own issues to deal with. A common theme we have encountered is the extent to which those first mirrors shape our lives. It is liberating to discover that some of those early reflections are not true reflections of us. When we are able to identify the author and owner of negative, hurtful, rejection messages, we can breathe more easily, live more freely.
Learning then to trust our self, our own internal messages, and re-condition our interpretations is the true beginning of living from the inside out and putting the self back in self-esteem.
This article was written collaboratively with colleagues Donna Jacobs and Pam Paris.