Our present feelings about ourselves were born in our intimate relationships with family and friends. But most of us face disappointment or hostility at one time or another and develop fears and self-protective reactions. And what has happened seems beyond our control.
It is true that we can’t change the past, but we can deal with the present. The question is, how do I deal with my life in a healthy and productive way now? If I don’t deal with life adequately my self-esteem is low. So my capacity to change, to bring my life under my control, becomes the key issue. That’s where self-esteem begins: with change, with the conviction that I have control over my attitudes and actions toward others.
One of the hard facts of life is that self-esteem comes from your ability to solve problems, not from sympathy, not from realizing that life has handed you a raw deal, and not from blaming your parents or teachers or employer. If you can’t solve problems and deal with conflict, your self-esteem is going to stay low. When we operate out of control, we have the awful feeling that circumstances control us, rather than that we control ourselves.
The retraining process is too long to discuss in detail, but here are some highlights:
1. Both people in the relationship need to know what will happen if they continue as they are now.
2. They need to know what success experiences they both want. (For example, do we want to trust each other more? Do we want to feel safer with each other?)
3. They need to disregard those judgments that erode the relationship: who is right and who is wrong only leads to blame and alienation.
4. They need to apply new standards, such as what weakens our marriage or what strengthens it; or what divides us and what unites us.
5. They need to take responsibility for their own behavior.
6. They need to learn better interaction skills: how to listen, how to accept, how to control put-downs, how to break the cycle of hostility, how to build trust, how to make commitments.
But what if you can’t control the problems? I remember being in a bad working situation some years ago where on-the-job conversations consisted mostly of put-downs, dirty jokes, sexual exploits, and unsubtle innuendoes. I realized that the atmosphere was polluting my interior environment in ways that were destroying my spirituality. And when I heard myself laugh at the jokes or join in the put-downs, then I knew something had to change. I liked the work, so first I went to some key people, told them how I felt, and made what efforts I could to change the situation. But it was clear that no change was going to occur. Either I had to isolate myself while at work or I had to leave. I left. And I stopped feeling guilty and felt better about myself.
I’ve tried this approach sometimes: “Yes, it’s tough and I can see that it’s hard for you, but let me ask you a question. What can you do today that will make you feel better tomorrow? What will make you feel worse?”
Those questions identify pretty quickly what parts of the problem are genuinely within the individual’s control and what he wants to feel. Self-esteem soars as the problems go down, one by one, before a determined, disciplined approach.
The fear-anxiety level is the lowest level; the duty-justice level is higher; and the love, trust, and care level involves the healthiest and deepest motivations. Such families come closer to living the celestial law.
Those at the fear level have low self-esteem, often hidden or disguised, but do not care for themselves or others. Those who can freely love and trust have high self-esteem, feel valuable, and are most capable of truly believing they are sons or daughters of God.
In this atmosphere of mature love and respect—not pity, not manipulation, not sentimentality—the kind of self-esteem our Father wants us all to have will thrive.