self esteem

I’ve been talking about self esteem in my Friday education group. It used to be a four week presentation but this iteration is looking like six. Its a really important topic in recovery because there is an inordinate amount of self sabotage amongst folks in substance abuse treatment. Intellectually the topic appeals to me because its so difficult to do anything productive on the topic. In general attitudes and beliefs are hard to shift and our sense of self is the oldest and most solid piece of who we are. It takes years of concerted effort to make serious headway and pointing people in that direction, laying it out and providing the tools feels like activism. “You Are Awesome” my favorite Occupation sign says. Its animated my thoughts.

I also like teaching on self esteem because it excuses me a chance to explore just exactly what we are and where we have emerged from. I discuss the mirror test, an ability to recognize yourself in a mirror requires self awareness. “Hey that’s me in there.” 6 month olds, dogs, cats, and monkeys they can’t do it. 18 month olds, chimps and other great apes, elephants, grey parrots, and dolphins can. What were we doing around that age, toddling around getting into shit. At some point we all went to touch the stove, that’s how babies explore the world and someone who loved us smacked our hand and said, “bad baby, don’t touch the stove”. What’d we learn besides don’t touch the stove. “I’m the bad baby who tries to touch the stove”. We are learning who we are.

How we view ourselves is so vital because of confirmation bias, the tendency to see evidence to support what we already believe. We like to believe we look out on the world in an objective way but really we only perceive what is in line with our existing beliefs. Now what is the risk if you believe you are a piece of shit? That is why it is so vital. The thesis I try to make is to pick a concrete strategy and stick with it for years even. When you achieve mastery pick another. I learned about self esteem and started to work on it around 16 probably in my high school psychology class. I’ve been at it ever sense. I’ve made some significant progress but my journey is not yet done.

I have been working on eliminating the word “should” out of my self talk for five years. I still catch myself thinking it. (the re-frame for “should” is “could”). I pretty much ferreted out “can’t” (the re-frame for “can’t” is “I’ve struggled with this in the past but I’m getting better on it because I’m working on it”  [not as pithy as “could” but memorable in its absurdity]). “Always” and “never” have had their place.

I teach a 2 step of do the right thing and give yourself credit. Challenging the inner critic instead of hiding from it or tuning it out. Ask it questions; “is this true?”, “does this preserve my life?”, “get me what I want?”, “keep what I don’t want from happening?”, “improve my relationships?”.

I told the story of getting shit canned at Food Town after 29 days when I was 17. Not because I wasn’t a hard worker but because I was to insecure to ask questions and didn’t know how to stay busy. Felt intimidated by the customers, not knowing where stuff was, and the bosses, easier to putter around the bottle room. I had always wanted to be a bag boy too. Mom wanted a kid to go to the store, you got to pick out the cereal and get a comic book at Crairie’s Drugs. When I was a little kid I looked up to the bag boys who brought our groceries out to the car back then. (You know when there were jobs for people to do.)

The bag boys seemed like gods. Kids who did what adults did, that’s what I wanted to be and I told my mom I wanted to be a bag boy and she said “You can’t because we’re not Lutheran and Francis Foods only hires Lutherans”. I told the story pretty matter of factly and a brother in the second row just looked dumb f0unded and said “You’re shitting me”. He couldn’t wrap his mind around a world where you couldn’t get a job because you were the wrong denomination. With all the growing problems of modernity, maybe things are getting better.

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