"Genuine self-esteem does not say, I am worthwhile because I can do this, that, or the other. Rather, it proclaims, I am worthwhile whether or not I can do this, that, or the other" (italics mine). I just finished reading Hold On To Your Kids by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Gabor Mate, and I went back and checked on the pages I had folded down whenever inspiration or identification struck, and this is one phrase that really stood out to me.
I have tended to phrase this concept in terms of value; that I am valuable no matter what I produce, but this wording was so succinct and to the point that it brought me to tears. I recognized it instantly as true and profound. I am valuable no matter what. My worth lies in my being. It's not meant to be external, but rather completely internal. When it resides inside of my soul, no one can take it away or tarnish it or degrade it in any way. It is mine; I own it.
Later, in the same section, he says, "If this view of self-esteem seems strange to some people, it's only because we live in a culture that indoctrinates an idea of self-esteem based on how we look to others. We all want to keep up with the Joneses, we all long to show off our new car or trophy boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse, and we all experience a rush of heady pride when others acknowledge or envy our achievements. But are we really esteeming the self? No, what we are esteeming is what others think of us. Is that the kind of self-esteem we want our children to develop?"
I spent the majority of my life up to this point "esteeming what others thought of me." This was my benchmark and my ranking system for everything. If someone praised me, I felt good, and if someone criticized me, I felt devastated. You end up like a rat on a wheel, increasing your level of competition all of the time in order to feel any sense of worth. And you simply can't hold on to it, because it will change with the next opinion you hear.
I'm so glad by the time I turned 37 I began slowly to put some of these puzzle pieces together. If I wasn't charting my growth here in this blog no one would know anything about it, because it's all happening inside, but the process is so fascinating that I don't want to lose it. Writing here every day is a sort of record for the kind of changes that are occurring, and it always means so much to hear from any of you who are reading, to see where my journey is intersecting with yours.
The deepest meaning is found in the hidden places, and where we connect with others is what brings us identification and a sense of community. None of us has to do this alone. Expressing our fears and vulnerabilities with each other signals to us that we aren't the only ones wrestling with these big issues. It's a universal phenomenon, and honesty is the passport in order to travel there.
I love knowing that if my self-esteem lives inside of me, I can tend to it the way a gardener grows a garden. I can water, and prune, and see the seeds turn into thriving plants. I'm not leaving who I am up to anyone except for myself. Where I am not accepted and loved for who I am, I can withdraw and find other company. We all must be allowed to grow and to become our best selves. Encouragement is like fertilizer for our self-esteem, and criticism is like weeds that threaten to choke us at our most vulnerable point.
I can see this process at work in my children. The more I build them up, the taller they stand, and the arrows from peers or circumstances don't have the ability to destroy them. Words and gossip and situations which don't go our way always hurt us, but if we are strongly attached in our core relationships, and our self-esteem is growing in flowerbeds of encouragement and unconditional love and support, we can do anything at all because we know our true worth, and that knowledge trumps everything else.