Self As Team VS. Self Esteem

Learning to be our own best friend

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Artwork by Tanya Samuel

We can give our kids and ourselves something much more sustaining and enduring than self esteem – a connection to a wiser and broader self.

In my early 20s I did my postgraduate thesis on self-esteem in adolescents. The details of the findings are a little fuzzy now, but two things I do remember clearly is that the way girls viewed their body (their “physical-self”) and the way boys viewed their achievements (their “academic and career-selves”) were two of the strongest predictors of their overall levels of happiness.

My question is, what happens when we don’t meet these “desired” levels of beauty or achievement? Or when the “desired” levels are unattainable due to Photoshop or our natural skill level (or lack of it!). What are we left with? How can we “bounce back” from life’s setbacks?

In my late 20s I remember asking my beautiful Dad “What is the one piece of parenting advice you could give me?”. And he said “Help your child find something they are good at and then support them in it – it helps to build their self esteem and sense of identity”. I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, that is really smart and it has definitely worked for me”.

It has taken me another 20 years to realise that we may be able to develop this approach further. I wonder what happens when can no longer do what we are good at, due to injury, circumstance or just plain old interest? Where does our self-esteem go?

You see, I was a pretty awesome swimmer, in junior school I made the state championships and in high school I was always the last swimmer in the relay (for those of you who don’t know, the fastest swimmer always goes last!) – it became a key part of who I was and I pinned my self esteem to being the fastest in the pool. And then….(dramatic drum-roll), I dislocated my shoulder playing beach rugby (long story) and couldn’t swim for a year. I distinctly remember being devastated about this and asking myself “Who am I now?” and I am sure it sent me into a spiral of negative thinking and questioning my worth and place in the world. Where do I belong if not in the pool? I had nothing to fall back on, no safety net. If I wasn’t a swimmer – who was I?

I believe we actually need to be teaching our children (and perhaps learning ourselves in the process) that we are much more than simply what we are good at. We are much more than the body, the friends or the career we have. We are more than the car, the house or the handbag we have. We are more than the achievements of our children or than the number of “likes” or “followers” we have. If we continually pin our sense of self onto these external factors, we are continually at the mercy of the constant changing nature of the world. Friends, “likes” and handbags come and go; it is risky to tie our sense of self to these.

So, how? How do we learn that we can experience all of these wonderful parts of our modern life, that we can enjoy and engage with all of them, but that they are not who we are?

I am sure there are other ways, but the way that I have discovered that continues to gift me with an immense amount of freedom, choice and comfort is mindfulness.

However, I have not been practicing mindfulness for longer than I have been practicing mindfulness. I spent the first 30 years of my life pinning my self worth onto my looks, my success, my achievements, the number of friends I had, the shoes I wore. This way of seeing and being had become automatic for me and with this way of living, I was constantly thrown around by the turbulent waves of emotions resulting from the events in my life. With almost 10 years of mindfulness training under my belt now, the waves are of course still there – the waves are part of being human, I just don’t get dumped quite as often anymore. And I have finally realised now that I am not the waves; I am the whole damn ocean, although I periodically forget that too! That’s why mindfulness and meditation is called a practise – we keep practicing and practicing, possibly forever.

However, if we can get this through to our kids from a young young young age, their battle will be much easier than ours. They will still have to deal with all of the challenges of life and of course, it is not our job to protect our children from pain, it is the pain that will make them stronger. However, with the knowledge and understanding we have now about mindfulness and meditation, we can give them the tools to ride the tumultuous waves of this human life with a little more ease. In doing this they may become more resilient that we have been – and to be honest, they will need to be with all of the change and madness that is part of our everyday existence today.

So, I think my dear Dad got this one half right, he got a lot 100% right (be kind, work hard, laugh a lot, eat with great gusto, greet everyone you meet with joy and sing sing sing) however we can build on his advice by supporting our kids to develop their own internal well of self-worth. By teaching them they are worthy of love and belonging, regardless of their achievements, is gifting them the freedom to be themselves and to live, love and work to their full potential.

Mindfulness does not protect us or our kids from the chaos of life; illness still happens, jobs will still be lost and our heart will continue to break – there will be pain, oh yes, there will be pain. Mindfulness however can teach us that we are bigger and more expansive than all of it – the good and the bad. We can hold the joy and the sorrow, the success and the failure in our broad and open awareness and know that it is happening to and within us, but it is not us. With that comes great empowerment and great freedom.

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