I was sitting in traffic. Completely stopped. No movement whatsoever. And no information. It had been about 15 minutes of this. I was heading into work, and it was so close to the space center that it wasn’t being reported on any news or traffic. I felt like my head was going to explode. So, it is probably safe to say that I was having a “negative experience.” I was sitting there desiring, more than anything, to have a positive experience, like feeling the flow of traffic again! Then I could get in to the office and do the work I love at a job I was so grateful to have. And the more I wanted to have a positive experience, the more negative my current experience was.
Now layer this in there. Had I been more chill (which I’d like to think I am now), had I simply accepted my “negative experience” – it would have immediately become a more positive experience. I could have accepted the reality of the traffic jam, waited peacefully for it to clear, and perhaps found some great music or podcast to listen to pass the time (in my defense, this was before I had discovered the wonder that is podcasting).
This paradox is profound to me…Desiring a more positive experience is, itself, a negative experience, while accepting a negative experience creates a positive experience. Thank you to Mark Manson for this pearl of wisdom. So, now I want to apply this paradox to one of the most stereotypical topics you ever expect a psychologist to talk about: self-esteem.
So, what is self-esteem again?
The best way that I ever heard self-esteem described is that it is the overlap between 1 – how I believe I am today and 2 – how I want to be. The bigger the overlap, the higher my self-esteem.
When I don’t feel good about myself, I consciously and unconsciously funnel my energy into self-preservation, protecting against the feelings I don’t want to have about myself.
On the flippity flip….when we feel good about ourselves, we stop funneling our energy into self-preservation, and instead, we put all of that energy into problem solving. Clear, right?
So here’s the next part that’s crazy…Self-esteem is driven more by how you feel about the parts of yourself you don’t like than the parts you do. This is the paradox of self-acceptance with self-improvement.
Talk about something about yourself you don’t like. Maybe you’re not as disciplined as you want to be with your diet, or you’re not as organized, or you know that you have a temper sometimes and you can lose your cool when you don’t mean to. These parts of you that fall outside of the overlap in our Venn diagram. Now….talk about these parts in a way that is neutral. Peel back any self-judgment.
“I’m so not disciplined with my diet – I have no will power!” (Laden with self-criticism and self-judgment)
“I’d like to eat more vegetables and less processed food.” (Neutral – no judgment)
Now, it becomes a simple task of just doing the thing that we want to do. In the first example, we create this wall or mountain of emotion to have to crawl over before we could even think of changing the behavior.
So, accept the things about yourself that you don’t like.
Now, I know, I know…my first reaction to that was probably the same one you’re having now – but if I accept that, then I will stop trying to improve it and I will become complacent! Then I’ll never improve! Here’s the thing, though… remember how I said that you would stop funneling energy into self-preservation, and start funneling it into problem solving? You still solve the problem that you see before you. “Hmm, there is a gap between what I weigh and what I want to weigh. I can solve this.”
Let me give you one more example. And this is personal; this one is real. I have been told that I can be intense. Which…even typing that, makes me smile, because I know how true that is. So let’s say I get the feedback that sometimes I can be “too intense.” If I believe it to be true, and I immediately judge myself for it, my self-talk, or my reply goes something like, “Dangit, I AM too intense…that’s awful….I gotta DO something about that!” ….Whoa….intense.
But, flip it around….somebody tells me that I can be “too intense.” If I believe it to be true, and I accept that about myself, I say, “Yeah…ha….sometimes I am too intense.” And BAM. I am immediately less intense. It’s a crazy paradox, ya’ll….and I love it.
When I accept the things about myself that I don’t like, and I peel away self-judgment, I have just made my journey of self-improvement significantly easier. I can pour that energy into solving the problem I see, rather than on preserving myself, because you know what?
I’m ok just as I am. And I can always be better.