Hilary Jacobs Hendel shows you how to cultivate authentic pride and joy in your life.
“Don’t get too big for your britches!” “You’re no better than anyone else!” “Don’t get a swelled head!”
Beginning as little children, we hear familial and cultural messages that are meant to socialize and civilize us. We learn to keep our self-confidence in check in order to stay in the good graces of the people around us. Healthy shame makes sure we follow social norms such as not hurting others, not stealing, being honest, or not going to the bathroom in public. Shame is the emotion that ensures we fit in with the groups we need.
However, if in childhood, our natural exuberance and healthy self-pride were met with regular disdain or criticism, we then learn to keep ourselves small as a form of protection. After all, the “bigger” we allow ourselves to feel, the more of a “target” we are for criticism. Staying small and unnoticed helps mitigate the inherent vulnerability of being human especially when we are young and defenseless.
There is a cost to maintaining good social standing and for self-protection. Over time, the brain habitually keeps us small. We lose the option to feel big and proud. Plus, we are not even aware that we are inhibiting ourselves. We just feel small. For example, when we are complimented we cannot fully take it in. We dismiss the affirming sentiment—a gift in many ways—with a perfunctory “thank you.” We hear the affirming words but we do not allow ourselves to receive the message deeply in our bodies. The cost is to our self-confidence.
Many of the men I see in my practice have lost their ability to experience joy, excitement, and pride. These expansive emotions (meaning they literally cause us to feel like we are enlarging) provide nourishment for the soul and build self-esteem. Defending against these emotions has a big cost. We can’t feel the wonderful feelings these emotions naturally produce. Instead, at the first sign of feeling big and proud, our bodies constrict remembering the cultural message: “Don’t get too big for your britches!”
For example, lately Russell feels more accomplished both personally and professionally. Yet, he is very hesitant to let himself “experience” his pride deeply. Experiencing an emotion means:
- Acknowledging you feel it.
- It also means sensing how the emotion manifests physically—all emotions are actually body sensations that we come to recognize and name as a specific emotion.
- Experiencing an emotion also means letting the sensation unfold physically. That is usually the hardest part because letting joy and pride flow in our bodies feels like we are actually growing inside.
Russell’s impulse to dismiss himself is largely unconscious. He shrugs his shoulders, has a dismissive tone, or even mocks himself without even realizing he is doing it. I see this again and again in my work as a psychotherapist and coach. Often in a session, I am the first one to gently point this out, “Did you notice how you just shrugged your shoulders as you told me about how your boss complimented your excellent work?” I ask this not to “catch” someone but to gently make him curious and aware about how and why he learned to block his emotion. Each person has his own unique story about the struggle to feel big, proud, and joyous.
Craig, a lovable guy, needed constant compliments and reminders that he was liked. It was as though he had a hole in his self-esteem bucket. No matter how much affirmation he received, it didn’t stick. Craig felt good for maybe two seconds and then the feeling evaporated, so he needed another “fix.” He had learned to block incoming good feelings.
I help people rebuild their inborn capacity to take in good feelings. I do this by helping people experience their positive feelings. My patients learn to stay with positive feelings/sensations as they unfold fully in their bodies. Helping people develop this capacity builds lasting self-worth and self-esteem.
Some people fear that feeling good could make them conceited or egotistical. This does not happen. When people truly feel good about themselves, they have more to give to others, not less.
Both Russell and Craig needed to build their emotional and physical capacity to experience joy and pride. Here are some ways I helped them and how you can work on your own to build your capacity for positive emotions:
1. Begin to notice your reaction when someone says something nice or complimentary. Do you refute it? Do you ignore it? Do you change your posture? Do you shrug your shoulders? Do you say thanks? Do you judge the person giving you the compliment?
2. When someone gives you a compliment, pause and breathe for a few seconds before you react. In the pause, notice, without judging, what the compliment evokes inside your body.
3. Try to name any and all emotions you notice: embarrassment, anxiety, guilt, pride, joy, fear, disbelief, anger, or judgment toward you or the person complimenting you. This helps your inner experience become more conscious. Awareness creates the potential for change.
4. If you’re feeling brave, try to set aside any blocking thoughts or feelings for about ten seconds and allow some of the good feelings to grow inside you. Feel yourself expand—even a tiny bit of expanding internally helps build this new emerging capacity. Breathe deeply if anxiety starts to arise. The anxiety just means you are doing something new.
5. Lastly, look the person giving you the compliment in the eye and say a heartfelt “Thank you!” This helps you validate the affirmation. It lets your brain know that you’ve received the positive message. It also makes the other person feel appreciated for their gift.
Congratulations for working to patch the hole in your own bucket. You deserve it … just because you exist!
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