When I was young, I followed all the rules, and yet, I never felt good about myself.
Other mothers would say to my mother, I wish my boy would be more like Loren. That never felt good. I wanted to be naughty, the one who flaunted the rules but had adults dismiss it as Boys will be boys.
But I couldn’t risk the disapproval of people I loved.
When occasionally I did something wrong, I always got caught. When I was about ten-years-old, I stole a pack of cigarettes from the drug store to smoke with some friends. When I got home, my mother asked, “When did you start smoking.”
Word travels fast in small towns in Nebraska. When everyone knows everyone else, it’s hard to keep secrets.
By the time I was in my early thirties, I should have had it all. I had finished medical school and married, had two daughters, finished four years as a Flight Surgeon in the U. S. Navy, completed my residency in psychiatry, and passed my board examinations. I had paid off all my medical school debt.
I had everything I’d sacrificed so much to attain. But I wasn’t happy, and I felt alone. But I had made my mother proud.
I was everyone’s designated driver. They didn’t even have to ask me.
Why wasn’t this working?
Then, I found a formula that worked for myself, and I began to share it with my patients. Most grasped the concept quite quickly, so now I’d like to share it with you.
* * *
Goals must be something that can be counted or measured.
Who do I want to be?
When I was in my psychiatric training, one supervisor asked us to write a resume for ourselves, but there was a twist. He assigned us to write our resume as we wanted them to read five years into the future.
He required us to expand this resume beyond distinct professional goals to include aspects of our personal lives.
Professional resumes are typically divided into four areas but to make it both professional and personal, let’s modify it a bit and add a fifth:
1. Professional Summary (Character and Reputation)
5. Relationships: Life partner, Family, Social
Character and Reputation
Resumes for work usually begin with a broad paragraph called Professional Summary, but for our purposes, we’ll call this Character and Reputation.
What is the best thing people might truthfully say about you? What is the worst thing that might be said about you and still be true?
Think about how you wish to be remembered. Do you want to be recognized as a competent, attractive, well-liked, or a moral person? What characteristics do you most value? Write them down.
This is a statement of your values.
But you must ask yourself, are these your values or what you were told you should value? More about that later.
Skills, Work, and Education
A few years ago, I took a weekend course called, “How to publish your nonfiction book in one year.” The curriculum outlined concrete short-term goals that had to be met to reach that goal.
At the end of that year, I had written and found a publisher for Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight.
When patients come to me, they often say, I just want to be happy. I respond, How will you know when you are? Or they might say, I just want my husband/wife to love me, I ask, How will you know if he/she does?
What skills do you need? What education? What work experience. Patients frequently say I’m too old to do that. Whether or not you do it, in five years you will still be five years older. I once worked with a terrific nurse who quit her job as an executive and went to nursing school.
Goals must be something that can be counted or measured. Abstract or ambiguous goals are not helpful.
Most of us want relationships. As you think about this, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you want a partner? A new partner?
- Do you have a good chum, someone with whom you can share your deepest secrets and concerns?
- Do you want a group of friends who accept you as you are, people who can help you when you need it, or who might need your help? Or do you only want people in your life who can help you get ahead?
- Whom do you need to forgive even though you feel they don’t deserve it?
- Are you as secure as you wish to be with your immediate family?
* * *
Perfect is the enemy of good.
Who do I think I am?
Let’s move to the circle on the right, “Who I think I am.” How do you measure up? For many of my patients, this exercise is complicated because so many of them make excessively harsh judgments about themselves.
When I was trying to be the best little boy in the world, it was because inside I felt like the worst little boy. I was trying to be too good because I felt so bad.
When my daughters were very young, one day, when I was caring for them, I remember thinking I haven’t been able to have one complete thought today without it being interrupted with Daaad-dee! I felt angry about the demands they made on me.
Philosophers through the ages have expounded upon the aphorism, “Perfect is the enemy of good.”
I decided that day I didn’t have to be a perfect parent; all I was required to be was a good enough parent. I determined that on a good day I could do that for a maximum of six hours per day. After six hours, all bets were off.
Many people have difficulty making a realistic assessment of themselves.
Often when we evaluate ourselves, we criticize ourselves excessively. We have a negative bias about ourselves in our brains. We must eliminate those distortions in our thinking.
For example, when someone says, I always do this, or I can never do that, they are wrong.
No one always or never does anything. Listen to yourself when you say these things and ask yourself, What are the facts? Feelings are relevant, but you must ask yourself if the feelings are justified based on facts.
When I realized I could be good enough and was as bad as I imagined, I began to feel better about myself.
The primary task is to listen to your thoughts, recognize the self-critical patterns, and correct the aberrations in your thinking. It gets easier with practice.
* * *
You have put others in control of your life when you live your life to please them
Addicted to Approval?
A life filled with pursuing the rush of the next high relieves the pain but only in transient and superficial ways. And like all addictions, to reach that high, the person must seek more and more stimulation. But they never reach that pinnacle of pleasure again.
I believe that approval operates in the brain in much the same way as these addictions. We take a hit of approval, it wears off quickly, and we seek another. Then another.
If the person you seek to become is solely a sum of all the traits, values, and issues you’ve inherited from family, religion, society, and culture, you have put others in control of your life when you live your life to please them.
When others told my mother What a fine young man Loren is, it meant I was meeting their standard. It became more complex as my world enlarged; the way some people wanted me to be conflicted with what others expected. I was as confused.
Self-esteem exists in the overlap between the person you want to be and the person you think you really are. The more authentic you become, the better you feel about yourself.
I realized that I needed to deconstruct that old idea of who I thought I should be and reconstruct a new ideal of my own. I discovered that when I chose this new and different ideal for myself, people really didn’t care as much as I thought they would.
Once I began to have a good sense of my own ideal and an accurate assessment of myself, the circles in the diagram above began to align, and the area defined as self-esteem expanded. I overestimated what I thought I would lose, and I underestimated what I thought I would gain.
I had sought to fit into a group in which I didn’t really belong, and frankly, a group I didn’t even like very much. Fitting in and belonging to a group are not equivalent.
Brené Brown writes that when your path is clearly laid out before you, it really isn’t your path. For much of my life, I was following someone else’s plan. I had relinquished command over it to others.
Self-esteem is nothing more than how closely the person we are corresponds to the person we want to be.
After I have worked through this exercise with a patient, I then ask, Where does approval fit into this formula?
They typically respond, It’s not there.
I answer, Precisely. Approval has no role in self-esteem.
* * *
How to use a five-year resume
The first step to make this a working tool useful is to write it down and date it. Put it in a folder, but don’t just leave it in your desk drawer. Update it at least annually and consult it frequently.
Just as it was with writing my book, once you have set a measurable long-term goal, the shorter-term goals become more apparent. For my book, first I had to focus on my elevator pitch. Then I had to do market research followed by a chapter outline. Next came a brief description of the content of each chapter.
Each step followed another and was connected to a timeline. I needed some new skills and education, and I needed to figure out how and when to do the work.
These goals must be a bit of a stretch but still attainable. Choosing an impossible goal sets you up to fail. If reaching a goal that is too easy, it is meaningless; to be significant, you must choose them for yourself.
Small successes lead to more important achievements. The discipline of writing down the resume makes the abstract concrete. Setting a time for completion makes you accountable.
* * *
Here’s what you must do:
- Take charge of who you wish to be.
- Learn to see yourself as you are and avoid exaggerated self-criticism.
- Stop looking for approval from others and find it within yourself.
Then you can take back ownership of your life.
Previously published on “Change Becomes You”, a Medium publication.
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