One day, my therapist asked,
“Where does your self-esteem come from?”
I looked out through the window into his lush green garden and at the woodlands beyond, wishing myself in amongst the trees.
I didn’t know where my self-esteem came from, I just knew that I wasn’t generating much of it from anywhere.
There were only three places from which I could derive a sense of self-worth.
Intrinsically, from simply knowing that I am OK.
Reflectively, as a result of others saying good things about me.
Comparatively, from looking at those around me and deciding how I measured up.
“It comes from the second and third ones,” I said while staring at the cricket ball on top of the television set in the corner and marvelling at the idea self-worth could be self-generated.
I was placing the vast majority of my happiness in the hands of other people and it wasn’t safe there. It had to stop.
Many years later, after I’d trained as a therapist, I encountered the next step-change in the way I thought about self-esteem and how often comparison is used to create or destroy it.
During a training course, which I remember little about other than eating my lunch on a park bench from where, to my disproportionate joy, I could see the uppermost parts of the Post Office Tower, the idea was posited that self-esteem itself is a pointless construct.
“Whatever you do, you can never be more or less valuable than you are,” our tutor proposed.
As much as I struggled to embody the idea I embraced it with alacrity like a child invited to the most wonderful party they felt unworthy of attending.
The notion that I need not “do” or “be” anything in order to feel valuable challenged the seemingly unbreakable link between achievement and significance.
I knew both to be important, but I hadn’t realised one was not dependent on the other.
Freed from this crippling addiction to comparison I found myself, ironically, more able to succeed and thrive through no longer being constricted by constantly looking at others and wondering if I was good enough.
“I know there are a lot of people worse off than me.”
This is a line I often hear in the course of my work with clients.
In my darkest, longest days, the ones on which suicide didn’t seem dramatic just pragmatic, I found an article in the newspaper about a man who was the sole carer for his disabled son and middle-aged wife with early-onset dementia. The expectations on him were constant, there was literally no respite and he was drowning. It sounded horrific.
I cut out the article and carried it with me in my wallet in the belief that constant reference to and acknowledgement of “I know there are a lot of people worse off than me” would make a material difference to my own sorry state.
What actually happened was that I started to feel guilty about being unable to shift my own pain even in the face of something that seemed, by all reasonable measure, to be so much worse.
But pain is not comparable. Not ever.
It is unique and personal, and it hurts, however cruelly you tell yourself to “snap out of it”.
The other problem with comparison is that it tends to be used mostly by people who already think they’re not good enough because people who do, don’t waste their time trying to prove it.
The confirmation bias inherent in “I’m not good enough” means we’ll move heaven and earth to prove that it’s true. Therefore, the comparisons we choose to make are selected only with things and people who will ensure we are right to think of ourselves as worthless.
It’s a painful race to the bottom.
My eldest dog, though still only six, has been lame for some weeks and it’s been a source of anxiety and distress to see a creature I love so dearly unable to run about with her usual abandon.
After an eye-wateringly expensive visit to the vet for some X-rays she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis which, although by no means the worst possible outcome, will change the life we have together and take some adjustment.
Taking her on a shorter and more sedate walk across the fields we pass a poodle with a leg missing trotting happily along next to her owner.
There was a time I would have held that image in my head believing it to be a valuable comparison and a reminder to count my blessings. But these days I try and let sadness flow where it chooses, find gratitude where it shows itself, and have faith that optimism and hope will find a way to stay just in front.