The True Secret to Better Self-Esteem

Nope, it’s not gazing into your eyes in the mirror and spouting Stuart Smalley-like affirmations. (“I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!”) It’s more about looking at yourself in the mirror — really looking at yourself — and smiling rather than grimacing. Letting the light in your eyes shine back at you, so you are seeing beyond the gray hair and smile lines and double chins (my least favorite aging attribute), to what is deep within and shines out with kindness to most everyone except yourself.

It comes from true accomplishment, from the smallest act of household organization to the largest act of bravery in standing up for someone less fortunate than you. It comes not from thinking I am wonderful, so no matter what I do is OK, but from taking moral inventory and acting as if what I do matters in the healing and repair of the world.

And it comes from allowing ourselves to truly take in and receive the gift of our offerings. It’s easy to think the smallest thing that someone else does is great and that the largest thing we’ve done is nothing much. I talk to so many women who feel, as I often do, that if I’ve done something, well, gee, can’t anyone? Doesn’t everyone? “Really, it’s no big deal that I lifted that boulder off of your kid…oh, but thank you so much for that glass of water, it’s delicious, I was so thirsty!” Sound at all familiar?

There is a difference between self-esteem and self-worth and I think they too often get mixed up. There isn’t much to be said for someone who thinks their shit doesn’t stink because someone always told them how wonderful they are; self-esteem without unselfish acts is just bravado. But self-worth that comes from even the smallest acts of kindness is a foundation to be built on and trusted. It allows us to know and show our basic humanity, and to act in ways that help us remember the world isn’t here to reflect only our joys and needs.

Most of us are a mix of both feelings: the cheeky bravado AND the self-effacing minimalist. So the true secret is this: practice holding the paradox that both exist, and see what new thing emerges. Usually we’re so busy pushing unwanted or uncomfortable feelings away that we don’t allow ourselves to rest in the gap, where the real juicy truth lives. My invitation to you? Spend some time in the gap, the space between what you know and what you don’t yet (or don’t allow yourself) to know. Take a few deep breaths and feel both places within you…find out what happens when you rest in the question. And here’s a poem to point the way:

After Walking Meditation
Look in the mirror and ask,
When do you give the same warm, open smile to yourself
  that you give to others?
The ones passing in quiet contemplation.
The supermarket clerk.
The turbaned man who pumps your gas.
Any stranger in the world receives this radiance,
  any being at all
  until you gaze into the mirror.
Then you see only hair that is unruly,
  eyes ringed with dark and droop.
Teeth that could be whiter, or straighter, and when
  are you going to fix that chip?
Gaze upon that person in the mirror with the same
  compassionate acceptance that is given to others
  so joyfully and automatically.
She is worthy.
She is beautiful.
She is weary.
She is waiting.