Saturday, August 4, 2012

Musings on Self-Esteem and Good Cheer

I once heard a doctor who had done quite a number of gastric bypass or stomach stapling procedures make an interesting observation about his patients:  "Miserable people who don't like to change don't turn into happy people who make healthy changes just because they lose weight."  Or, in other words, those people who came to him after making genuine, concerted efforts to change their lifestyle but were unable to drop substantial weight for various physiological reasons and were simply unhappy about the effect the the extra weight had on their health were still happy (but much thinner and healthier) people after surgery.  Those who were unhappy people generally and were also overweight were often surprised and discouraged to discover that simply being thinner didn't make them a whole lot happier, and often regain a great deal of weight.

We see this same truth replayed in many movies and books and plays about a lack of money.  People who are unhappy and blame that unhappiness on poverty suddenly make it big and discover that, much to their surprise, they still aren't all that happy.  If you can't learn to be happy without money, chances are good that you won't ever have much of it.

The bigger point is that we are responsible for our own happiness, whatever our circumstances in life.  It is not your money (or lack thereof), or your pants size, or your fancy house (or lack thereof), or even the opinions (especially ill-informed or incorrect ones) of those around you that make you happy or unhappy, unless you let those things control you.  It is, in fact, a terrible error to allow our circumstances to dictate our disposition.  The Lord commands--not suggests, not implies, but clearly and directly compels--"be of good cheer".  There are many reasons for that, not the least of which is that to do so makes the trials and privations of mortal life more bearable not only for ourselves, butfor those around us, as well.

I have had times where I have felt as though I have been so relentlessly criticized for so long that I begin to feel like I can't seem to ever get anything right, that those doing the criticizing don't understand how hard I'm trying, or how much it hurts to hear over and over.  When I feel that way, I find that I usually have two options:  I can sit and stew about, get angry, cry, feel sorry for myself, which turns into a ball of bitterness that is difficult to shake; or I can find a quiet spot to engage in honest, heartfelt prayer.  When I get on my knees, I have someone listening who will let me cry it all out without contradicting me or correcting me or being irritated at my neediness.  I can engage all of that emotion openly, and then the Spirit can nudge me into the more productive part of my prayer:  sorting out those parts of the criticism that may be correct and justified, no matter how those criticisms were delivered, and tossing the rest of it out of my mind and out of my heart.  If I do that with a genuine willingness to change my own behavior, to truly improve myself, He will help me to change the parts of me that do need changing, while bringing peace and comfort to my heart.  He binds up my little broken heart so that I can be proactive rather than bitter, forgiving rather than damned in my progress by my own self-pity.

I cannot change anyone else.  But if I am going to influence their behavior toward me, I have found that the most effective way to do so is to be flexible, to ask questions rather than try to explain, to be outwardly focused, to be of good cheer.  When I succeed in behaving that way, in making progress by making healthy changes, I often find in retrospect that there was never need for much of the hurt anyway.  I often discover that things I thought were accusations were merely questions; actions I saw as thoughtless were merely part of trying to serve a picture much bigger than simply my little wants; criticisms that I thought were borne out of unkindness were actually meant to be constructive--a desperate attempt to get through my thick head how I was making myself miserable.

As much as it may be tempting to push off on them sometimes, beyond a few years into young adulthood, our parents are not responsible for our self-esteem.  Our children are not responsible for our self-esteem (a fact that will probably turn into a mantra for me sometime in the next 10 years, I imagine), and even as important and precious as our relationships with them are, our spouses are not responsible for our self-esteem.  When we focus on the things that we don't like in our lives, the ways things didn't go the way we wanted them to, and the blessings we don't have, we often fail to realize how much it effects our attitude and behavior, and how much the resulting behavior can hurt, anger and frustrate those who care about us.  We can easily become so bitter about the blessings we lack and the trials we have that we end up pushing our greatest blessings out of our lives, and we don't see it happening because our own feelings and our own actions always seem to make perfect sense to us, they seem perfectly justifiable to us, and so we start focusing on ourselves and how and why we are misunderstood, instead of focusing on understanding those around us, and why they may feel the way they do, or perceive things the way they do.  We lose our sense of good cheer and start turning into tired malcontents who cannot be pleased because, in truth, we're looking for the wrong things.

The good news is that we have the power at any point to stop that cycle.  At any moment, we can go to our knees and tell the Lord how we're feeling, and then sincerely, humbly ask, "Lord, what would thou have me do?"  I know from many of my own experiences that if we ask, and really mean it, he will help us mend what's broken in ourselves, and strengthen what's not.  He will help us to see the best in those around us, despite their flaws or occasional failings in the way they behave toward us.  He will help us to recognize the ways that they show their love for us, and focus on those things.  He will open our eyes to the bounty of blessings with which we are surrounded.

Making those changes, accepting criticisms that are hard to hear, is tremendously challenging.  Being grateful and looking on the bright side in spite of our tribulations is not easy--it is one of the biggest challenges of mortality.  But as Nephi said, the Lord gives no commandments to his children without preparing a way for them to accomplish the things that he has commanded.  We are able to be of good cheer because he has overcome the world and we "encircled eternally in the arms of his love".  He anxiously looks for more opportunities to help shoulder our burdens.  As we develop a personal relationship with the Savior and genuinely and consistently work steadily with him to smooth and polish our rough edges, the criticisms don't have the sting they once did.  They still hurt, and sometimes when they contain too much truth they can cut pretty deep.  But if the Savior knows you are humbly doing the work to strengthen that weakness, you will be at peace with him, and so the hurt won't last.

Each of us is responsible for our own life and for the person that we are.  While I'm sure the Savior understands better than anyone the effects that others have upon us, when it come right to that last moment as we stand before our Savior to be judged, we can't be faced with our weaknesses and sins we haven't repented of and start saying, "Well, I know that's not OK, but it really HIS fault."  This isn't a police interrogation where you can get less time for rolling on the other guy--you own your life.  You.  We can have little shadows of that moment in prayer where we get an honest look at our standing with the Lord, and we can say, "Well, my dad picked on me, so its his fault I'm this way", or we can say, "Whatever brought me to this point, Lord, this is where I am.  How do I move forward? What would thou have me do?"  Until we can honestly say that, with a heart willing to do the work necessary to make those changes, both good cheer and self-esteem will elude us.  Because when it comes right down to it, both self-esteem and the positivity that accompanies it come from hard earned personal progress and an abiding faith in the power of the Atonement. Without that, no amount of validation from the world or anyone in it will ever make us happy.

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