Monday, April 17, 2017
There was recently some discussion on a friend's blog/instagram I follow about happiness, self esteem, body image etc. with tag lines like "Your authentic self is your most beautiful self." I only mention this as a jumping off point for why I have had these particular ideas running through my mind lately. I won't go into detail on her approach to these topics but rather want to do a little discovery of my own through thinking over and writing about how I feel in respect to these concerns that a lot of women have and struggle with. I have learned that pondering and writing about my feelings leads me to receive what I'll call personal revelation on various areas in my life. So without having really given it much thought yet - here I go.
What makes me happy? That question is problematic, as if something else is responsible for my happiness other than myself. Sure, I say all the time that my kids make me happy, John makes me happy, looking pretty makes me happy, eating delicious food makes me happy. But what I really mean is that I like those things. I even love some of those things. But they don't make me happy. My love for them makes me happy.
A more appropriate question might be "What is the source of my happiness?"
Well, it's me. I've already established that anything outside of myself cannot make me happy. My feelings about and response to things outside of myself is where my happiness comes from. Recently Gordon clogged the sink with toilet paper causing the sink to overflow and flood the bathroom floor. I wasn't thrilled to have to clean it (and him) up. But I laughed at the fact that I have a two year old now and this is one of the first classic terrible two behaviors he's exhibited. I reflected on how crazy it is that I've been a mom for two whole years, how fast it's gone by, how much I love it, and how much more we have ahead of us. Did that event make me happy? No. But I reacted to it in a positive way and was still happy by the time it was over.
Let's imagine I'm in a terrible mood for whatever reason. John, the sweet boy that he is, comes home from work with a bouquet of flowers, sodalicious, and a cookie for me. I know of nicer gestures that have been rejected by women in a bad mood. My point being, his actions and those gifts alone can't make me change my mood. It's not a given. It's not magic. It does require work (on my part!). Let's say the reason I was in a bad mood is because I was mad at John for something he did and the gifts were his way of apologizing. If I choose to hold a resentment and not forgive him and hang on to that anger, his attempts to make amends won't be effective. If I humble myself, change my heart, and forgive, I can allow happiness back into my life.
But life, as well as this post, isn't just be about happiness. It's about joy - a more true lasting permanent happiness that comes from... where?
Again, me. But more specifically my identity as a daughter of God. That, I believe, is where my self worth originates. Before I was anything else, I was and am and will always be a daughter of God. That will never change. And almost everything else will or may. That is my divine nature. I have inherited divine qualities that I will strive to develop. Yes that's straight out of my personal progress book. Knowing that I am a daughter of a King, of a Heavenly Father who loves me and I love Him, that is where my self worth comes from. That cannot be changed.
When I'm presented with an opportunity to doubt my self worth, whether that is by comparing myself to other women's bodies, accomplishments, belongings, privileges, talents, etc. I just flat out say NO. I literally have a mental image of a heavy metal door, the kind used to close up a shop on a city street, slamming shut. I stop that thought in it's tracks and move on. If it's while I'm scrolling through instagram, I stop. I set my phone down and go do something else. I don't entertain those thoughts. They are a waste of my time, energy, everything. No good can come from doubting one's self worth.
I know this because I have a lot of experience giving in to those temptations of comparison. It always ends the same way - going down the dark depressing road to personal apathy - apathy toward myself and my life as we are. It's the opposite of the healthy self love and acceptance we should be working to cultivate. Essentially wishing I could be someone else, someone with a better, happier, prettier, more fun, easy life. I tend to use those very superficial examples of comparison but there's more - wishing I was smarter, more hard working, more creative, talented, dedicated, had more energy, was more clever, articulate, and witty, was more spiritual, righteous, virtuous, had more spiritual experiences, was more selfless, etc. Even truly admirable qualities that we ought to strive to develop can be twisted to cause us to compare and feel inadequate, causing major self esteem issues.
Self esteem - I don't claim to know exactly how it differs from self worth, but I get the feeling that it's more volatile. It can fluctuate from day to day. It is what we think and feel and believe about ourselves. And some days I think I look great, my makeup is done especially well, I'm wearing an outfit I want to be seen in, I accomplished something I was working on, I tried something new, I was patient with my kids, I made a delicious meal for my husband, I took time to take care of me, etc etc etc. All of those things increase my self esteem. Some days I just want to stay in bed all day, I'm cranky, I yell at my kids, I feel like a bad mom, I don't have a dinner plan, I don't have the energy to go to the grocery store, I failed at something I tried or even worse, I just didn't try at all. I don't really want to say that those things for sure affect my self esteem, but maybe they do? Sure I definitely have hard times where I don't feel awesome about myself and I think more and more those are the times when I lose my cool with my kids. Nothing can make me feel worse than that really. But overall I feel very blessed to have a robust sense of self worth. You can't tell me I'm not good enough because I already know that I am. Sorry, just not gonna happen. I know who I am, I know God's plan. That's kinda my strong suit.
But I wasn't always this way. I had what I'll call conditional or situational self esteem issues starting as young as elementary school. In some circles I was a confident go getter that never thought twice about how other's perceived me. While among other groups of people I would just try to blend in with the walls. If no one noticed me, no one would notice how less than or different I was. It was mild comparison in elementary school. I dressed like kind of a tom boy but not really by choice from what I can recall. I don't know who was picking out my clothes or doing my hair those days but I always felt really scrubby. I would look at the cute girls with shiny blonde hair and actual hairstyles and nice outfits. Around them I just felt like a street rat kid, which I was in a lot of ways. I liked to climb trees and catch salamanders and work on messy arts and crafts projects. But I knew that there was a fashionable way for little girls to dress and that I did not have it.
In middle school I moved away from a predominantly LDS population and became the only Mormon in my school, except for my siblings. I was weirdly primed by members of the Church to believe that it was going to be really hard to be so different. I took their word for it and entered my shy phase. Again described more accurately as a conditional or situational shyness. I remained the same vivacious outgoing kid I always was, sometimes. But I'd also really go into my shell around certain groups of people that intimidated me or I perceived to be better, cooler, more accepted, more talented, more clever than me.
In high school I started to find my groove. I made it work. I had a few friends that were all that mattered to me. I wasn't a social climber. I liked being me. Sometimes it felt really easy. Other times I felt alone and ate lunch in the bathroom because I didn't have anyone to sit with in the cafeteria. I started eating lunch in the library, art room, or leaving school altogether. I did this A LOT in a school where it was not permitted to leave the campus. I never got in trouble because I had learned to blend in with the walls, remember? College was more of the same. Enter social media and lots of time spent comparing myself to others, wanting to be or have what I wasn't/didn't. Kinda started to find my people. Things got easier and eventually led me to where I am today: happily married with two young kids. Which leads me to... probably the single largest daily influence of my self esteem: motherhood.
After Gordon was born I probably didn't look in the mirror for 2 months straight. Partly because I didn't want to see what I didn't want to see. And partly because I just didn't have time! Taking care of a newborn was an all consuming effort and, although I did meet my needs first in order to fully meet my baby's, I also really forgot about myself. And I had never felt more beautiful. Say what? Yes, I just described not wanting to look in the mirror because I didn't like what I saw - and simultaneously felt more beautiful than I had ever in my whole entire life? How does that make any sense? Here is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote when Gordon was almost 5 months old:
Since becoming a mother I have felt more beautiful as a person than I've ever felt in my entire life. When you spend all day everyday staring at the most breathtaking creature in the world (to me) it's pretty easy to feel great. I have not, however, always felt very attractive physically. Sure, I am proud of my postpartum body and the changes it went through in order to bring life into this world. And I'm happy to say I've lost all but 3 pounds of my baby weight. But still, the mirror is not usually my friend. I know it sounds whatever, but today was the second day since I had Gordon that I really felt pretty. And it felt good. Pretty and good.
My identity as a mother had changed the way I felt about myself, what I knew about myself. I knew that I was strong. I knew that I was powerful. I had gone through one of the most painful things imaginable and survived, even thrived. I created a perfect new life with nothing but my own body. Me! I did that! And it was my whole life at that point. Staring into that tiny face made me feel amazing, invincible, and absolutely beautiful.
That feeling has evolved but in many ways remains the same. I love being a mom. I feel a confidence in myself that is different from any I've felt before. My life has a purpose that it has never had before. There are children that depend on me to live. That sounds dramatic but it's true. The actual lives of two people rely on me every single day. In college if I was feeling depressed about something I could stay in bed all day long if I wanted, getting up just to eat and go to the bathroom. Not now. So in one regard motherhood has forced me to up my game as far as staying on top of things, keeping my stuff together, if you know what I mean. And in doing that, caring for the needs of others, and losing myself (in a good way) I have found myself. I have found a self esteem that does fluctuate at times but for the most part stays relatively consistent, as well as a sense of self worth that is unshakeable.
Jesus teaches, as recorded in the bible in many places, that "he that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." One interpretation of this is that in devoting your life to finding yourself, something very common in young adults these days, you'll lose your life. I don't think that means literally dying, but finding yourself even further from the truth and from discovering who you really are. But when we lose ourselves in Christ's work - which for me right now is the work of raising a beautiful sacred family - we find it - joy, confidence, satisfaction, identity, purpose. I have experienced this and have a deep testimony of it.
I have written on one of my planners from my mission the phrase: "If you want to be happy, make someone else happy." Focus on serving others. Your needs will be met and joy will be yours. For me it's a basic principle. Service, Love, Sacrifice.
The last element I want to mention that contributes to my happiness, and therefore self esteem (because this is getting really long!) is passion for life and hobbies. But first let me clarify real quick on one thing. I believe that self esteem is not really something worth pursuing. My theory is that when self worth and happiness/joy are a constant in your life, self esteem will fluctuate minimally and will overall not be problematic for you. Self worth is something you can decide. Self esteem is your evaluation of yourself, what you think and feel and believe about yourself on a day to day basis. Self worth is recognizing that you are greater than all those things. They don't define you. Cultivate a strong immovable unshakeable sense of self worth and learn to choose happiness no matter what. You have the power to respond to life and everything it brings you (or doesnt!) in a manner that promotes happiness.
I am often happiest when I am absorbed in a project. There are a handful of things that I am passionate about - topics that I've researched in depth that are important to me, causes, things that I can make with my own hands. When I get involved in something that is bigger than me, I tend to think less and less about myself and what I lack. I don't dwell on what I don't have or can't do. I automatically focus on what I have to contribute, what I can do.
For example - we bought a house a little less than a year ago. It wasn't my dream house but I started to think to myself, why can't it be? So little by little I started to focus less on what we lack - high ceilings, beautiful finishes, open spaces, etc. and just focus on what I can do. What can I do to make this house into a home that will serve as a safe haven from the world for my family, be a place that we enjoy spending time together, and be something beautiful and functional where I enjoy my work as wife and mother. And then I got busy. And I got swept up in this work that took my mind off myself and my insecurities, problems, inadequacies. I take pride in the work I do. I have turned this old house into a place we all love to be. I have gotten real creative with the limited budget we are working with and done some really cool things and I'm proud of myself!
Since this is really starting to get long and my kids are going to wake up from their naps any minute, I'll just wrap things up by saying that these are the things that work for me. I can only share my own story. I don't know what it is to suffer from severe chronic depression and anxiety, eating disorders, abuse, trauma, etc. If anyone ends up reading this please don't think that I am not sympathetic to the numerous conditions that affect a person's well being. Again, I can only speak to my own experience. I am grateful for a Heavenly Father and Savior that know and love me and are able to comfort me in my times of crisis and guide me through the many periods when I don't know what I'm doing or how to keep going. I know that God lives and loves every one of us and wants for us to be happy. His work and glory is to bring to pass our eternal life and immortality. If you are struggling with self esteem, self worth, or happiness, seek his help - I promise he will not withhold it. Amen!!