I am, by all accounts, a person who should be doing ok in the self-esteem department. My parents were bleeding-heart, 60s-style, brown-rice-eating leftists, which is to say I was never, as far as I can remember, punished. Not once. I am part of that much-beloved generation, the Millennials (just kidding, we are widely reviled and lamented), so everyone got a trophy for effort at my sporting events growing up. We as a generation are not shy about seeking out and giving positive feedback. I have drunk deep the milk of feminism so I'm ok with my body just the way it is, at least conceptually. I have successfully graduated college and medical school, completed residency, and am employed as a physician. I have a sweet little family that brings me much delight. Basically, there should be a lot of positive self-talk going on in this little head of mine.
Instead, here is a selected list of thoughts I had during just one hour last week, when I was doing some last minute preparation for an important work meeting:
1. I am a failure.
2. All the things I am doing are never going to amount to anything.
3. Other people would be more prepared than I am.
4. If only I had _________ (fill in the blank with more than 25 different alternate universe scenarios ranging from having gotten up earlier to having chosen a different profession)
5. I'm so disorganized.
6. I will never make enough money.
7. Some people have five children and are full-time physicians. I only have one child. Why can't I get my shit together?
8. I am a terrible mother.
Now let me be clear: on a meta-level, I don't believe these things. Rationally, I know they are distortions. If I step out of the den of snakes that is my mind, I can objectively see that I am doing ok, certainly not without my flaws (or as my rabbi says: "growing edges" -- see #5 above), but also certainly a person of value. I know that I contribute important things at work, at home, and in my community. But then there is THIS VOICE UP THERE -- let's call her Harriet -- that just keeps going at me. Harriet has been going at me for (at least) 25 of the last 35 years and I wasn't even aware of it until last week! How could I have not noticed it, all this time? I think I just heard it as the truth.
It's tempting to lay blame for the existence of Harriet on a long list of factors: the endless disempowering and judgmental messages that girls absorb from an early age about their bodies, their successes, their worth; the harsh social conditioning of medical training; the unreasonable demands modern society makes on parents and/or doctors and/or the middle class; the wildly increased expectations for connectedness and task completion potentiated by technology; and on and on and on. On the other hand, maybe Harriet is just a function of my own tendency toward anxiety and perfectionism. Certainly, Harriet is at her worst when I am exhausted, stressed, or overworked. But something tells me I'm not the only one with a Harriet in their head, which is why I'm writing this. Because it is time for Harriet to go. I deserve better. We deserve better. We deserve the kind of whole-hearted love we give our children and our patients and our friends.
Since last week, I've been noticing these thoughts and have been consciously challenging them as much as possible. You are a bad mother, Harriet says, as I leave my daughter at daycare after a rushed morning. Bad mother, eh? I counter. I show a lot of tenderness and care for my child and prioritize her well-being and our time together as much as I can. You never accomplish anything, Harriet says. Really? I say. What about Thing X or Thing Y or Thing Z? Those things went pretty well. It doesn't feel natural to say nice things about myself to myself -- in fact, I don't even believe these things as I am saying them. But I think you can grow into the truth of your own ok-ness.
So for all of you out there who may be wrestling with your own negative voices, I'll leave you with a beautiful poem by Derek Wolcott that is resonating with me as I try to exorcise my own. May the voice in your head be that of a great lover and friend!
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.