Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Self Esteem and the Reality-Based Community

I once gave what I still consider to be good advice to a friend who shall not be named. The advice was to pretend that she lived in the reality-based community.

This friend did not think very highly of herself, but pretty much the rest of the world thought she was the cat's meow. Generally, if most people think a thing is true, it is (OK, that statement is so wrong, I don't even know where to begin--creationism? the musical value of Britney Spears?--but I need it to write this post, so can I just leave it?) (Except, oh no, what if it disqualifies the whole post? Shit. Well, I'm in now, so I might as well keep going; we'll reevaluate at the end.). Anyway, I argued that, rather than wallowing in her own negative self-image, she should pretend that the rest of the world was correct in their assessment of her--she didn't need to actually believe that she was the cat's meow; she just needed to operate as if she believed it, and that in turn would stop the negative self-image from being such an obstacle for her.

Hmm, I never asked her if this advice worked. Man, maybe I should just give up on this post, instead of digging myself in even deeper. No, I am intrepid, I am confessional, I shall go on.

Advice is much easier to give than to follow.

I recently lost a big chunk of my work for complicated reasons that have not so much to do with me and much to do with the circumstances of the work. Hmm, that sounds like a layoff. It's not a layoff; it's a distinct rejection of me, complete with rationalizations and underlying motives, but the bottom line is that I am great at this work, and I was prevented from doing the job effectively, and other people have issues, and I am being replaced. Oh dear, that sounds like I am rationalizing, but you'll have to take my word for it: on the facts of my no longer having this work, I am very much a member of the reality-based community, and a somewhat indignant but also relieved one at that, because, really, doing this work, which should have been perfect for me, sucked a lot, because of the circumstances. As for the consequences, my other major client is thrilled that I now have more availability and is determined to pounce on me for lots more hours, so I am likely to live happily ever after, or at least as happily as one can live when one has no idea what one wants to do with one's life in the worst recession of one's lifetime.

OK, blah blah, very nice, what's the problem?

The problem is that even though the entire world, basically, is rallying behind me in indignation, I still feel, sometimes, that basically I do totally suck, I have never succeeded in much of anything, and this really was my fault. Believe me, I have the evidence. And I spiral spin down into doldrums of bleakness, and hate myself, and think all those people who think I'm great at what I do must either be wrong or lying. And then I hate myself for being so dependent on other people's opinions of me that I can hate myself for losing work I didn't even want, and decide I am worthless because other people must be lying about my worth.

At those moments, the reality-based community seems a faraway figment of someone else's imagination.

But here's the good thing about this current intermittent bout of self-loathing. It is, in its intermittency, mercifully short-lived. I had a bad period this morning, after an unpleasant interaction, and I wrote the first three paragraphs of this post. Then I went on with my day, and eventually I felt fine again, which, thankfully, is what seems to be happening most of the time (which is kind of unusual for me: generally I do bad with occasional bouts of good, so I am quite thrilled by fine with occasional bouts of bad, except during the bad).

Hmm, how do I wrap this up? I think, now that I am fine again, that I stand by my contention about the reality-based community. If, overall, one has gotten highly positive validation on most fronts, one should accept the value. However, the problem of judging one's worth on the basis of the judgement of others remains, and that, I think, is one of my biggest problems, and I just have no idea how to get away from it.


Jenny Davidson said...

It is a tricky question. (The term "reality-based community" SLIGHTLY makes me laugh! The trouble is that it is so easy to hold conflicting or even directly contradictory views of oneself...)

Jackie said...

I am a good teacher. I have gotten consistently good student evaluations at all of the schools in which I have taught, and whenever observed by colleagues, I get excellent feedback. Even before I was teaching, I was an excellent employee at every job I've ever had.

However, in my first year at my current job, midway through my class, a secretary knocked on my classroom door to tell me "that I should be in the auditorium right after class." Instantly, I became convinced that I was about to be fired in a publicly humiliated way, Lottery-style, in front of the whole assembled school. It took me hours to get over that feeling.

So yeah, I often have trouble dwelling in the reality-based community as well.

Libby said...

I'm currently chairing a committee. After every meeting, someone (often the same someone, but not always) tells me what a great job I'm doing. My immediate response is to wonder why s/he feels the need to say this, rather than simply to accept the affirmation. Hmmm.

(Then again, even though it's now been ten years, the almost-not-getting-tenure thing is hard to get over...)

landismom said...

Heh. Right before I read this, I read an email from someone who is coming to my city from DC tomorrow to have an emergency meeting, and the first thing I thought when I heard that was, "I wonder if they're replacing me?"

So it gets around, that insecurity.

Dawn said...

It's April Fool's Day so I was going to go, "Yeah, you suck!" but then I thought that isn't funny even as a joke.

Seeing Kelly was awesome. The only thing that was missing was you. So I think we should all meet up at the Neiman Conference next year. What do you say?

Kelly said...

I struggle wildly with this too. I'm kind of amazed at how I know not one single man who thinks about these things. Or if they think about it, they aren't saying so to me.