Henry James and ‘the sin of self-esteem’

Whether you suffer from high or low self-esteem, you might find self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-motivation kinder to yourself, and to others.

‘It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage. Meanwhile her errors and delusions were frequent, such as a biographer interested in preserving the dignity of his subject must shrink from specifying. Her thoughts were a tangle of vague outlines which had never been corrected by the judgement of people speaking with authority. In matters of opinion she had had her own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags. At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organisation (she couldn’t help knowing her organisation was fine), should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic.’

Henry James. The Portrait of a Lady (volume I).

Henry James and the sin of self-esteem
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By far the most common meaning of ‘high self-esteem’ is evaluating oneself positively; in other words, making and believing positive self-judgements and self-appraisals. (This is often described as prizing, appreciating or approving of oneself.) Now keeping to this popular meaning of the term, please do the following quiz. Answer each statement true or false:

  • Boosting your self-esteem will improve your performance.
  • People with high self-esteem are more likeable, have better relationships, and make a better impression on others.
  • People with high self-esteem make better leaders.

Before I give you the answers, let’s go back in time to 2003. In that year, the American Psychological Association commissioned a ‘Self-esteem Task Force’ to investigate if the claims above (and many other similar ones) were true. So a team of four psychologists from top universities – Roy Baumeister, Jennifer Campbell, Joachim Krueger and Kathleen Vohs – systematically ploughed through decades of published research on self-esteem. They looked long and hard for firm scientific evidence to either confirm or refute these popular beliefs. Then they published their results in an influential journal called Psychological Science in the Public Interest. And what did they find? All three of the above statements are false! They also found that:

  • High self-esteem correlates with egotism, narcissism and arrogance.
  • High self-esteem correlates with prejudice and discrimination.
  • High self-esteem correlates with self-deception and defensiveness when faced with honest feedback.

And as if this news weren’t bad enough by itself, when people with low self-esteem try to boost it through positive self-affirmations, they generally end up feeling even worse!

So if trying to raise self-esteem is not worth the effort, then what’s the alternative?

Self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-motivation are all far more important than self-esteem.

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.

Acknowledge your pain

Avoiding unpleasant situations works in the physical word, but avoiding unpleasant thoughts or feelings can make your pain worse.

He went into his bedroom and brought back an object in a paper bag.

‘Do you know what this is?’ He pulled out a small bottle of Jack Daniels. ‘I’ve kept this bottle for ten years, ever since I got sober, to remind me of what I overcame, to remind me that I’m stronger than any addiction. But do you know how long I looked at this bottle last night? Do you know how long I considered taking a drink?’

She bit her lip, saying nothing.

‘All night,’ Seb said, glaring at her. ‘I looked at this goddamn bottle all night long.’ He slammed it onto the table. ‘But I didn’t drink. You know why? Because I’m stronger than it. And you’re stronger than whatever it is that’s been trying to sabotage what we have together.’

‘I told you I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘What else can I say?’

‘Are you even hearing me? You don’t solve problems by avoiding them – by drinking or running off with some guy. You need to face what’s hurting you, and acknowledge it, or you’ll never have the life you want. Not with me or with anyone else, Marika. The only way out of your pain is through it. And I wish it were easier, but it’s not. As long as you resist what hurts, you’re going to resist life—can you get that?’

‘I’m trying.’

Kira Salak. The White Mary: a novel.

Acknowledge your pain
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Imagine you wake up one morning and just outside your front door you find an adorable tiger kitten mewing. Of course you bring the cuddly little guy inside to keep as a pet. After playing with him for a while, you notice he is still mewing, nonstop, and you realize he must be hungry. You feed him a bit of bloody, red ground beef knowing that’s what tigers like to eat. You do this every day, and every day your pet tiger grows a little bigger. Over the course of two years, your tiger’s daily meals change from hamburger scraps, to prime rib, to entire sides of beef. Soon your little pet no longer mews when hungry. Instead, he growls ferociously at you whenever he thinks it’s mealtime. Your cute little pet has turned into an uncontrollable, savage beast that will tear you apart if he doesn’t get what he wants.

Your struggle with your pain can be compared to this imaginary pet tiger. Every time you empower your pain by feeding it the red meat of experiential avoidance, you help your pain-tiger grow a little bit larger and a little bit stronger. Feeding it in this manner seems like the prudent thing to do. The pain-tiger growls ferociously telling you to feed it whatever it wants or it will eat you. Yet, every time you feed it, you help the pain to become stronger, more intimidating, and more controlling of your life.

Consider the possibility, as unlikely as it may seem, that it’s not just that these avoidance strategies haven’t worked—it’s that they can’t work. Avoidance only strengthens the importance and the role of whatever you are avoiding—in other words, when you avoid dealing with your problem, it only grows.

Steven C. Hayes & Spencer Smith. Get Out Of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Accept your beautiful mind

Movie week on the Fiction Therapist continues with A Beautiful Mind.

Although John Nash, a brilliant mathematician suffering from schizophrenia, knows his hallucinations won’t stop, he takes a moment to say goodbye to the characters created by his mind.

A Beautiful Mind. Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar. Nominated for eight Academy awards and won four, including best picture.

An excellent example of acceptance appears in A Beautiful Mind, a 2001 movie about John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner in economics. The movie portrays his struggles with psychotic symptoms throughout his life. One of the powerful aspects of this movie is that the viewers see things from John Nash’s perspective and therefore get to experience what it’s like to be overwhelmed by images, thoughts, and feelings that are totally in his mind. As the movie progresses, the viewers, like the main character, experience a change in perspective as the hallucinations are revealed to be passengers on his bus (our wording). That is, the main character starts treating these very convincing, often flattering persons as characters convincing, often flattering persons as characters conjured up by his mind and not what they claim they are: an FBI agent recruiting him for a special assignment or a best friend who rescues him from his loneliness. In a very moving scene toward the end of the film, John tells the images, “I will not be able to speak to you anymore” and walks away. It is understood that although he will no longer be engaging in conversations with them, these characters created by his mind will continue to follow him.

Victoria M. Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello. Finding Life Beyond Trauma: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Heal from Post-traumatic Stress and Trauma-related Problems.

Living with loneliness

Loneliness can be a crippling feeling. Richard Ford described it as waiting in a line where the front gets farther and farther away. Try, for just one second, to willingly stand in that line.

Living with loneliness
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Loneliness, I’ve read, is like being in a long line, waiting to reach the front where it’s promised something good will happen. Only the line never moves, and other people are always coming in ahead of you, and the front, the place where you want to be, is always farther and farther away until you no longer believe it has anything to offer you.

Richard Ford. Canada.

‘I once worked briefly with a patient of a close colleague of mine. I was consulted on the case. The patient felt such terrible loneliness that she believed that if she willingly allowed herself to feel its far-reaching effects, she would be destroyed by its intensity. Her marriage had broken up, she had no job, she lacked adequate education to find anything but the most menial employment, her friends had abandoned her, she was barely surviving on disability insurance, and she’d tried to commit suicide and failed. Her life seemed absolutely empty and meaningless. In a therapy session, my colleague and I asked if she would allow herself to feel her loneliness, and she kept saying no until we got her down to agree to be fully willing for one second. She agreed to feel lonely openly and without defense for one second. That was a start.

‘After months of working with ACT she terminated therapy. Years passed. We’d completely lost track of her but she called a few weeks ago. Now, more than a decade later, she has a degree, a job, a partner, friends, and a purpose. She has a life. She walked through hell to get there, one moment at a time. And that journey started somewhere. It started with her willingness to feel lonely, to feel it deliberately without any defenses, as you might reach out to feel a fine fabric, for one single solitary second.’

Steven C. Hayes & Spencer Smith. Get Out Of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Creativity in hopelessness

When you feel have tried everything, and yet still cannot solve your problem, that is the moment when you can get creative and find solutions where you thought there were none.

Hopelessness in this case doesn’t mean despair; it is creative hopelessness because it allows for new things to emerge.
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‘This one thing I have done well, this I like, this I must praise, that there is now an end to that hatred against myself, to that foolish and dreary life! I praise you, Siddhartha, after so many years of foolishness, you have once again had an idea, have done something, have heard the bird in your chest singing and have followed it!

‘Thus he praised himself, found joy in himself, listened curiously to his stomach, which was rumbling with hunger. He had now, so he felt, in these recent times and days, completely tasted and spit out, devoured up to the point of desperation and death, a piece of suffering, a piece of misery. Like this, it was good. For much longer, he could have stayed with Kamaswami, made money, wasted money, filled his stomach, and let his soul die of thirst; for much longer he could have lived in this soft, well upholstered hell, if this had not happened: the moment of complete hopelessness and despair, that most extreme moment, when he hang over the rushing waters and was ready to destroy himself. That he had felt this despair, this deep disgust, and that he had not succumbed to it, that the bird, the joyful source and voice in him was still alive after all, this was why he felt joy, this was why he laughed, this was why his face was smiling brightly under his hair which had turned gray.’

Herman Hesse. Siddharta.

In common, everyday language, hopelessness is not an acceptable state of mind. Therapists often work hard to counter feelings of hopelessness and to instill optimism about the future. However, seeing a hopeless situation as hopeless is not a bad thing. If the client can give up on what hasn’t been working, maybe there is something else to do. Thus, in this phase of ACT, the therapist tries to help the client face hopelessness, but as a kind of creative act. The goal is not to elicit a feeling of hopelessness or a belief in hopelessness; instead, the objective is to engender a posture of giving up strategies when giving up is called for in the service of larger goals, even if what comes next is not known. When a client is caught in a self-defeating struggle, it is important to acknowledge it. Hopelessness in this case doesn’t mean despair; it is creative hopelessness because it allows for new things to emerge.

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change.

A meditation on death

Author PD James, who died yesterday (27 November 2014), wrote often about the acceptance of death. It’s a difficult concept, and mindfulness meditation can help us see death as part of life.

‘We all die alone. We shall endure death as once we endured birth. You can’t share either experience.’

P.D. James. The Children of Men

Author PD James on the loneliness of death, and birth: ‘You can’t share either experience.’
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‘Life and death are but two faces of one reality. Once we realize that we will have the courage to encounter both of them. Now I see that if one doesn’t know how to die, one can hardly know how to live – because death is a part of life.

We must look death in the face, recognize and accept it, just as we look at and accept life.

When I was only 19 years old, I was assigned by an older monk to meditate on the image of a corpse in the cemetery. But I found it very hard to take and resisted the meditation. Now I no longer feel that way. Then I thought that such a meditation should be reserved for older monks. But since then, I have seen many young soldiers lying motionless beside one another, some only 13, 14, and 15 years old. They had no preparation or readiness for death. Now I see that if one doesn’t know how to die, one can hardly know how to live-because death is a part of life.

We must look death in the face, recognize and accept it, just as we look at and accept life. The Buddhist Sutra on Mindfulness speaks about the meditation on the corpse: meditate on the decomposition of the body, how the body bloats and turns violet, how it is eaten by worms until only bits of blood and flesh still cling to the bones, meditate up to the point where only white bones remain, which in turn are slowly worn away and turn into dust. Meditate like that, knowing that your own body will undergo the same process. Meditate on the corpse until you are calm and at peace, until your mind and heart are light and tranquil and a smile appears on your face. Thus, by overcoming revulsion and fear, life will be seen as infinitely precious, every second of it worth living. And it is not just our own lives that are recognized as precious, but the lives of every other person, every other person, every other being, every other reality. We can no longer be deluded by the notion that the destruction of others’ lives is necessary for our own survival. We see that life and death are but two faces of Life and that without both, Life is not possible, just as two sides of a coin are needed for the coin to exist.’

Thich Nhiit Hanh. The miracle of mindfulness. Translation by Mobi Ho.

Getting along with your inner critic

The mind can be a writer’s harshest critic, and it never seems to shut up. But you don’t need to pay attention to what it says. Just accept that it’s there and keep writing.

Advice from author Anne Lamott’s on dealing with a writer’s harshest critic: the mind.
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‘I’d start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible. I’d write a lead paragraph that was a whole page, and the critics would be sitting on my shoulders, commenting like cartoon characters. They’d be pretending to snore, or rolling their eyes at my overwrought descriptions, no matter how hard I tried to tone those descriptions down.
But I would eventually let myself trust the process—sort of, more or less. I’d write a first draft that was maybe twice as long as it should be. The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft.

The next day, though, I’d sit down, go through it all with a colored pen, take out everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere on the second page, figure out a kicky place to end it, and then write a second draft. It always turned out fine, sometimes even funny and weird and helpful. I’d go over it one more time and mail it in.

Then, a month later, when it was time for another review, the whole process would start again, complete with the fears that people would find my first draft before I could rewrite it.’

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird.

One woman announced that she was just beginning to write her annual end of-the-year letter to friends and family in February. She felt obliged to write a little personal note on each copy of the letter, which she anticipated would take another month. While examining procrastination she realized that she was delaying because once the letters were mailed, she might find that they were not perfect. This is an example of how the Inner Critic gets us coming and going. If she does mail the letters and they are not perfect, the Inner Critic will beat her up. If she delays in an attempt to make them perfect, and thus mails the letters late, or never, the Inner Critic will still be upset. There is no winning in the land of the Inner Critic. Its only job is to criticize, and it does this job well.’

Jan Chozen Bays. How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness.

Break through your NaNoWriMo barriers

After seven days of NaNoWriMo, many writers, like their heroes, will be facing their own obstacles. The key is to be flexible as you follow your path and achieve your ultimate goal.

Break through your NaNoWriMo barriers
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All heroes encounter obstacles on the road to adventure. At each gateway to a new world there are powerful guardians at the threshold, placed to keep the unworthy from entering. They present a menacing face to the hero, but if properly understood, they can be overcome, bypassed, or even turned into allies. Many heroes (and many writers) encounter Threshold Guardians, and understanding their nature can help determine how to handle them.

Christopher Vogler. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

In the process of engaging in life-goal directed activities, clients inevitably encounter barriers. Most of the time, they are related to anxiety-related concerns that literally seem to hold clients back. An important recurrent task for therapists … is to help clients handle barriers to committed action and focus on making and keeping action commitments and on recommitting to action after they have broken a commitment. The focus is on teaching clients how to move with potential barriers rather than try to overcome or push through them. Therapists constantly encourage clients to stay with difficult situations, unpleasant feelings, thoughts, and other anxiety-related barriers to valued living by practicing mindful acceptance and defusion skills. The major goal here is to help clients develop more flexible patterns of behavior when relating with the stimuli, events, and situations that elicit fear or anxiety.

Georg H. Eifert, John P. Forsyth, Joanna Arch, Emmanuel Espejo and David Langer. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Three Case Studies Exemplifying a Unified Treatment Protocol.

The demons within

Demons don’t only exist in Halloween stories or scary movies. They can appear in all of us, stopping us from making progress in life. Until we accept them.

Halloween: The demons within
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‘In films such as Tightrope, Lethal Weapon, Angel Heart, and The Morning After, the detective himself became the psycho, suffering from a wide variety of modern maladies sexual obsession, suicidal impulse, traumatic amnesia, alcoholism. In these films the key to justice became the cop’s psychoanalysis of himself. Once the detective came to terms with his inner demons, apprehending the criminal was almost an afterthought.

This evolution was a telling statement about our changing society. Gone was the day when we could comfort ourselves with the notion that all the crazy people were locked up, while we sane people were safely outside the asylum walls. Few of us are so naive today. We know that, given a certain conjunction of events, we too could part company with reality. These Psycho-Thrillers spoke to this threat, to our realization that our toughest task in life is self-analysis as we try to fathom our humanity and bring peace to the wars within.’

Robert McKee. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

‘I don’t want to live surrounded by demons!’ Well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you already are. And those demons will keep showing up, again and again, as soon as you start to take your life in a valued direction. Why so? Again, it all stems back to evolution. Remember, the mind of our ancestors had one overriding imperative: ‘Don’t get killed!’ And an important factor in not getting yourself killed is to get to know your environment. The better you know the terrain and the local wildlife then, obviously, the safer you are; whereas venturing into unknown territory exposes you to all sorts of exotic dangers. So if one of our ancestors decided to explore a new area, his mind would go into a state of red alert. ‘Look out!’ ‘Be careful!’ ‘Could be a crocodile in that pond or a leopard in the bushes!’ And thanks to evolution, our modern minds do the same, only far more extensively.

Thus, as soon as we start to do something new, our mind will start warning us: ‘You might fail’, ‘You might make a mistake’, ‘You might get rejected.’ It warns us with negative thoughts, with disturbing images or bad memories, and with uncomfortable feelings and sensations. And all too often we let these warnings stop us from taking our lives in the direction we really want.’

Russ Harris. The Happiness Trap.