Growing up, we learn innumerable things about how the world works and how we’re supposed to fit within it, but not all of us learn to recognize our own worth.
In fact, many of us learn the exact opposite—that we’re not worthy, not good enough, fundamentally lacking, inferior to others, and maybe even a disappointment to those who expected so much from us.
Perhaps more troubling, we may not even realize we believe these things. And if we do develop that awareness, we may then feel ashamed for not being as self-assured as the constant barrage of smiling faces on Facebook.
In case it isn’t abundantly clear, this was my experience growing up, and for many years after.
With a mounting pile of evidence that I deserved to be mistreated, it was easy to conclude that I wasn’t lovable. That it was something I did, or something I was, or something I wasn’t that led to any pain I experienced. That it was my fault.
I’ve since learned it wasn’t my fault—I was always lovable. But it is my responsibility to reinforce this belief by treating myself with kindness, respect, and compassion.
If you’ve struggled with this, as well, you may find tremendous value in Janetti Moratta’s book powerful 50 Mindful Steps to Self-Esteem.
50 Mindful Steps to Self-Esteem offers a blend of simple activities, journaling exercises, and meditation and mindfulness practices to help cultivate self-esteem.
The steps are designed to build on one another, allowing you to become more immersed in your present experience and less tortured by your thoughts about it.
Even if you only devote five minutes a day, the practices can help you increase your self-acceptance and self-compassion to feel more at peace with yourself, flaws and all.
I’m grateful that Janetti took the time to answer a few questions about her book and self-esteem, and that she’s provided two free copies of 50 Mindful Steps to Self-Esteem for Tiny Buddha readers.
To enter to win one of two free copies of 50 Mindful Steps to Self-Esteem:
- Leave a comment below
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You can enter until midnight PST on Friday, June 26th.
1. Tell us a little about yourself and what inspired you to write this book.
After losing several pregnancies and attempting in vitro fertilization (IVF), egg donation, and adoption, my now twenty-year-old daughter was born from surrogacy.
During this six-year crisis, my sense of worth was reduced to a feeling of total inadequacy and failure. I found an East-West spiritual path that led me through this dark tunnel and later discovered mindfulness, which became my life practice.
I brought mindfulness into my work as a psychologist and developed an eight-week mindfulness-based program for fertility that works with the profound issues of self-worth and loss of control at the core of this life crisis.
When your best efforts to have a child fail and there is no control over the outcome, it’s easy to feel broken and compare yourself against others able to become parents.
Mindfulness, which lies at the heart of Buddhist psychology, uses awareness rather than control to meet life challenges and is based on the belief that we are already whole and complete just as we are.
By cultivating qualities of self-acceptance and self-compassion, we can invite our original goodness or “Buddha nature” to rise. Meeting self-esteem from a Buddhist perspective seemed to be the perfect antidote to the “problem of self-esteem” as it relates to the broad spectrum of life challenges.
It was thus my evolution of my own struggle with infertility, personal long-term meditation practice, and professional work as a psychologist inspired me to write 50 Mindful Steps to Self-Esteem.
2. Why do you think so many of us struggle with low self-esteem?
The struggle with low self-esteem is so common because we’re conditioned to look for comfort and security in outside factors that are constantly changing and to fight to lock in a permanent stamp of approval that can never be possible.
This is the “problem of self-esteem” that is part of the human dilemma and in particular at the center of Western culture.
We struggle to accept what Buddha described as the three basic truths of our existence: Life is difficult (suffering), everything changes (impermanence), and there is an ever-fluctuating flow of experience (no self).
As described in the book: We’re unable to control life, we fight against this lack of control, and we take this inability personally.
Our tendency to experience life from the outside-in inclines us to hold on to those parts of ourselves we like and get rid of those parts we dislike. In doing so we reject and abandon certain parts of ourselves. We’re not truly present and available to ourselves, others, or the world.
Our identity is wrapped around stories we tell about ourselves that erroneously confirm feelings of unworthiness.
From this position of vulnerability, we take things personally and wear a protective armor to defend our sense of self or “ego”—assumptions, beliefs, or stories about what we believe to be true.
We find ourselves in “me vs. them” mode, feeling separate and alone.
3. How does mindfulness help us overcome this struggle?
Mindfulness shifts our perspective from outside-in to inside-out: self-worth arises by cultivating qualities that make it possible to embrace all parts of yourself, just as you are. This invites your inherent worth or Buddha nature to come to the surface.
From an open, undefended position, you’re able to be truly present for yourself, others, and the experience of life. You operate from “we” mode and act from a place of kindness and concern.
As you learn to accept that everything changes, you recognize that success and failure wax and wane. When you begin to experience life as an unfolding process, you loosen the confines of defining yourself as being “this or that.”
As described in the 50 Mindful Steps: From a Buddhist perspective, self-esteem can be defined as self without definition.
4. In explaining the “Stop after the first arrow” exercise, you listed several cognitive distortions—thoughts that distort reality and lead us to feel bad about ourselves. Can you share some of these and how mindfulness helps us overcome them?
This exercise is based on the story of Buddha and the arrows to demonstrate the role of thoughts in suffering.
Buddha explains to his students that being struck by an arrow indeed produces unavoidable suffering, but the negative self-talk about having been wounded—i.e. “If only I had been more careful! What if I never walk again?”—is like being struck by a second arrow. This produces “optional suffering.”
The exercise invites you to place yourself into a forward folding yoga pose and for thirty seconds to flood yourself with unwholesome messages or cognitive distortions that lead to feels of negativity—i.e. “I wish I weren’t so stiff; there’s nothing I can do to not feel tight…”—and then to tune into the consequences of these unwholesome thoughts on how you felt emotionally and physically.
The pose is repeated and for another thirty seconds to flood yourself with wholesome messages or cognitive reframes that lead to feelings of positivity—i.e. “I can breathe through the discomfort; I can relax into the stretch.”—and then to tune into the consequences of these wholesome thoughts on how you felt emotionally and physically.
When our sense of self is threatened, we tend to identify with our thoughts and cling to them, causing emotional reactions that only confirm the validity of our thinking—i.e. “I’ll never amount to anything.”
Buddhist psychology contends the cause of mental suffering is due to our beliefs and how tightly we cling to them.
The objective is to loosen your clinging to thoughts and learn how to work with thoughts skillfully. You can then step back and witness thoughts as events as opposed to facts that define who you are.
Insight arises from mindfulness by asking yourself:
- What leads to suffering, and what leads to the end of suffering?
- What are you doing that’s skillful, and what are you doing that’s unskillful?
Focusing on these questions fosters an attitude of curiosity and directs attention not on the why but on the how—how to work with what’s happening.
Mindfulness helps you be with what’s happening and work with it (unavoidable suffering), rather than resist or fight against what’s happening and get stuck in it (optional suffering).
5. What is conditional self-esteem, and how can we start fostering the unconditional kind?
Conditional self-esteem is based on approval: outside evaluations and outcomes that determine your worth.
Mindful self-esteem, on the other hand, is based on self-acceptance: the ability to embrace all parts of yourself, without distinction.
When you focus on what’s wrong, you strive to fill the void in your desperate attempt to be okay. But when you focus on what’s right, you start from the perspective that you accept yourself as you are, with all your inadequacies and imperfections.
Curiously, it’s not until you accept yourself for who you are that you’re free to change. This is the paradox of self-acceptance and is at the forefront of understanding self-esteem from the perspective of mindfulness.
Acceptance, or being with what is, lies at the core of freedom from suffering. Resistance, or fighting against what is, which comes in the form of judgments, expectations, desires, and aversions, stands at the root of suffering.
Believing you have a problem and need to be fixed leads to desires and attachments. But accepting yourself with your assorted defects frees you from getting stuck in the quagmire of resistance.
You can appreciate who you already are: The realization that you’re already whole comes from accepting that this very moment itself is perfect and complete as it is.
Mindfulness teaches that it’s not about trying to change the situation (external factors) but changing your relationship to the situation (internal factors) that makes all the difference.
Whether you’re engaging in the formal practice of meditation, or the informal practice of applying mindfulness through the day, most importantly notice the quality of your attention: How are you meeting yourself and your experience? How are you holding the moment?
Also of central importance, mindfulness teaches to turn toward that which is difficult—to turn toward that which you resist.
Notice your resistance. Resistance comes from wanting what you want and not wanting what you don’t want.
Are you resisting by trying too hard, fighting against what’s happening, or ignoring what’s happening altogether?
Are you judging, criticizing, shutting down, regretting, insisting, impatient, frustrated, angry, obsessed, lacking energy, bored, uninterested…?
Notice resistance in your thoughts, how resistance influences your emotions, and how resistance feels in your body.
Lean into the resistance so you get to know it—i.e. “What thoughts are connected to frustration, how does frustration feel in my body?” “What feelings are connected to judging myself critically, and how does self-judgment feel in my body?”
Notice what happens when you turn toward resistance with acceptance. “What does it feel like to just be with what’s happening in my mind, emotions, and body?” “What does it feel like to meet myself with kindness—to meet myself where I am?” “What does it feel like to want what I have rather than have what I want?”
Notice acceptance in your thinking, how acceptance influences your emotions, and how acceptance feels in your body.
6. What’s something we can do to foster self-compassion when we’re feeling down on ourselves for a failure, mistake, or flaw?
Mindfulness enables us to move toward painful thoughts with the qualities that arise from self-acceptance and awareness. Compassion allows us to hold our painful emotions and have the courage and security to venture into feelings of unworthiness so we can send ourselves sympathy and support.
Practices such as loving-kindness, tonglen, sympathetic joy, and gratitude strengthen compassion.
Recognizing how you feel and making room for your feelings is the first mindful step to foster self-compassion when we’re feeling down on ourselves for a failure, mistake, or flaw.
Next, it’s noticing how you’re holding what’s happening—i.e. “Am I meeting my experience with resistance in the form of negative self-judgment, guilt, regret, minimization?”
Notice what thoughts (cognitive distortions) are tied to these emotions, the energy behind these emotions (clinging or holding onto vs. avoiding or pushing away from), and how the body is manifesting these emotions (tightness, numbness, trembling, etc.).
When investigating how you’re relating to your experience, accept or allow whatever is present without identifying with your emotions, thoughts, or body sensations—without personalizing your experience as “belonging” to you or defining who you are.
You can then bring compassion in the following ways:
Practice mindful breathing.
Breathe into places of tension, saying to yourself, “This is hard and that’s okay, I can be with it.”
Bring loving-kindness phrases into your heart: “May I hold this suffering with ease.” Loving-kindness helps to remind yourself that you’re already whole and complete and worthy of giving and receiving love.
Wear a half-smile (slightly turn the corners of your mouth upward). This subtle movement lifts your heart as you repeat the phrases of loving-kindness. If opposite feelings to loving-kindness arise, such as anger or resentment, recognize these pent-up feelings are being released.
If it’s too difficult to stay with the emotions, you can always choose to return to your breath to calm and center or stay with these feelings and bring loving-kindness toward them.
Drop into your heart. Breathe in your suffering and breathe out relief of your suffering. Expand the practice to include others similarly suffering. Breathe in your common suffering and breathe out relief from this suffering.
It’s helpful to appreciate what you have when doing well, but even more helpful to practice gratitude when feeling down. Acknowledge your painful feelings and then recognize your abilities—i.e. “I feel like a failure and I’m grateful to have mindfulness to know I am not my thoughts and I am not my feelings.”
Compassion is sending sympathy to yourself for your suffering. It’s not seeing yourself as a victim and putting yourself in the pity pot. Just like you, we all want to be happy and free from suffering. This is our common humanity.
Knowing that we all feel down on ourselves for personal failings helps us recognize the shared dilemma of self-esteem that we all struggle with at times.
You can get 50 Mindful Steps to Self-Esteem on Amazon here.
FTC Disclosure: I receive complimentary books for reviews and interviews on tinybuddha.com, but I am not compensated for writing or obligated to write anything specific. I am an Amazon affiliate, meaning I earn a percentage of all books purchased through the links I provide on this site.
Love yourself image via Shutterstock