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Re: Self Esteem...Mine and then it isn't

Posted by Mark H. on April 27, 2000, at 20:33:04

In reply to Self Esteem...Mine and then it isn't , posted by Jennifer on April 27, 2000, at 16:32:44

Dear Jennifer,

Your story is a good example of why I earlier suggested replacing the concept of self-esteem with some other way of thinking about ourselves that reflects the fact that how we *feel* is often irrelevant and does not accurately represent our achievements, worthiness, lovability, compassion, intelligence, benefit to others, or any other value we may hold -- not to mention that we are constantly changing. This seems to be especially true for those of us with mood disorders.

If we decide to believe the "resume" version of ourselves, it may work in the same way that putting on a play "works," but we risk feeling phony and fearing being found out. Have any of your friends ever said after you did something especially well, "Oh my God, of course you got an 'A' in Applied Conflict Management, but you're Jennifer!" as though a different set of expectations apply to you than to "ordinary" people. That's not about high seratonin levels.

The "seratonin effect" of the alpha-female involves people who are consistently and naturally sure of themselves, who have a thoroughly integrated belief in their utter right to belong. It doesn't mean they don't experience self-doubt and bad-hair days, just that it would never occur to them they might *not* be chosen for the team, and if they weren't, then something is probably wrong with the team, anyway. They don't expect to get "A's" all the time, and if there are subjects they can't master, those subjects are just "outside their area of expertise." They don't expect to master everything; they just expect to pass and be liked, a lot, by everybody. And they are. Even those of us who see through it like to stand next to them at parties, just to feel what it's like, just to listen to someone talk about themselves without the slightest waver to their voice, a total absence of doubt that anything they say, however ordinary, will be received as anything but fascinating.

What you're describing is more familiar to people on this list. It involves periods of stellar performance that come so easily that the person experiencing it wonders why people think it's special -- maybe others just aren't applying themselves -- followed by periods when we wonder whether we're even qualified to be there at all, since our professors are now talking near-gibberish and reading becomes laborious as comprehension and concentration slip from our grasp.

When I had a difficult instructor who was determined to give me a "B" if he could, I simply memorized his textbook, so that on exams I could visualize the page and cite the paragraph which addressed the question, quoting accurately from memory. Later, I would skate through class after class in a self-absorbed fog without a clue as to where we were, and then "pull a rabbit out of the hat" at the end of the quarter through an act of sheer will, often getting a grade based on a few moments of lucidity and desperate creativity but very, very little work or study. I'm not proud of it -- it's just the only way I knew to survive.

If I had it all to do over again, I would declare my disability early on, insist on help and accommodation, and get a real education rather than simply completing an exercise in survival and political manipulation of academic bureaucracy. I would keep two "resumes," one to remind myself of my achievements and abilities, the other to remind myself of my demons and limitations. I would actively choose to be non-ambitious, instead applying my values to everything I did, including discussing my limitations with professors and department heads, working out systems of support and assistance for the "learning disability" aspects of my mood disorder, and holding myself and the school to the letter and spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure that the university and I could both be confident of what I had accomplished by the time I graduated.

Accurate self-knowledge means being aware of your strengths and weaknesses, not using the one to leverage yourself into a stressful position of major responsibility you can't sustain, nor using the other to keep yourself in a menial job for fear that your mood disorder might interfere with more meaningful work. It helps to find a middle ground in which income and title are balanced against things like good health the need to limit stress. Self esteem, in itself, offers nothing to help clarify these values or offer guidance in making important life decisions that will affect your health, happiness and productivity. Accurate self knowledge does.

Very best wishes,

Mark H.




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