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I started working on myself at a very young age. The 1980s were the height of the self-esteem movement and I was on board.

My middle-school self would not be happy about this, but here’s proof from my first journal:

 

It’s January 13, 1986. (New Year’s resolution time!)  I’m 13 years old.

These are the points about myself that I really HATE:

  • Big Nose

  • Hair that’s too thick and puffs up

  • Low self-esteem

  • Too jealous

  • Make problems worse than they really are

I then go on to list a bunch of upbeat possible solutions such as:  Learn makeup techniques!, Be optimistic!, Laugh off your problems!

But the thing that was really causing all of my troubles was hidden in plain sight -  SELF-HATE.

My quest for self-esteem depended on two things: how much/well I could do and receiving positive feedback. So long as I was able to do a lot of things, well enough to get the positive feedback,  was fine.

I would try to preempt any external criticism or failure by developing my own inner critic. No one could hate me as much as I hated myself. Motivated by the harsh, unrelenting voice of my inner critic I continued working on myself  for a very long time.

Here’s the problem - having to do a lot of things, very well, all of the time, in order to receive external validation is not a sustainable way to live.

Fast forward a few decades and in a lot of ways I was still operating according my middle school rules.

Just before my 33rd birthday I was a mom of three (a 4 year old, a 21 month old and a newborn). My husband (who is a Rabbi) and I had a congregation that met in the lower half of our house and our beautifully renovated garage. It was a tremendous amount of work from me - mostly hosting large weekly Shabbat and Holiday meals. I also had a catering business that I ran out of my kitchen. I lived for the amazed comments that I would get in response to how much I could do and how great my food was. Still, many nights I would go to bed in tears, thinking horrible thoughts about myself because I didn’t do enough.

I was beyond exhausted but pushed myself to keep going. This pushing was largely fueled by shame, chocolate and diet coke.

Finally, my body, through a major health collapse, forced me to slow down.

I now see this forced slow down as one of the biggest blessings in my life. It motivated me to shift my life from the relentless search for self-esteem to the more worthwhile and sustainable practice of self-compassion.

I learned to stop working on myself, and start working with myself.

 

Working on yourself vs. Working with yourself

Working on yourself: you are broken and one day, if you work hard enough,  you will be fixed.

Working with yourself: being human is messy and always changing. Tending to yourself is an ongoing daily, minute by minute process for the rest of your life.

Working on yourself: focus is on the past or the future.

Working with yourself :focus is on your present - here and now experience.

Working on yourself: there is an ideal way to be.

Working with yourself: accepting, and dare I say even loving, your imperfections.

Working on yourself: taking cues from the outside world.

Working with yourself means: becoming more sensitive to your internal cues and wisdom.

Working on yourself : linear.

Working with yourself: Anything but linear! 

Working on yourself: setbacks can be unbearable.

Working with yourself: setbacks are just  part of the process.

 

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