Monday, January 21, 2013

Reprise: Step #4, How to Love Yourself When You're Gay–Take Baby Steps Forward

The Story So Far:  In Part One of this series, we covered how recognizing the problem of having low self-esteem is critical to improving it.  Frankly, if you don't see your self-esteem is low and needs to be raised, you'll probably never do anything about it.

In Part Two, we talked about living consciously, particularly as it relates to working on learning to love yourself.  If, as you work on raising your self-esteem, you continuously fall back into the same pattern of self-loathing--because you don't know you're doing it--any chance for improvement will be compromised.

In Part Three, we discussed the need to move from having the best intentions to taking action. It's not enough to want to improve your self-esteem, to want to learn to love yourself; you have to be motivated to follow through on the steps you'll need to take in order to achieve that goal.      

Step #4:  Take Baby Steps Forward

So you recognize you have a problem loving yourself as a gay man, and you want to change; you realize, in order to change, you need to break your unconscious routines and live more in the moment; and you are as gung-ho as you could possibly be about turning your intentions into action.  Now what?

If I've learned anything about change over the years--particularly as a manager, routinely selling big changes and leading forty-plus people through them--it's the importance, among other things, of taking change slowly and helping people adjust to it.    

It's human nature to resist change.  Change can seem threatening, especially if you haven't fully bought into it, or you don't know what's in it for you, or you're not sure what the outcome will be.  Change is upsetting.  Change is frightening.  After all, change is counter to what we're used to.  What we're used to is comfortable.  When change happens, we're not sure how we'll be affected, what life will be like after the change.      

Well, let me put to rest any fears you might have about changing, or improving, your self-esteem, or the capacity you have to love yourself.  If ever there was a change that is good for you--that's universally good for every human being--it's raising self-esteem. Going in, you must believe that wholeheartedly.   

As I've written in a number of posts here already, loving yourself is the root to every good thing that will happen in your life--from building fulfilling relationships with family and friends; to realizing greater success at work; to finding that relationship you've always wanted--but, most of all, to feeling peaceful, fulfilled, and whole.  There is nothing you can't do when you love yourself, and almost everything is dependent on it.  

So, let's move confidently forward with this change.  (By the way, this is the "good stuff" I wrote about in the previous Steps to this process–the meat and potatoes, if you like. Keep reading and see if you don't agree.)

Just like any change, when improving self-esteem, it's baby steps all the way. What do I mean by that?  Baby steps are tiny, careful, calculated, precise, but definite, movements in a direction different from the one you're used to.  They allow you to embark on a journey different from the one you've been on for a long time, one that will bring you closer to where you want to be.  (And, even if they don't, they are good for you because 1). they move you out of the status quo, which you've decided is unsatisfactory anyway; 2). they lead you to make further shifts in the directions you take toward the achievement of your goal; and 3). they are all within your control–that is, you don't have to count on anyone else to make them happen, and you are totally in control of the outcome.)  

The baby steps I'm about to share with you are the exact ones I took myself years ago as I worked on improving my own self-esteem.  They worked for me, they've worked for countless other people, and I know they will work for you.  

Don't be deceived.  Don't think for a moment the steps I recommend are too small, or too simple, or too insignificant to make a big difference.  Each one, if done diligently, if done with commitment and consistency, if unhurried, will set you on a course you cannot fully imagine at this very minute.  

But that course will become apparent over time.  The deeper you get involved in this process, the brighter the light will be at the other end, eventually becoming a compelling beacon.  Every day you'll see improvement–incrementally, but improvement nonetheless. You've no doubt heard about the tortoise and the hare?  Well, believe me when I tell you, slow but deliberate baby steps will win the race.  They will take you to exactly where you want to go.    

So, take that first baby step now.  Choose one or more from the list below, because they go hand-in-hand and can be done in tandem.  Alternatively, because you may not yet have confidence in this process, choose just one from the list and focus on doing it to the best of your ability.  Don't overdo it at the outset; taking on too much at one time can be overwhelming, confusing, and frustrating.  If you focus on just one baby step, and do it to the best of your ability over time, you will see change happen in your life, before your very eyes.  That's all I'm trying to help you do at this point--introduce a small change, with a big impact, over a period of time.         

Baby Steps to Raise Self-Esteem

a).  Negative Talk:  This is the endless reel of crap you keep saying to yourself, about yourself, in your head.  You know, lines like: "You're a failure.  You're useless.  You're no good. What made you think you could do that?  You're lazy.  You're stupid. You're an idiot.  You're hopeless.  You're ugly.  You've just proven to yourself again that you're all those things.  Why try?  You'll never do it.  You'll never amount to anything." You get the idea.      

A bit harsh, isn't it?  The problem is, I did this all the time, day-in and day-out.  It was as much a part of my daily routine as getting up in the morning, having breakfast, and going to work.  In fact, it was so much a part of my routine, it defined me, and, worse, I didn't realize I was doing it.  It was a habit I'd gotten used to, and, if someone had asked me whether or not I did it, I probably would have answered no.  That's just how unconscious I was.  

I bet you do the same thing.  People with low self-esteem constantly put themselves down.  It's what we do.  And the reasons for putting ourselves down are endless; nothing is off limits.  The more insulting, the better, because--here's the kicker--we think we deserve it.  Would we accept someone else saying these things to us?  Well, we might, so low is our self-esteem.  But hopefully, we wouldn't, because we'd recognize we shouldn't be treated so badly.  Yet we do it to ourselves.  How do we get away with that?

So I stopped the negative talk.  I decided if I couldn't say something positive about myself, I couldn't say anything negative, either.  At the very least, I'd create a neutral space in my head, which would be a vast improvement from before.  And, in so doing, I cut off the endless supply of negative energy to my psyche, the constant battering to my very being, effectively ending the energy that feeds on itself and perpetuates the negativity.    

So, no more negative talk.  Stop it.  Right now.  You hear?        

b).  Positive affirmations:  For those of you unfamiliar with this term, they are statements or assertions that are positive in nature, which, in the case of raising self-esteem, are directed at yourself from yourself.  And they are intended to be repeated time and time again until they become not just words but truth.   

Now, I know what you're thinking.  Sounds a little airy-fairy, a little new-agey, a little out there, especially in comparison to more tangible or concrete steps taken to affect other changes.  After all, you may think, how can repeating positive statements to myself make a difference?  In fact, if you're anything like me, repeating positive words or ideas to yourself feels fake or phoney.  So if I don't buy into what I'm doing, how will it help?         

I understand how you feel.  At the best of times, I have difficulty being positive, let alone repeating positive affirmations to myself.  I've always been a cup-half-empty kind of guy, seeing the negative in everything, always finding something to complain about.  So being positive, let alone repeating positive affirmations to myself, is just about one of the most difficult things for me to do.  

But let me give you some examples of what positive affirmations might look like, and I'm sure you'll begin to understand how helpful they are.  Using some of the negative talk above, "You're a failure" becomes "You're a success."  "You're lazy" becomes "You're hardworking."  "You're an idiot" becomes "You're intelligent." And so on.

Of course, the positive affirmation you tell yourself should be something that's true, or something you're able to accept.  For instance, if you really are lazy--and you don't just say that to insult yourself--then you shouldn't repeat "I'm hardworking" over and over, because you won't believe it.  You have to be sincere in what you repeat or you'll end up undermining your efforts.  Instead, select positive affirmations that really apply, and keep repeating them to yourself.

What if you feel so little about yourself, you can't find even one positive thing to say? Well, first of all, I find that hard to believe.  As low as your self-esteem may be, surely there's something about you that you like or admire.  In my own case, for example, I knew I was good to and respectful of other people (sometimes to a fault and at my own detriment).  So, among the positive affirmations I told myself were, "I'm good to other people, and I readily show my respect for them."  That was something positive.  At the very least, it wasn't something negative.  

At first, as you repeat positive affirmations to yourself, you might not totally believe what you're saying.  Even if you don't, keep doing it.  In effect, what you're doing is ending a bad habit, and exchanging the negative information you've put in your head for so long with something positive.  It will take time.  It may take lots and lots of time, considering the damage you may have already done to yourself.  

But here's the beauty of positive affirmations.  They convert the negative energy you've directed at yourself into positive energy.  Little by little.  Bit by bit.  And that can't be bad, can it?  Just keep telling yourself, over and over:  "I am smart."  "I am handsome."  "I'm a good person."  It will get easier and easier, and, even though you may be only going through the motions at first, you will start to believe it.

Positive affirmations are like planting seeds in your brain.  After you plant the first one, and keep nurturing it through constant repetition, it begins to sprout.  Then, as it grows and flourishes, it takes over, crowding out the garbage that was there before.  If you plant enough seeds and keep nurturing them over time, you'll be surprised what will happen in terms of changing your whole attitude toward yourself.

Give it a chance.  It really works.

c).  Inappropriate Comparisons:  Okay.  You know what these are.  They're when you keep comparing yourself to everyone else, and, honestly, we all do this.  

You see that guy over there.  He's better looking than you, right?  And that one over there.  He looks like he earns more money than you (or he doesn't mind racking up his credit card debt so he appears to earn more money than you do). And him over in the corner?  He just looks like he's smart, a lot smarter than you, right?

I did this all the time.  Some fellow I saw was always better looking, always more masculine than me, with a great set of sideburns, a full beard, a hairier chest.  The comparisons to other men, who, in so many ways, seemed to be everything I wasn't but desperately wanted to be (especially straight), always had me in a tailspin of despair. How could I ever compete?  No one would ever look at me as long as men like him existed.  I had no business being on the same street as him, in the same city, on the same planet.  I was nothing but a poor excuse for a human being.  

Inappropriate comparisons to other people is one endless rut, because, yes, when you get right down to it, someone will always appear to be better off in some way than you are (appear is the operative word here).  That's just the way it is. That's life.

But, looked at another way, someone else will always be worse off than you, too (not that you should try to make yourself feel better, or try to improve your self-esteem, by comparing who you are with someone less fortunate; that doesn't work either).  What's important is to see how much you have going for you and you alone, not in relation to someone else, and to be grateful for everything you have.

Gratitude is the key here.  It changes your line of thinking from one of lack to one of abundance. When you begin to realize just how much you have, and how much you have going for you, you will be well on your way to assessing your worthiness as a human being more realistically and loving yourself a whole lot more.                  

So...stop, stop, STOP comparing yourself to other people.  It doesn't do you any good. What you must focus on is being the very best you, because, in the end, no one can do you better than you can.  Your gifts are no less valid or important than anyone else's, and you'll do your greatest work toward raising your self-esteem, and learning how to love yourself, by realizing just how fortunate you truly are to have the gifts you've been given, and to figure out how best to use them in the service of others.  But that's another conversation altogether.       

d).  Do Something Nice:  Actually, that's do something nice for yourself, even something small. It's often the small things that make a big difference.

Here, I'll turn to a comment one of my readers left on another post.  Doug from Vancouver wrote:  'For me, the cure [for low self-esteem]...was to be my own best friend. I imagined myself living with my best bud who needed cheering up. I dragged him out for a walk, I bought him a vitamin-packed smoothie, and treated him to an uplifting film. It wasn't easy being my own best friend..., but I made it my "job." Day by day my heart did thaw, and other people became more drawn to me.'

As I wrote to Doug, I couldn't have said it better.  At the same time as you're turning negative talk into positive affirmations, and learning how not to inappropriately compare yourself to other people, you can start treating yourself like the most important person in your life.  Because you know what?  You ARE the most important person in your life.  Full stop.  Let's repeat that, because you really need to get this message.  In fact, let's make sure this one goes out over the mountains and the seas.

          YOU ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN YOUR LIFE.

If ever there was a positive affirmation you need to repeat to yourself, it would be: "I am the most important person in my life."  Because, yes, you are.  And no one will ever treat you better than you should.  If you don't, and no one else does, then who will?  Who will be there for you when you really need someone?  Who will be your greatest supporter? Who will cheer you on? Who will lift you up?  Who will be there for you when no one else is?  Who can you rely on more than anyone else?

So start treating yourself like you are the most important person in your life.  As Doug suggests, do little things for yourself only.  Don't wait to do them with someone else, because you may never get around to it.  In fact, these things are not meant to share with someone else.  They are for you and you alone.  Because you're worth it.  Because nobody deserves them more than you do.  Over time, the effort required to do nice things for yourself, just for the sake of doing them, will become easier and easier, until they seem perfectly normal and natural.    

Take yourself out on a date.  Go to a fancy restaurant and have a meal for one. How about treating yourself to something special, like a day at the spa.  The point is, it's not what you do, or how much money you spend doing it.  Because you can find all kinds of things to do for yourself by spending little or no money at all. Like Doug suggests, go out for a long, reflective walk, and take in everything you see in a way you may not have before.  Go for a bike ride. Take a great book out of the library, cuddle up with yourself in a big, over-stuffed chair, and spend the afternoon reading.  You deserve it.  

Remember, you are the most important person in your life.  Start treating yourself like you are.

e).  Extend Yourself:  Okay, to this point, we've mostly focused on ourselves.  It's time now to focus ourselves…on others.  Yes, that's right, if you want to feel better about yourself, do something for someone else.  Here's how it works.

At the same time I felt pretty miserable about myself–in all the ways I've described above–I was moving up in the company I worked for.  Before I knew it, I was a Customer Service Manager, supervising a branch full of people (about twelve to fifteen).

In one instance, I inherited a bit of a mess, where the previous CSM hadn't wanted to be in that role and had made sure the people she supervised knew it.  This manifested itself in the deplorable way she treated them, showing them a decided lack of respect.  In fact, her effect on the branch was so bad that morale was abysmal when I walked in the door. I had a lot of work to do at that branch when I first got there, and I knew, first and foremost, I needed to improve morale, because the improvements couldn't come from just me.  All of us had to work together to create the working environment we all wanted.

So I went to work touching people (not literally but figuratively) in all the ways I would want to be touched if I felt like them.  That is, I treated the people how I would want to be treated–with kindness and patience and empathy and understanding and dignity and respect.  I did everything I could to show the people I genuinely cared about them, their performance, and their job satisfaction (which I did).  I wanted them to enjoy coming to work everyday.  I wanted them to want to treat each other well.  And I wanted them to want to provide the best possible service to our many customers.

And you know what?  It took a long time.  It took a very long time.  For months after I got there, I kept hearing the people I supervised talk about how poorly the previous CSM had treated them.  How, in specific situations that came up, she had conducted herself, and how she had made her staff feel, as a result.  I can't tell you how many times I had to repeat, I'm not her.  I won't treat you that way.  This is a new day.  It isn't like that here anymore.  Together, we can make this workplace exactly what we want it to be.  But we need to let the past be the past and move confidently forward into the future.

Needless to say, we got there, and we transformed the branch into a place where people wanted to be and where they wanted to contribute.  The level of customer service improved, and customers liked coming in to conduct their business with us.  Our performance went up, our results went up, and the branch became one of the best in the district.

And how do you think that affected me on a personal level?  Well, I loved knowing I'd played an instrumental role in making it all happen.  While I was still struggling mightily over being gay and coming to terms with that–not to mention, seeing my self-worth–I saw what a positive influence I'd had on other people, helping to make their work experience a more fulfilling and rewarding one.  I watched each one of them as they began to flourish in their roles, and I couldn't have felt more full inside over their success.  Their success was my success–not just in my role as the CSM, but also as a human being.

How could someone who felt so worthless have such a positive effect on other people, on the performance of an entire branch?  I couldn't reconcile that.  Maybe, I had to admit, I wasn't as worthless as I thought, after all.  Maybe I had a lot more going for me than I realized.  Look at what I'd been able to do for all those people I supervised.  Maybe, just maybe, I had to change that script that had been running in my head all those years–from one of thinking I was the lowest of life forms to one of thinking I was good and deserving and worthy.

Find some way, however small, to focus on doing something for someone else.  I promise, when you see your generosity, kindness, and compassion reflected back at you through another person's eyes, you'll know just how valuable and worthwhile you really are, and what a difference you're making by being here.

Graduating from Baby Steps

Finally, when taking baby steps forward has begun to feel good and built its own momentum, as it will over time, you might want to consider taking some giant leaps forward, which is what I did.

Here are brief descriptions of the two I took:

1).  After blaming my parents for years for not having my teeth straightened when I was twelve, in my early thirties, I arranged to have it done, paying for it myself, including jaw surgery to correct a severe overbite which resulted from not getting braces when I was younger.  And,

2).  After putting on a few more lbs. than I liked, I changed Chris's and my eating habits, watching our fat intake, and I started to work out, including cardio and weight training. That was nearly twenty years ago.  I still eat healthier and engage in some form of exercise today.    

Honestly, had I not done the work required to improve my self-esteem, I would not have taken these on.  The key to making important changes in your life is recognizing you're worth it.  Like I said before, everything is connected to self-worth, in one way or another.

Stay tuned for Step #5:  Believe in Yourself

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