When I first began seeing my current therapist almost half a decade ago, he had the following quote in his email signature:
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Anais Nin
I remember it resonating but didn’t fully absorb the sentence until the past year: a time in which I began to identify how and why I had created my self-image and how I needed to rebuild it. As an alcoholic and addict in long-term recovery, I often neatly segment my life into two chapters: before I got clean and sober and after I got clean and sober. And although I told myself I had high self-esteem when I ultimately entered recovery, I’ve found it surprisingly challenging to live up to this ideal.
There is abundant scientific evidence that indicates high self-esteem causes us to be more resilient, perceiving failure and rejection as less painful. Self-esteem can help mitigate the harmful effects of anxiety, and it literally helps our bodies release less cortisol when under stress. But the concept of self-esteem is fairly fluid; there are days -- even moments -- when it feels higher and times in which it seems more unstable. In short, a strong self-esteem and self-image help from not only a mental and emotional perspective but also a physical one.
My self-esteem took a massive hit in my own recovery journey when an agonizingly painful breakup further complicated my life. Faced with a reasonably fragile ego and an increasingly codependent attachment style, I was forced to reconcile how I viewed myself: in relation to others, and within a more global context. In doing so, I realized that building -- or rebuilding -- self-esteem is a lifelong process rather than a momentary fixation or activity. The following have helped me in my daily practice:
- I affirm my real worth in all the core areas in my life: partner, friend, daughter, sibling, colleague. I remind myself of the ways I continuously show up for those important to me and my role in those relationships.
- I develop my competencies, identifying my core skills and talents. Since I love to write, I’ve recently created a blog and hold myself accountable for publishing at least one post a week. This is an activity outside of school and work that brings me both joy and fulfillment.
- I engage in physical activity. Completely unrelated to my body aesthetic or weight loss, the act of physical exercise inevitably improves my overall mood and boosts energy levels.
- I practice kindness. The very act of being helpful and considerate to another boosts self-esteem. This can even manifest itself in smaller, micro ways: a beaming smile and a thank-you to the grocery store cashier; a compliment or affirmation to my roommate.
- I surround myself with loving, nurturing, mutually reciprocal relationships. For me, part of this is an acknowledgment that I cannot succeed alone and need to rely on others (especially in times of adversity).
- I focus on myself. While I can be prone to social comparisons, as many are, I actively try to remember that my focus should be on my own goals and achievements -- not someone else’s. One of my sponsors in Alcoholics Anonymous once told me: “That person is none of your business.”
When I practice these thoughts, actions, and beliefs, I feel strong in my power. And while that process is both incremental and often daunting, I’m continuously reminded of the saying: “Your most important relationship is with yourself.”