Creating healthy self-esteem demands that we give up our addiction to denial. Healthy self-esteem cannot be created as we overlook important aspects of reality.
Denial, understand, is not a function of “character.” It’s not the case that “good” people have an inherently easier time acknowledging and accepting reality, and “bad” people tend to fall back on willful ignorance.
The fact of the matter is that denial is seductive to everyone, and it’s not hard to understand why: life can be painful.
Life involves loss.
Life involves stress.
Life involves fear, at least for psychologically normal and healthy people. (Anyone who says they don’t experience fear is either lying, or has sustained some sort of brain damage.)
Our brains have evolved to help us continue functioning day to day, to survive and flourish. As part of this function, our brains do have mechanisms in place to limit our awareness, particularly of painful things. After all, it wouldn’t be terribly adaptive if we went through every day acutely aware of every little ache and pain, physical and emotional.
(As a marathon runner, I can tell you that this ability to limit awareness of pain is the main thing that allows people as crazy as I am to run 26.2 miles at a time.)
Most of the time, this cognitive ability to limit awareness of pain functions automatically, subconsciously. Our brains are enormously adaptable, and they’re wicked smart. They learn, day to day, how to mold our perception and awareness so that we’re not going down in agony every time we stub our toe. The ability to limit awareness of pain is an example of the miraculous ingenuity of our magnificent minds.
However, there’s a difference between taking advantage of our brain’s ability to limit awareness of pain as a survival mechanism that helps us achieve goals; and engaging our brain’s ability to selectively pay attention as a means to stay in the dark from unpleasant realities that we need to face.
We cannot change unpleasant realities until we face them.
This is particularly true of unpleasant emotional realities, which frequently intrude upon our consciousness in the form of anxiety and depression until we make the decision to face them with eyes wide open.
The cognitive ability to be selective about our attention, to choose our focus, is like pretty much any other tool we humans have: it can be used, and it can be abused.
Why is it so important to self-esteem that we not use our brain’s capacity for selective attention to aid and abet denial?
Self-esteem is an odd duck, psychologically speaking. Many people seem to think the self-esteem equation is pretty straightforward: that if they do things that garner them approval, they’ll approve of themselves. If they do things like they were taught by their parents, they’ll approve of themselves. If they achieve thus and so, meeting or exceeding such and such a standard, they’ll like and respect themselves.
As it turns out, self-esteem can’t be “earned” by outside accomplishments, conforming to our parents’ wishes, or meeting some sort of external standard. Self-esteem is actually always and only an “inside job”— it is generated when we consciously make decisions that enhance our feelings of authenticity, efficacy, and worthiness.
The battle for lasting, stable self-esteem can only be waged within— it literally can’t be generated any other way.
If we are to effectively wage this battle within, if we are to make decisions and lead lives that are consistent with our perception of reality and our values, it is essential that we’re not copping out by selectively attending to the facts of reality as we understand them. We can try to lead lives of high authenticity, courage, and meaning, but if we’re shutting out important facts, our brains are going to register that…and the padlock on the self-esteem box will remain intact.
Refusing to live in denial doesn’t mean facing reality is always easy or comfortable.
It doesn’t mean that we can’t be tired or discouraged— in fact, if we are tired and discouraged, it’s important to our self-esteem to acknowledge that. The failure to pay attention to the signals our body and our minds send us indicates a lack of self-respect, and our self-esteem simply will not put up with that.
Refusing to live in denial doesn’t mean you have to always feel confident or secure. Even high self-esteem individuals experience times of doubt and frustration.
What refusing to live in denial does mean is that if we see an issue in our lives that needs to be addressed, we do not minimize, hide from, or dodge it. We confront it— even if our knees tremble.
Refusing to live in denial means that life may not always be pretty or comfortable— but it will always, always be authentic. It means developing the self-trust that comes with knowing that you will never lie to yourself— and that any solutions to problems you generate will be authentic and real, because they’re based in an unvarnished approach to living life.
We don’t have to be super heroes to give up our addiction to denial.
We just have to take it one day at a time.
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