When a Tension Gets Attention
Q: I’ve seen lots of therapists in my life, but I’ve never been able to get rid of my self-esteem problem. I try so hard to feel good about myself and my life, but there’s always somewhere I fall short. Is there any way to fix this problem, or do I just have to live with it?
KEVIN: I remember a classmate in grade school telling me I was built upside down. When I asked why, he said, “Because your feet smell and your nose runs.” “Run” has a hundred or so meanings in English! A playful way into your question about fixing your self-esteem is to explore a different meaning of “fix.” When a problem refuses to be fixed, it may indicate that we need to fix our attention on it in a different way. What you resist persists can be restated as What you try to fix stays in the mix.
The distinction John Gottman makes between solvable problems and perpetual issues in relationships applies to many other life issues. When we assume that self-esteem is a solvable problem, it’s natural to keep trying to fix it. Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said, “The solution to your problem is to realize who has the problem.” The ego self will always have self-esteem problems because its nature is to generate them by striving, comparing, craving, and judging. The fix is not to get rid of the ego self and the self-esteem problems it creates but to increase our awareness of a noticing Self that can bring compassion to the part of us caught in judging its worth.
The Sufi mystic Rumi put it this way: “In that moment you are drunk on yourself, / You lock yourself away in cloud after cloud of grief, / And in that moment you leap free of yourself, / The moon catches you and hugs you in its arms.” (The translation is by Andrew Harvey.) Rumi’s “leap free of yourself” invitation is aligned with Maharshi’s encouragement to live beyond the ego self: “Your own Self-realization is the greatest service you can render the world.”
Our attempts to fix problems often make them worse. Partners who address relationship issues by trying to fix the other person’s shortcomings rarely achieve anything but deeper conflict. A depressed person’s rumination on depressing thoughts can be seen as misbegotten attempts to fix such thoughts by figuring them out or getting to the bottom of them. If chronic pain is met with persistent “How do I fix and get rid of this?!” energy, the body’s stress response to the pain can boost the activity of pain neurotransmitters and increase pain perception. Worry, too, is often a mistaken attempt to fix anxiety. Somehow, we believe that if we give enough anxious attention to something we can’t control we will transform anxiety into peace. This is like gunning the gas pedal when your truck tire has already spun a foot deep in the mud.
If so many of our attempts to fix our distress leave us mired in the muck, what are we to do? A better question is: How can we give attention to a tension in a way that does not make it worse and gives us some release from its grip on us? When we let go of fixing a persistent problem and instead meet it with mindful nonjudgment and acceptance, we have found the tow truck we need.
We’ve moved from a judging self that wants to be rid of the problem to a noticing Self that begins with, “Oh, there’s my ego struggling with that again.”
Bringing noticing alongside judging allows us to lose our shame for not having conquered the problem once and for all. It helps us let go of feeling defective for, like everyone else, having one or more perpetual human issues.
Noticing, accepting, and refraining from fixing are not purely passive responses to our problems. They are, rather, the energies that allow us to recommit to living from a higher consciousness capable of accepting ourselves and every other human being as B&B (beautiful and broken).
Can this shift from fixing problems to fixing our attention on them in a new way really help us with self-esteem, relationships, depression, chronic pain, and anxiety?
Many of my patients report progress when they follow my odd-sounding suggestion to give up on self-esteem and focus instead on Self-awareness. They learn to begin identifying with their original sacredness that still exists like a masterpiece untouched by layers of conditioned worth.
I tell couples there is no u (you) in “relationship,” but there are two i’s. Working on the i begins not with fixing all of your problems but with giving them gentle, self-compassionate attention. When we treat ourselves more consistently with nonjudgment, acceptance, and kindness, we become more capable of treating our partner that way.
If a plumber came to my home and created several new leaks, I wouldn’t hire him again! So why would I expect the depressed self to be up to the job of fixing the depressing thoughts it generates? The Mindful Way Through Depression (Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn) is a helpful introduction to the practice of noticing depressing thoughts without fixing them or fixating on them through rumination.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work on chronic pain begins with noticing and relaxing around pain—that is, giving pain a different kind of attention.
We’re on a healing path with anxiety when we stop thinking we should be rid of anxiety and instead treat each worrisome thought as a mindfulness bell that sends us directly to our breath to calm the body and recenter the mind on radical acceptance.
As good as all of this may sound, it’s easy to develop a spiritual parallel to our psychological self-esteem problems: a sense that our spirituality is always inadequate because we cannot live with this enlightened noticing awareness in every moment. I take comfort in remembering that Buddha never claimed to banish his demon (Mara). He just got good at saying: “I see you, Mara.” Jesus struggled for 40 days in the wilderness with dark energies just after committing his life to God. If great spiritual figures like these lived with a persisting awareness of higher and lower energies, I think it’s OK if you and I do, too.
- by Kevin Anderson PhD, Psychotherapist