Friday, September 19, 2014

When Self-Esteem Equals Selfishness

I have spent a lot of time in therapy over the years and trying to figure out how to take care of my mental illness (depression and anxiety). The over-arching consensus amongst professionals seem to be summed up in these few words:

"Take Care of Yourself"

Pinterest and FB and even Instagram are full of sound bites and memes that absolutely agree. From "it's not selfish to think of yourself" to "you can't help others until you put on your own oxygen mask," I've seen how the social ideology is to focus on the self in order to serve others.

I tried this concept for a long time. Because it seems to make sense. In a way, it does. But the fine line gets crossed over too frequently and it's hard to find it, anymore.

Time away from home, time away from the kids, time to myself, focus on me, saying "no" to everything stressful, serving myself before others, taking the time to analyze every feeling and thought and wrestling with it and wringing it out and spending hours telling all my closest friends and family (sister, mom) about all of it... I have done the "me" thing. I have done the "it's not selfish to put yourself first" thing.

And guess what, dear reader? It's not true. It doesn't work.

Truth is, it's not been helping me at all. Whenever I focus on myself like this, I tend to get quite a bit worse. People want to be around me less. I'm more ornery. My depression lasts longer. My therapist doesn't understand why I refuse to give into it beyond the "you cannot run faster than you have strength." (Mosiah 4:27), But, dear reader, I can't give into it. Why?

Well, thanks to a friend for sharing a speech ("The Doer of Our Deeds" by M. Catherine Thomas), as well as some serious reflection and meditation and prayer over this, I have learned some very important things. Here's what I've surmised:

First: There are no positive references to self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-love in the scriptures. Anywhere. If it's referred to, it's referred to as something to STOP doing. All you will find will be like unto what I linked to up there (the Mosiah scripture). Wisdom and order, yes, but that's a no-brainer. I need to eat and sleep and take a shower! I need to read and relax and laugh and breathe. I need to be nice to myself and talk with friends and date my husband. I need to realize I'm doing better than I think I am and see things the way God sees them. But sometimes, there is not enough time in the day to choose both me and the kids. So, who wins? The kids or me? The husband or me? The neighbors or me? Which do I choose as I'm making millions of tiny choices every minute of the day? If I choose others instead of me, am I making a horrible mistake? The world says I am making a mistake, but I don't buy it.

Second: Christ taught us to serve others. Sacrifice. Put God, Him, and others first. "He who loses his life shall find it" (Matthew 10:39). Christ is the epitome of selfless service, and He has asked us to follow Him and to be like Him. He knows that if we do, we will be more happy than we can even imagine. Is it easy? No way. It takes a lifetime to practice and understand, and without His help, we just can't do it.

Third: Taking the time to serve others, especially those under my stewardship (i.e. my husband and children, those under my calling, those I visit teach), and seeing it as a privilege instead of a frustration or burden, has done better things for my brain than taking the time to serve myself ever did.

Fourth: Two things seem to create guilt --Sin and Satan. Sin causes guilt because we know what we've done is wrong, and the Holy Ghost is prompting us to repent. Satan causes guilt because he's a big jerk-face and the more we listen to him, the worse we feel. I have found that if I take the time repent and ignore Satan (or just tell him to get the heck outta here), I am much, much happier.

I've learned that serving others is infinitely more important than focusing on "me." Our society has become so self-possessed and I honestly think it's caused a lot more harm than good.


Once, when Brandon was out of town, I had to take the kids to finish cleaning up the church. It was our assigned Saturday and because Brandon knew he would be out of town, he and #1 (and others) did a lot of it after mutual on Tuesday (good man!). I had told some of the other families that they didn't need to help because there wasn't much left (I thought?!) and I had to do it really early (long story, but it has to do with dropping off my mutual-aged daughter for a stake YW thing). Anyway, I arrived with the kids. I was so mad at Brandon. Angry that he wasn't there to help us, angry #1 wasn't there to help us, angry that I was up so early with so many kids to clean a big church, angry because I was tired and pregnant... just mad. I wanted to go home.

The philosophy of what I had learned from the "it's not selfish to be selfish" world would have told me to just go home. Call someone else to do it. Refuse to do it because I had every right to say no! I was tired and pregnant! I was supervising all these small kids! My husband wasn't there! I wasn't getting paid! Why didn't I think of this? Why didn't I plan ahead and give myself a break? I needed to focus on me, people!! I have depression and anxiety and I was TIRED!!

Well, the kids and I cleaned the bathrooms (some of which were so gross) and the kitchen; we vacuumed and checked for any garbage that might have been missed, we wiped down windows and drinking fountains. I sent kids to sweep the gym floor, and we double-checked each room to make sure it was clean. We re-stocked toilet paper and paper towels as needed. #3 mopped the bathroom floors. It took about two hours for our small brood to finish.

When we left, I felt chastised because it was a good experience. The Holy Ghost confirmed to me that what we had done was wonderful. We had cleaned the House of the Lord, we had served Him and our entire ward, the Stake presidency, the Philadelphia mission office, and the Family history library (all which use our building, although we didn't wander into locked offices, of course). I had taught my children the purpose of service and hard work. We stopped at Dunkin' Donuts on the way home as a reward for all our efforts, and the kids chatted about how good they felt doing those hard things. I felt so wonderful. I apologized to Brandon for being angry; I apologized to the kids for my bad attitude. And I did feel good. I felt peaceful and satisfied. The Spirit told me that what I did was sanctified and pure, regardless of my original attitude.

That, dear reader, is what happens when we forget ourselves and get to work (President Hinckley). That's what happens when we ignore the world's philosophy of self-esteem and follow Christ's teachings of service, instead.

And I have several more examples of this in my life --many in the last few months alone.

So, I would encourage you to take care of yourself, yes, but in that same vein --serve others willingly and quickly. Be swift to serve. You'll be grateful you did. So will your self-esteem.


Andrea Lawson said...

Very nice thoughts. Some that I think I have been needing lately to remind me how I truly can be happy. Thanks!

Melissa said...

Though I may comment further later on several of your points, in the short moment I have right now I wanted to just say this. Your inference in this post equates choosing to call someone else to clean the church because you can't at the moment because you are pregnant and tired, as somehow selfish. Are you implying that if you declined to clean the church that you would be less worthy, less worthwhile, be less in God's eyes?

Guilt comes in many more forms than just Sin and Satan and for those of us who are truly clinically depressed, that guilt may be out of our control.

More than anything, I sincerely wholeheartedly disagree with what you have stated here. You must understand that by making these specific comments and generalizations you could spread deepened depression and guilt to the thousands of women who had to choose NOT to do something because they needed to focus on themselves. The perfect Mormon Woman meme is extremely hurtful to so many. I would suggest that in the future you present your point of view in a way so as to explain what has worked for you in your life (more like a journal entry of your experiences), instead of claiming to have the answers to it all. And most importantly try not to claim you understand all of the complexities of depression and anxiety and how the things a therapist may be asking you to do won't work. Others are in a different place and may be extremely vulnerable to your generalizations.

I am happy for you to have found your way out of depression and anxiety, but please don't assume that your experience is what will work for others. And please remember that if you don't want to clean the church, and you get someone else to do won't be going to hell, and you won't be any less of a person to God.

Cheryl said...


Your first question: No. Absolutely not.

And I don't have thousands of readers. Although thank you for assuming I do.

Your inferences that I have somehow hurt other people by sharing my journey is false. Not only that, but you have to understand that unless you have read my blog at length (I've been writing about my depression since 2007), then you have no idea where I am in my journey. I have no idea who you are, and therefore, I'm pretty sure you have no idea who I am.

Let me share a story with you:

Once upon a time, I was a piano teacher. I had 17 students. I also worked as an editor for a non-profit website. I was also the online marketing director for a high-end bridal couture company. At the same time, I had just given birth to my fifth child and my husband was going to school in another state to get his MBA while working full time from home (long story).

I realized, as my depression deepened, I had to fix it. So, I asked to be released from my callings, I quit piano, I quit marketing, I quit editing, and I just was. I worked on me and my health and I have been much better for it. The few years after that were full of healing.

Now I am in a place where I am realizing how much better I can be when I forget myself and get to work. I have recently moved across the country with my husband and kids and I suffered a debilitating depression episode this last winter. But I'm getting better. And it's good. Times and seasons.

I'm sorry my post insulted you. I'm sorry you suffer from depression, but I'm mostly sorry that you can't give me the benefit of the doubt, that you can't allow me my faith, that you can't accept my experience (which, btw, was the entire tone of this post --I only made suggestions at the end that might help people) and that it's coming from someone who claims to have mental illness, too (you infer I do not have a clinical diagnosis --that was insulting). If anything, you'd think someone else with mental illness would be ready to embrace others who are working through it as well. I would never, in a million years, infer that somehow your way of fighting for light wasn't allowed.

I know I won't go to hell for knowing my limitations. But that experience of cleaning the church is sacred to me and crapping all over it just because it somehow insulted you wasn't very nice.

The perfect Mormon Woman meme? What the? I have no idea what you are talking about because I have never been anything but honest, faithful, and logical. If you knew me, you would know how vocal I am about mental illness, and that I fight against cultural problems (I nurse my babies in Sacrament Meeting, I am never afraid to raise my hand against bigotry in RS or SS or speak out in my callings).

Ugh. I'm just frustrated that you would come over here, to my little place in the blogosphere, and tell me how wrong I am for getting better and how wrong I am for sharing that with others. If you saw my Facebook page and saw the private messages I was receiving, you'd realize I'm not hurting people.

I will NEVER assume my experiences will work for others, but could you please refrain from assuming my experience is still somehow wrong, simply because you don't like it?

Cheryl said...

And P.S. You also need to know that medication is working well for me, too. I've been on and off meds for years and years and I'm always better on the meds. So even though I'm pregnant --I'm on the meds. And I don't keep that a secret, either.

I also have a really deep suspicion that if we knew each other and hadn't met this way (you finding my blog somehow), we might actually like each other. So, I also apologize for my hormonal (although completely valid) response to your comment.

Mother of the Wild Boys said...

What I love about this post is that you are finding what works for you and OWNING it! Enough to stand up for your choices to strangers, for goodness sakes. Your loyal readers and friends know that you have never set yourself up as any kind of "authority", quite the opposite. You have been willing to share your stumbles, your moments of hitting the wall, your frustrations...and that makes it all the more sweet for us when we see you succeeding.

So much of my depression is exacerbated by the feeling that I have no control over my own situation, so I can totally identify with how empowering it is to find your groove within your struggle. Thanks for sharing. Love you.

Cheryl said...

Thank you, MOTWB. <3

Brenda said...

The Prefect Mormon Woman Meme is a shorter way of saying: Women who expect perfection and can do it all! They judge themselves more than anyone else and consider themselves as a failier(?)/not good enough/selfish/not righteous, etc. if they cannot accomplish EVERYTHING they are asked to do by their bishop, kids, spouse, neighbors, family, friends, etc. They never have time for themselves.

Cheryl said...

Brenda, I know what the Perfect Mormon Meme is. I was expressing exasperation and confusion because she was insinuating that I was giving into it and also perpetuating it.