“Self-esteem has two interrelated components. One is a sense of basic confidence in the face of life’s challenges: self-efficacy. The other is the sense of being worthy of happiness: self-respect.” Nathaniel Branden, The Six Pillars Of Self-Esteem , p.26
“High self-esteem is intrinsically reality oriented....In tests, low self-esteem individuals tend to underestimate or overestimate their abilities; high self-esteem individuals tend to assess their abilities realistically.” ibid, p. 46
Self confidence and a belief that one is “worthy of happiness” are, according to Mr Branden, the cornerstones of self-esteem. Mental illness attacks self-esteem undermining self-confidence and repeatedly challenging the idea that one is worthy of happiness. Those that survive severe mental illness at some point have to fight for their right to exist. Along with fighting for the right to exist comes the fight to believe that one is not “evil” or “a loser” but essentially good and equal to others who are good. For many, this is an ongoing battle sometimes fierce other times mild. It is this battle with the unseen and often unknown that pulls the sufferer away from reality and balance. Everyone needs to strive towards a healthy self-esteem but especially the mentally ill. But how do we as victims of psychosis have confidence in and self-respect for ourselves after experiencing various kinds of hell on earth?
I suffer from poor self-esteem but I’m a survivor and though I get tired I still fight each day to recover a sense of balance so that I can be a confident, creative, life affirming individual. But while I fight the fight I lose perspective. I doubt myself and unknowingly I reinforce the belief that I do not deserve to be happy. I need to question my doubts. Why don’t I deserve to be happy? I look at all the mistakes I’ve made in my life that have culminated in severe mental illness and I think I must be responsible for my own downfall. If only I had made better choices maybe I never would have gone down the path of mental illness. But really did I or does anyone deserve the torture of psychosis? I don’t believe so. And yet, somewhere inside, I must believe that I am the exception. I give in to my insecurity and depression. I sabotage my efforts. I get overwhelmed by what I should be doing but don’t do. I isolate myself from others.
I don’t do this intentionally. I do this out of habit and because I don’t have the awareness yet to take another course of action. In the philosophy of the twelve steps there is something called the Three A’s: Awareness, Acceptance, Action. Reading this book on self-esteem is yet another attempt out of many to wake up to what it is I do and what it is in my power to change. In the first year of my delusions and paranoia the voices used to say cynically “Remember to forget” and “Forget to remember”. I still suffer from this negative programming. I find myself learning something and then forgetting it. Hence, I am out of necessity repetitive. I value awareness even as I struggle to achieve it. I do see it as the first step. Without awareness there is nothing and no possibility for constructive change.
But still I’m avoiding the basic premise for self-esteem and that is that I deserve to be happy. If I don’t reinforce this idea then I won’t intuitively reach for it. After surviving the hell of active psychosis I learned to be grateful that I was no longer suffering acutely. The more grateful I felt, the less I suffered. I found times of contentment. Still, I couldn’t exactly call myself a happy person. I wasn’t miserable and sometimes I felt good but I knew and know now that I am not truly happy. And part of why I stay in this not quite happy state is that I don’t take the time to consider what it is that would make me happy. Or rather I have some idea (a clean house, creative work, a friend) but I don’t take the practical steps needed to make my idea of happiness a reality. I don’t take the time to visualize myself as a successful person. I accept a kind of limbo existence, sort of okay and sort of not okay.
I have to unlearn the lessons my illness so painfully taught me. I have to learn to respect my courage, endurance and honesty in the face of overwhelming odds. I have to teach myself that I deserve love and happiness.