Things you have to learn for yourself

There are a lot of things in life that one has to experience for yourself. Other people can try to describe for you what it feels like or how to do it, but ultimately until you try it, perhaps fail a little, and then get it right, you can’t really know what it is. Singing is one of those things. I took voice lessons for at least eight years. My teacher would use imagery to try to communicate. He would demonstrate. He could tell me when I was finally getting it right. But he couldn’t allow me to look inside at his larynx, his lungs, his diaphragm to see how they worked when he was doing it.

The best we could do was for me to think of the imagery he provided and try it myself. If he told me I had it right I could then mentally bookmark what my body was doing and try to duplicate that more in the future. This is why it can be very difficult to become a famous singer–it’s not a precise science.

It occurred to me the other day that self esteem is similar. If you have poor self esteem you may at least recognize that is the case. But how, exactly, do you go about changing that? What does good self esteem feel like? What do those thought processes look like? How do you know when you have good self esteem, and when you’re overshooting the mark and becoming egotistical?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could spend some time in the head of another person so we could examine their thought processes and compare them to our own? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to benchmark your own mind, so that you could identify negative thoughts the moment they appear in your head–even before they get a chance to come out, perhaps? You’d be able to see when you were being unduly hard on yourself. You’d be able to recognize that seemingly innocent thoughts are undermining your calm and resolve.

Of course I’m only assuming that people with high self esteem think differently. Perhaps they don’t. Perhaps I might find the thought processes of such people are not significantly different than my own already. Would I find that discouraging? What if the difference were small enough that no quick fix was evident?

Not that anyone would ever want someone to be able to hear their thoughts. I know I wouldn’t want anyone hearing mine, no matter how useful it might be. Not even the low-level instinctive feelings, let alone the higher-level internal conversations. As useful as it might be, I’m not sure I would even be willing, assuming the technology was available, to have my thoughts recorded even with absolute guarantee of anonymity.

So I guess on some things I’m on my own. Perhaps what I need is to take a page from my college voice lessons and find a self-esteem coach. But I see at least two obstacles there. The first would be finding someone I would trust to do it right. That sort of person would likely be something of a psychologist or  professional counselor. I’ve been to one before. Years ago someone close to me was involved in a fairly public scandal, and counseling was made available for those of us impacted. I was fortunate that there was someone who shared my religious beliefs. Even then I found it difficult opening up to this person, and had a hard time believing her when she tried to reassure me I was normal, what I was feeling was normal, and everything was okay.

That would be the second issue–my issues are deeply entrenched. I’m not sure even when they took root. Such things do not resolve easily. I would probably fight it every step of the way. And on some level I like my issues. They give me permission to not do some things I find unpleasant. It’s a feedback loop: I don’t like talking to strangers, so it’s easier to just not talk to strangers–which makes me dislike talking to strangers all the more.

See what I mean? Someone who likes meeting new people finds such thinking completely alien. And I would find their thinking incomprehensible. But no one is going to the extrovert telling them they need to learn to be more reserved. By society’s standards I’m the one with the problem. And since my personality gets in the way of what I want sometimes, I’m inclined to agree, at least in some cases. But how do I get here? I don’t know what the destination looks like, and I’m resistant to challenging my deep-set beliefs about myself.

I caught myself in the act recently. A friend paid me a high compliment, and I immediately noticed my mental heels digging in and the walls going up: No, I’m not a good person! That was only one time! If only he knew how horrible I really am! No! Wait! Don’t tell him how horrible you really are! Just acknowledge the compliment and move on–quickly! Nothing to see here! My response was somewhat awkward, but probably not for the reasons he might have thought. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if this friend knows me well enough to have some idea the internal conflicts I deal with.

Like I said, I don’t know how I got this way. In a way, it doesn’t matter, except perhaps for what keys it might reveal as to how to fix it. I suspect it wasn’t any one incident or situation. I suspect a lot of it is just because of my natural introversion and tendency to live inside my own head. I wasn’t an only child, but with four to seven years between me and my closest siblings, I may as well have been for long periods of each day. I learned to be my own best friend, and filled in the rest from my own imagination. I don’t recall having any particular difficulty making friends when I went to school, though I don’t recall how I did it, either.

But somewhere along the way I learned I wasn’t “normal”, reinforced by the fact that some people picked on me for reasons I couldn’t ascertain. I knew I shouldn’t pay attention to them, and I did my best to ignore them. They never seemed to lose interest like they were supposed to, though. What had I ever done to them? And somewhere along the way I learned to care a little too much about what people thought.

I don’t care so much about my own struggles. What bothers me the most is situations where I let others shame me from doing what I knew was right. For example, in high school I rode the bus home much of the time. On our bus was a girl with developmental issues. She was pleasant enough, but she had a habit of attaching herself to any boy who showed her any attention, immediately declaring him her boyfriend. I was one of the few who didn’t avoid her, and so I became her “boyfriend”, and she would go on and on about how nice I was, for everyone to hear.

The trouble was that several of my female friends thought this was immensely hilarious and seldom skipped an opportunity to tease me about it. These were kids who should have known better, mind you. But while I never entirely let them dissuade me from treating this girl decently, I was also never able to not feel awkward about it, on terribly conflicted inside–and guilty for feeling so conflicted. Doing the right thing shouldn’t have felt so uncomfortable.

I remained friends with this girl for quite a few years after that, but while it got easier without my tormentors still around, I was never able to get past the awkwardness. I hear stories of young people who are able to overlook such difficulties and love people unconditionally, and I feel ashamed that I never could achieve that myself. It’s not much consolation to look back and realize that those “friends” who teased me bear their own share of the responsibility. They did what they did. But my actions were mine, and I knew better, too.

There are no do-overs in life. That and many other incidents where I handled life poorly will always be with me. They would be easier to look back on if I could confidently say I’ve changed and overcome those deficiencies of character. I doubt I’m any more able to stand up to someone like that today and tell them off than I was back then.

I know I need to change. I know there are parts of who I am that are not who I should be. They do me no credit, and they should be at least removed if not replaced with something positive. But how, exactly? Like water down a hillside, my thoughts have been eroding their own pathways for decades. How do you divert the stream?

I don’t know, but it’s time I found out, before I get any older. So I can at least stop repeating so many of the same mistakes.

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4 Responses to Things you have to learn for yourself

  1. Actually Thom, extroversion CAN be considered too much. Extroverts can be considered nosey for inserting themselves into situations where they were not wanted etc. You’ve talked about a lot of stuff in this one, but let me assure you that if your good friend is as good a friend as you say that he is, he is likely well aware of your struggles and knew exactly what was going on at that time. 😉

  2. Well, it also says something about that good friend that he, knowing I will likely respond the way I do, still gives me compliments anyway.

  3. It says that either 1) your friend recognizes quality even though you don’t or 2) your friend is a sadistic little poop who enjoys your discomfiture.

  4. The two are not incompatible.

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