The Three Year Experiment

From my newsletter this week:

For years, a tiny handwritten sign hung in my bathroom, giving me instructions for how to begin each day. It said, “What is your story today? What do you want it to be? Write your story. Look the part. Act the part. Feel the story. Listen to the wisdom of the universe and your guides. Be the best you that you can be.”

Every day we have the choice to either drop automatically into whatever our mind, the media, or our circumstances tell us about who we are, or we can take the small amount of time and energy required to reflect upon who we want to be, and make the effort to live into that. I have noticed that people who have a truly healthy sense of self-esteem--neither being dragged along by the nose ring of ego nor crouched in the corner of self-abnegation--are the people who are willing to really reflect upon their own stories, listen with receptivity and discernment to the stories and evaluations of others, and then sift their minds and experiences carefully enough to bring forward only what they truly wish to exemplify in the world. Otherwise, I see how many people suffer due to the stories of worthlessness and powerlessness they allow to penetrate their lives uncritically, or that are forced upon them.

As the new year approaches, I thought I might share an exercise I did that took me three years, that helped me come to a more honest, compassionate, and loving story of myself. I hope this helps you. Maybe it won’t take you as long as it took me!

For one year, I made the new year’s resolution that no matter what compliment was given to me, I would just say, “Thank you,” with no further elaboration. I would not criticize the giver, I would not criticize or reject the compliment. I would not nervously rush to explain anything about myself in reply. I would just say, “Thank you.” That year taught me that a) many people really give compliments as a gift, and what a precious gift they truly are, b) some people give compliments as a hook, and if you don’t bite, much is revealed about the nature of the relationship, and c) there is a quiet grace in learning to just receive in the moment and evaluate later in privacy.

The next year, I took the next step, and every time someone gave me a criticism, I vowed to just say, “Thank you,” with no argument, no defensiveness, and no resistance to it (unless I had to correct something that was specifically untrue). I learned that a) many people who open with critique are actually just seeking a dialogue, b) criticism is very useful when one moves past the emotions about it, and c) that I can sit with a criticism for a while and then decide to either incorporate it or reject it. No part of listening to criticism implies automatic acceptance or necessitates change on my part.

The third year of the experiment, I vowed to just say, “Thank you,” regardless of whether someone gave me a compliment OR a criticism. This was the year where I broke through and realized something very powerful: that I am the author of my own story, every day, regardless of whatever other stories are happening around me. I also learned that compliments and criticisms are neither to be wholesale accepted nor rejected, that they both sometimes come with strings that are the root of people’s yearning for power rather than authentic connection, and that when I remain unswayed by either the lure of praise nor the fear of critique, I am better able to remain steadfast and clear in doing my real work in the world.

Self-esteem is only useful insofar as it empowers you to take action, make change, or live out loud in a whole, real way. Sitting around wondering if you are good enough or not good enough to be active in your own life accomplishes nothing and really only causes suffering, as we will always have plenty of input to suggest both are true. Instead, maybe give it a try and just say, “Thank you” to all the gifts of input that come your way, then make your own decisions about who you are and what you want your story to be in the world. That is real self-esteem.