​The Trap of Self-Esteem and how to Break Free

“Build your self-esteem by not thinking about it.” So tweeted Yoko Ono recently and it got me thinking about the trap of confidence and self-esteem. For everyone, and perhaps for those in the arts especially, self-esteem and confidence can be fraught topics. Artists spend their lives exposing that which is innermost and personal. Not only do we put the depths of our being out into the world, we also open ourselves up to judgment by all who encounter this very personal work. Together, these things can make for a harsh environment at times.

It is easy to get caught up in a cycle of constant worry about self-confidence and self-esteem. We feel as though we must focus on these things in order to be sure they are up to the task of protecting us from the slings and arrows of the every day. Like anything, the more we dwell on these things the less we allow ourselves to truly live. It is all too easy to get caught in the trap of inner monologue and forget that there is a whole world happening around us.

How do we break the cycle then? Is there a way to simply stop worrying about whether we are confident enough to handle the world around us? Another quote by a brilliant woman goes like this, “only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.” Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun, is responsible for these words and they also have the ring of truth.

It is no easy task to face the world as an artist every day, but we do it. Even the simple task of telling people that you are an artist opens you up to all sorts of questions and judgment. Surely it’s only a hobby. You can’t make a living as an artist. Do these sound familiar?

As an artist you are demanding a heroic act of yourself on a regular basis. The easy thing would be to forget all about it, turn tail and run, put down your paintbrush, pack away the sculpting tools, find a safe job behind a desk where no one will make personal judgments about your work. But is this the life that will make you feel fulfilled? Of course not.

Artists must expose themselves to annihilation again and again. That is not to say that they must constantly face harsh criticism for their work. Of course this is always a possibility, but when we refer to annihilation here we mean simply the very act of exposing our work to the world. This is how we escape the trap of constant worry about confidence and self-esteem. This is how we build it by not thinking about it.

Just like any habit, the key is to take action (or indeed to cease action) in order to break it. No one gives up smoking by simply thinking about doing it. It is the act of putting down the pack of cigarettes and not picking them up again that leads to success. It isn’t an easy thing to do, and similarly breaking the habit of worrying about our own self-esteem isn’t an easy thing to do. We must take action in order to build ourselves up. We must fly in the face of self-doubt and do it anyway.

At first it may feel strange or even overwhelming to go against the little voice that holds us back but, over time, these actions will replace old habits of constant worry. In this way, we begin to develop a natural confidence and self-esteem rather than a forced sense of these things. We do this in our lives all the time without thinking about it really. Rarely do many of us consider the inner dialogue when we go about our daily lives but there was a time when everything we do so routinely was new and intimidating.

The bottom line is that we do not need to understand the root cause of every single feeling and action. Rather we need to discontinue the behavior, in this case a rotating inner dialogue about our own worth and abilities, and replace with action. For those of us in the arts, this could feel entirely counter-intuitive. An inward focus is part and parcel of what we do so letting go of this can be a struggle. It takes intentional action to remove ourselves from the whirlpool of self-doubt that can cause us to ultimately freeze up. By taking small actions every day, exposing ourselves, despite the fear, to those situations that push us outside our comfort zone we begin to build new habits. This is one way of interpreting the words of Yoko Ono. This is one way to “build your self-esteem by not thinking about it.”

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