In part one of this series, we met Melinda and Sharon (composites, not actual people), two women for whom the holidays mean obligation rather than joy. We saw how Melinda was primarily concerned with who would be most disappointed if she didn’t spend the holidays with them, and Sharon spiraled into debt, buying presents for everyone under the sun.
The holidays are a perfect time to practice “courage under fire.” So much is expected of us, and we want to be there for others. But self-esteem demands that we behave with integrity, honesty, and fairness. When we’re not being fair to ourselves, self-esteem suffers. We are literally failing to esteem ourselves. Putting others first is a noble choice… but only when it is a choice.
Too often, our giving is a knee-jerk reaction to our own feelings of inadequacy. “If only I can make others happy, I will be good enough,” whispers the voice in the the back of our minds. Low self-esteem convinces us that we aren’t good enough unless we’re giving something—our time, our money, our energy, our attention—to someone else who might want it.
What if you were to think about what you want for the holidays this year? What are your expectations? Who do you want to please you with their presence, or their presents?
But hold on, what about the old saying: “It’s better to give than to receive?”
There is truth in that statement. But are Melinda (“I should spend the holidays with…”) and Sharon (“I need to get a gift for…”) really giving? Are they truly experiencing the joy of giving to others, or are they managing their relationships with approval-seeking behavior?
When we peel away the veneer of generosity, we might discover that what Melinda and Sharon are actually doing is manipulating the people in their lives. They are trying to control others by giving time and money in exchange for approval and goodwill. Manipulating people, consciously or not, is something we do when self-esteem is low and we feel powerless. We need their approval, desperately, just to feel okay, so we do whatever is necessary to get it.
Both Melinda and Sharon need to move into a place of self-approval, but they can’t gain self-approval simply by wishing to feel that way. The only way to do this is through gaining a new experience of themselves through new behaviors. Each woman will need to face her fears and take the risk of doing some reality testing. This will likely involve communicating clearly, instead of acting on assumptions about what others want.
What happens if Melinda lets everyone know exactly what she wants to do this year? Will everyone get angry and disown her? More likely, some will understand and others will be disgruntled. Melinda will likely feel she is being selfish, and some people might help her feel that way. She will have to tolerate a sense of disapproval.
Sharon can do reality-testing by buying fewer gifts for fewer people. What really happens if she doesn’t give the shirt off her back? Will she still be loved, or even liked? She will have to tolerate her own feelings of guilt or fear about not giving enough.
This is the price of integrity. This is why we continue to try to please others: pleasing people may be a drag sometimes, but it’s easier than tolerating the feelings that come up when we don’t.
If they can withstand their own discomfort, both women might be surprised by what their risk-taking uncovers. Melinda might discover that her mother is perfectly happy spending Christmas with friends. Sharon might learn that some people are actually relieved not to get such extravagant presents!
Melinda and Sharon will never know what lies on the other side of their reality-testing until they take the risk of changing their current behavior. They can’t keep doing the same thing and expect to feel different about it. Nothing will change until they change their behavior. Self-esteem is heightened when we face our fears with courage, tolerate difficult feelings, and navigate uncomfortable interactions with honesty and genuine caring instead of compulsive self-sacrifice.
The holidays provide many opportunities for us to practice esteeming ourselves, as well as others. Start small, communicate clearly, and be compassionate with yourself no matter what happens.
© Copyright 2010 by By Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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