Sunday, November 29, 2009

Self Esteem and Affirmation

Self esteem is an individual's sense of his or her value or worth, or the extent to which a person values himself. Approval, appreciation, worth, value and liking of one’s self…are all wrapped up in one's sense of self esteem.

For patients who live with chronic illness self esteem is a tricky thing. Apparently, if one is diagnosed early in life, during one’s formative years, then one’s sense of self esteem can be affected. I can imagine how hard it must be for adolescents and teenagers to manage growing up with illness that affects them daily and on many occasions impedes their social development. How difficult it must be to be a social creature and “hang with the gang” when one is in pain, and unable to leave home or is in hospital… and what that does to the young patient’s self esteem is incomprehensible to other, healthy young people, and to many adults.

I “came” to chronic illness later in life, after university and marriage, and was diagnosed after having had two children, so a lot of life’s landmark events had taken place in my life. My self esteem had always been closely associated to doing well in school, largely to please my father for whom it was important, and also because I loved reading, and really didn’t have many other areas in which to shine though I managed to do well in whatever I tried even if I wasn’t overly adventurous in life. I had ups and downs; years when things went brilliantly, then a slow period, and then a good span of years, and then quiet again… but overall it was good, and it made me feel good about myself. I dabbled in debating which again went well, and certainly my ego had the occasional boost, and I relished standing up to a crowd of complete strangers and making them laugh and believe the nonsense I’d made up the night before… how thrilling! :

When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease I was in the midst of motherhood, a far cry from academia and debating. A world of diapers and playgrounds, nursery rhymes and alphabets… and I enjoyed the notion that I was passing on whatever knowledge and experience I had acquired in life to my sons. Unfortunately, as the disease progressed the symptoms made it harder for me to do the things I wanted to do. I was going to be Super Mum and cook and clean and wash and be good at just about anything I put my hands to… and it turned out that I couldn’t be good at all that and eventually I was good at the barest minimum. In the process of giving up my ideals I lost my sense of self esteem too – because it was wrapped up in what I did, in my accomplishments rather than in who I was as a person.

I then had to revisit my ideas of who I was and how I saw myself. Was I a failure because I couldn’t do many things, because I grappled with pain, because I perceived that others thought I was a bad mother… because I perceived in the recesses of my mind that I was a bad mother…? Life became almost unbearable under such a burden until I eventually faced my demons and realized that I had not lost my self esteem as much as misplaced it – it was simply waiting to be found as I discovered who I was.

Motherhood brought with it what I like to call “The Shifting Sands Syndrome” which refers to the fact that just when you know what’s happening with your kids they grow and change and pull the rug out from under your feet, and the sands are shifting and, well, you’re basically slipping as the sands shift… till the next state of equilibrium. All this is made worse by the concurrent shifting sands phenomenon of life with chronic illness… I find a state of equilibrium and am relieved and happy bordering on ecstatic, and then that is taken away as the disease flares but it returns at some point in time and so the roller coaster ride goes on and I hang on desperately, trying to stay sane and smiling so everyone else remains happy.

I distinctly remember that a group activity I was involved in at church once decided to do an “Affirmation” session, where we would take turns to briefly affirm each other, the purpose being to encourage each other and to build one another up, and to look for positives in each other. I honestly cannot remember what my group members said about me that night, except for one remark about my hair, and how this person felt my hair looked better longer. Hmmm…. Maybe I only remember this remark because it seemed so… superficial, and as I hold very little value in the length of my hair the remark meant very little to me, and hardly registered as an affirmation.

This past week on Facebook, a friend of mine started a tag thingy… where people were invited to describe him in just one word, and then do the same for themselves, i.e. invite others to honestly describe them in one, and only one, word. I did this exercise, because I was curious as to what people thought of me. I decided to view it as an exercise in affirmation, and with bated breath I wondered if my hair would be featured…”Hairy”, “Long-Haired”, “Mane-licious” being perhaps a few options

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself described, among other things, as “indomitable”, “loyal”, “kind”, “incredible”, ”passionate”, “intriguing”, “entertaining”, “witty”, “captivating”, “articulate”, “quintessential”, “sensitive”, “MamaDrama”, “Mama”, and that all time laugh inducer, “Facebook”. I read this list and had a giggle, and felt rather thrilled, and then I wondered if it could really be true that this was how people viewed me, and if this was what I was… and as I did I could see myself reflected in these words. I could see that I was more than pain and illness, tears and sadness, and that at some points in my life I had risen above my difficulties and been these things to other people and had been perceived as such by friends who had an insight into who I was and what I was like… and they valued these things, in short they valued me. I felt so blessed. I felt like I could fly… I felt like I could face anything that came my way, and get through the worst that life could throw in my path.

I told myself I would write in my blog about Self Esteem and the power of Affirmation, and life with Chronic Illness, and how these three things came together for me last week. Take a moment to affirm someone in your life, someone who is struggling, someone who needs a boost, someone who may have misplaced their sense of self esteem and needs a bit of help getting back on track. It will do wonders! It did for me.

Thanks for reading.