Self Esteem - A Narrative for Healing

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2 + 2 = 5

When we don't feel strong in ourselves or even like ourselves it is said we have low self esteem.  Self esteem is seen by Psychologists as a personality trait and is therefore thought to be a stable and enduring trait. Low self esteem can be the byproduct of a dysfunctional family upbringing, insensitive/cruel peers or relationships or a punitive self evaluation paradigm.  Whatever the cause of the condition it has a debilitating effect on a persons ability to seek out goals and lifestyle choices that bring about a fulfilling lifestyle. Low self esteem can direct a person to accept from life (whether it be in relationships, financial circumstances or careers ) much less than they are capable of or to pursue personal goals that would otherwise enrich their lives.

But how to understand this and then to change it?  As a Clinical Psychologist of almost 40 years of practice, I have come across countless individuals who, as a byproduct of another mental health challenge (or possibly the underlying cause of their mental health challenge), have low self esteem. 

As with all my treatment approaches in therapy I seek to find a means by which my clients can understand the challenge that they are facing and provide them with the most direct route in addressing the challenge.  Over the years this has resulted in using narratives in therapy to meet this goal. The following narrative (entitled 2+2=5) is used in situations where my clients struggle with low self esteem.

As with all my narratives, this one starts with "Back in the day".  When I was a financially struggling PhD student, I needed to be able to put a roof over my head and food on the table like everyone else, but the rigors and demands of a PhD education make finding a job difficult. I stumbled upon a good solution. Substitute teaching. As a substitute teacher I would be called in the morning around 6.30am and asked if I could attend a local school that day. If I had studies or an internship I could just say no and they might call me again the next day. As a substitute teacher the hours were school day hours, no papers to mark, the lesson plan was provided and there was little in the way of responsibility. The lesson plan was always revision so as long as the children did not get too bored, it really was an easy gig.

For the sake of my story lets say that I have accepted teaching at a primary school this morning. I go to the school and introduce myself to the Principal of the Primary school and I am escorted to a classroom of 1st grade students. I am introduced to the students and note that the lesson plan from their teacher for the day is maths. I ask the children to open their math books to page 1 and start writing on the blackboard 1+1=2...... 2+2=4..... 4+4=8 and as I am writing I hear laughter from behind me. I turn and ask the young boy in the front row who is still laughing "what is so funny?" He replies, "that is mister (pointing at the blackboard). 2+2 doesn't equal 4 it equals 5!"  I am feeling like I probably have the village idiot here so I ask the village. "Who agrees with Johnny here that 2+2=5?"  Imagine my shock when every child's hand in the classroom goes up!!!!!  I ask the class "who taught you that 2+2=5?" The reply comes as "Mrs. Jones, Mister, from the beginning of the school year!"

Stepping away from the story now. How difficult or easy do you think its going to be for me as a substitute teacher to teach these children that 2+2=4?? 

I have been telling this story for over 10 years and the overwhelming majority of people suggest this will be difficult. Why?  I have boiled it down to three reasons. 1) Time..... the children have been taught that 2+2=5 from the beginning of the school year, it is all they know.   2) Authority..... The children have been told by everyone that their teacher should be listened to and that because she is a teacher she knows what she is talking about (plus children of this age aren't going to question their teacher).  and 3) Loyalty..... Little Annie at the back of the class loves Mrs. Jones. She is her first big school teacher and she isn't going to accept that her teacher might be wrong from a man she has never met before.  NO..she is going to wait until Mrs. Jones comes back tomorrow and tell on this man. 

The point of the story is this. All of us are very good students. We learn things all the time. However we are not responsible for those individuals who come into our life or we happen upon that teach us poor lessons. They are just bad teachers. Possibly with their own agenda or they are cruel or wish to manipulate others or they have had bad teachers and have passed the lesson forward. The problem is that deep down we know that the lessons are wrong but we hold on to them anyway. Sometimes with unbelievable stubbornness and tragic consequences.

If we go back to the story for a minute. Obviously, as a teacher I will try my best to teach the children that 2+2=4. A child from this class demonstrating that 2+2=5 somewhere in the community or with peers will have a terrible effect on their self esteem (laughed at by others and bullied for their stupidity) but the most important question is.... what must the children bring to the lesson to learn that 2+2=4? Something that I call "a suspension of belief."  They must be able to question whether the lessons they have learnt hold up against teachings from other teachers but to do this they must first question whether the lesson they were taught is real. It is in therapy that these lessons are addressed, identified for what they are (bad lessons) and replaced with good/useful ones. 

To boil the whole thing down to a few words. It would be "Never accept criticism as true from an individual you would never ask advice."