In the latter decades of the 20th Century, building positive self-esteem in children became a widely accepted and influential concept in psychotherapy, parenting, and education.  Years later, with decades of implementing esteem building interventions, it turns out self-esteem isn’t as effective a standard of psychological health as it was originally thought to be.

Educators, coaches, parents, youth workers and psychotherapists have spent decades trying to help kids “feel good about themselves.”  Yet it turns out that self-esteem is highly resistant to change, may cause self-distortions, and is associated with narcissism and bullying.  On top of the evidence that it isn’t the most helpful construct for supporting identity development , the notion that we should always feel good about ourselves and our lives doesn’t leave room for what Judith Viorst termed the “necessary losses” of real life.

Dynamic Duo Working Out at Dynamic Advantage

This week I participated in my first group strength training class at Dynamic Advantage in Eagle Rock.  I was a good ten or fifteen years younger than my classmates.  But some of those gals were surprisingly strong!  One of the two “Pats” in the class was doing tricep pushdowns with several times the amount of resistance I was using.

Dynamic Strength for Everyone!

In an earlier season of my life I might have experienced a drop in self-esteem, feel “bad” about myself and judge myself for being such a slouch.  I prided myself on my strength and fitness.  My body identity was largely built on comparing myself to you, being superior, and allowing the good feelings of being “better than” you enhance my sense of self.  I don’t like admitting it.  Yet, it’s the precise dynamic that years of academic evaluation, athletic competition, and cultural tutelage in building my esteem by being at the top of the class  or having my dog win the “best in show” have taught me.

Yesterday I noticed a small dark line beneath my eye.  Thinking it was an eyelash, I used my pinky to brush it away.  No such luck!  Turns out,  it’s a permanent documentation of my recent life experience.  Dehydrated, un-moisturized, and fifty years old—I’ve got the wrinkles to prove it!

This week I discussed loss and grief with my marital and family therapy students.  Several students spoke of experiencing a loss of physical strength and fortitude.  One said in his younger years he felt invincible as he ran for miles, feeling more energized the further he ran.  “I can’t do that anymore.  It doesn’t feel good.  After a few miles I start to hurt.”

Even though we know these physical changes are normal, as another student put it, we still don’t  like them.   And we often don’t “like” ourselves during the moments they preoccupy our minds. It’s difficult to extend loving care to someone we have a negative attitude toward.  In a similar way, not “liking” ourselves often becomes a barrier to the very work we need to do to feel better.   Somewhere along the line we’ve come to value “liking” ourselves in a way that inhibits truly “loving” ourselves, just as we are, on any given day, in whatever state of health and success or illness and failure we might be.

Disappointment, frustration, sadness and anger are expect responses to loss.    Just as we must grieve the death of a loved one or loss of a job so that we can move forward into new life possibilities, physical changes bring real losses that must be acknowledged and integrated. And grief doesn’t necessarily feel good!

I wonder if the ladies I work out with feel “good” about how they look?  Do they “like” their wrinkles, sags, thinning hair, and widening mid-sections?  Do they feel affection for the necessary losses of their once youthful bodies and faces? Or are they too busy living their lives to the fullest, enjoying themselves and making the most of each moment to bother with such antiquated notions as self-esteem?

That deep line under my eye is part of the package of living long enough to get old!  A friend is grieving the death of his twenty-six year old nephew.  That young man will never have the privilege of developing wrinkles under his eyes. My classmate Pat is stronger than me–good for her!  And, good for me.  I want to be like Pat when I am sixty-something: wispy white hair, lots of life documented on ever surface of her face and body, and enjoying every second of cranking out those tricep pushdowns!