A poor self-image is connected to low self-esteem, and self-image is one of the biggest negative issues in recovery. In order to recover, we need to avoid defining ourselves in terms of our “character defects” and “shortcomings.” Yes, when working on the 4th and 5th Steps we need to consider these things, but as any good sponsor will tell you, we also list and discuss the good things about ourselves. It’s not all one-way. We bring positives to the table as well as negatives.
To think of ourselves in terms of the things we need to change gives them power. Constantly dwelling on them makes them seem insurmountable. It causes us to live in the past, which we can’t change, or in the future, which we can’t predict or control. In recovery, our goal is to live in today (“Yesterday’s history; tomorrow’s a mystery”), and that’s really hard to do when we’re focused on the “things we cannot change” rather than changing the things we can.
Skillful or Unskillful?
Everyone has made mistakes, is making them daily, and will make plenty more in the future. It’s part of the human condition. God is the only being who is mistake-free (we won’t mention mosquitos), and we aren’t him, her or it. Rather than focusing on the things we’ve messed up in the past and worrying about whether we’ll be able to do better in the future, we need to stay in the present and concentrate on our good qualities. We can appreciate our abilities, whatever they may have been, and also those we are learning. If we are angry and are able to recognize it and deal with it, isn’t that a huge accomplishment? Celebrate it!
A couple of nights ago I was explaining to a sponsee the Buddhist concept of “skillful” and “unskillful” thoughts and deeds. Buddhists don’t think of things as right or wrong, black or white. The idea of one act condemning an otherwise pretty decent person to perdition isn’t part of their world view. Instead, they think of thoughts and behavior as being skillful or unskillful.
If I am skillful at something, I can appreciate my skills. Others may be more skillful, and some days I may not be skillful at all, but if I blow it I have a world of opportunity to do it better the next time. If I am unskillful (instead of — say — bad or sinful) I simply determine that I will do better the next time, make any repairs or amends that I need to, and get on with life. I’m not bogged down in guilt, shame and recrimination, because I am able to admit to myself and to others that I am a human being, fallible but able to improve, not a god.
We can support this view of ourselves in a few simple ways: positive supports instead of critics; affirmations; journaling on our achievements every day, even the little ones (Getting the laundry done on time is progress, isn’t it?); we can make lists of our good qualities and resolve to apply them to the way we live, and so forth. You can probably think of several more.
Self-image is largely a point of view. We have trained ourselves to have a pretty low opinion of us. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can admit that we’re unskillful at some things, and resolve to try and be more skillful in the future.
This, then, is the Middle Way
Not black, nor white, but shades of gray.