Posts Tagged ‘self-esteem’

This is the “Danubio Esven Hair Curler Machine,” manufactured and used in Uruguay since 1932.    Photo from Vince Alongi on Flickr. My own hot rollers are not so draconian-looking; they are powder blue with “velvet” rollers.

I start with the piece above my eyes, where my bangs would be if I had them. When I started this process, heat and spray once a day, every morning and maybe an evening extra, I did have bangs.  I roll the swath of hair around the heated velvet surface, careful not to touch the end that went into the base. I could do this blindfolded, half asleep; I’ve been hot rolling my hair since junior high, twenty-one years minus the few when I had perms.

My hair is naturally wavy. If I let it air dry, it will wave and some strands will curl. You’d think this would be desirable, but I don’t like that I can’t control how exactly it will wave, and what it will do over the course of the day. I prefer to heat it all, section it off into two sizes of roller, and spray with hair spray for good measure. This way, I can predict how my hair will look throughout a day, after brushing again in the afternoon, and even the next morning.

Hair spray! Control! Not the stuff of meditation, or so I thought until this morning.

This particular morning, I was in a hurry because I had an appointment at the Rancho Cucamonga DMV. Also, because I thought they might photograph me for my driver’s license, I was being sure to hot roll my hair carefully. No messy side part or wonky curl-out-of-place for me—you keep your driver’s license for years and see it near daily; having an ugly photograph would require me to “lose” it so I could go and get another.

I usually curl my hair in seven portions; three along the top of my head, in the “bang” section and directly above and behind it, one over each ear, and the final back piece—right above the nape of my neck—usually gets divided in two.

This morning, when I got to that last section, above the nape of my neck, part of me said, “Oh, just put it onto one curler. No one will notice.”

Immediately another part said, “Shut up! We’re going to the DMV. We need to do this right.”

Two months ago, I would have done one of two things. Either I would have listened to the first voice, and said firmly to my-self, “Don’t be stupid. No one is going to see the back of your head, let alone photograph it. You’ll look good enough.”

Or, I would have listened to the second part, and said, “Absolutely. We’re going to be carrying this card around for years. We’ll feel bad if we don’t do the best we can with our hair.”

Either way, I would have shut down the alternate view, without a second thought.

On this day, as I started to follow the first part’s suggestion, I thought to my-self, “Well, that was a little harsh. I didn’t have to say ‘shut up.’”  So, I thought the following:

“I can see why you feel it’s so important to have great hair. Having pretty hair has been a currency, and gotten you a lot of good, for a very long time. You’ve had a lot of success from having great hair. And you’re right—it feels good to have a nice driver’s license photo. I appreciate that you care about that. I think in this case, though, we can still have a great photo and good hair, even without the one extra curl. The front of the hair will still look good for the photograph.”

That felt good. And then, like the sliding of an ice sheet when it starts to melt, something very slight but solid shifted inside of me. I suddenly remembered all of the interior words of judgment I’ve had for other women over the years. A day in NYC might have included the following interior monologue as I observed and judged others:

I can’t believe she’s plucking her eyebrows here on the train. How can she stand for us to see that? Why is she wearing white shoes with her black uniform stockings—even if she wants to be comfortable, she should buy some nice looking flats. Doesn’t that girl know that you don’t carry a straw purse in winter? Look at that fake Coach bag. She has lipstick on her teeth. I can see her bra straps. Why doesn’t she buy a new belt if she’s going to wear it every day? Our uniform is navy; I can’t believe she wears black with that. She needs to moisturize her cuticles. Her roots are showing…

Of course, a similar voice runs alongside, pointed at myself:

Why don’t you wear heels? It’s only a few blocks walking. You’re so slovenly to keep choosing comfort. I don’t care if your back hurts, you’re not carrying a backpack to the party. You need to get up early to put your hair up because it’s going to rain tomorrow and you’re not going to the meeting looking sloppy. Do not touch those cuticles. It doesn’t matter if the corset digs. You’re being photographed. No salt for three days before the pictures. I can’t believe you didn’t floss. It doesn’t matter if your ears hurt; these earrings make a statement…

Judging the appearance of other women was just an amplification of my own really harsh inner critic. And each fueled the other: the less patience I had for myself, the more hateful my thoughts about others—even my dearest friends. And for every negative thing I noticed about someone else, my own critic flared double time.

In the past, when I’ve considered compassionate practice, I’ve done it from an either-or perspective. Either in therapy I’ve worked on a kinder self-voice, or working alone a harsh “Christian” inner voice would insist that judging others is a sin. I am not surprised that I never made much progress in either; it seems that neither voice was being listened to or affirmed, and without me attending to them, they were all the more unhappy and pointed.

Pema Chödrön’s simple, encouraging voice is a great model for this work. She uses phrases like, “no big deal,” and “simply label it.” Even when we want to curse at our slow learning and sharp internal thoughts, she reassures us that this is part of our human habit, and practicing compassion will encourage more fruit than continuing in our brittle way.

Chödrön’s optimism that we have more going on inside ourselves that we think—that is, she sees the positive potential in me, when all I see is a brittle pattern of self-blame and not-enough-ness—this also is such a relief in a sea of self-help articles and quizzes to see how self-centered or “dependent” we are. Chödrön writes, “To your surprise, there’s a big world there,” and “The world opens up and suddenly we’re there for what’s happening…we have the ability to drop our [previously deeply held] story line, to rouse ourselves” (66).

This rousing is what I experienced when I felt my “ice sheet shifting.” I had an alternate story line—one of appreciation and delight at my own blessed body and those I encounter moving through the world—there in the possible undercurrents of my heart all along.  And not that I needed to silence the voice that kept me from seeing/sensing this—Earley’s words of compassion for every part of myself allowed me to hear, identify, listen, and affirm even the parts I would have thought were keeping me from a more life-affirming stance. Instead of getting rid of those voices, I gave them a bit of light and a bit of fresh air—that which we all need!—and to my surprise, I discovered more about myself from recognizing it.

I notice now that when Jay Earley describes “developing a trusting relationship” with a part, or an exile, he’s really encouraging us to develop a trust-worthy center. That is, I will be more free to express my varying internal thoughts if the responses I give myself are kind, or at least not harsh. Long ago, a therapist taught me that feelings are feelings, and will find a way to express themselves. We can try to push them down, or away, or deny that we’re having them, but they will find a way to come out. Earley revealed one way to do this—to listen. Why am I surprised that a technique that has helped me in relationships, in teaching, and in mentoring teachers would work within myself? Chödrön modeled the kinds of phrases I might use instead—words of welcome, and patience, and affirmation.

John Makransky’s exhortation that we “discover” and then remember, receive, and reflect upon the “benefactors” of our life gave me concrete examples of how to marry my individual class work reflection on gratitude for compassion in my life with specific examples. I have had so many benefactors! And Makransky is correct—although my life has been filled with and shaped by their kindness and attention, it can be difficult to fight the habits of complaint, judgment, narrowed-eyes, and distrust of the people in line with me at the DMV (for example.)

Makransky shares Chödrön’s premise that we are essentially good, and capable of good. Makransky writes,

When we receive the wish of love, the wish for our happiness, we are instructed to trust that wish more than any limiting thoughts of ourselves…This takes us beyond our usual limitations, to extend the wish of love more inclusively and enduringly than we may have previously thought possible. To extend love ultimately to all beings gives us a glimpse into the vast capacity of love that was hidden in our being all along (96, emphasis mine).

I note that Makransky specifies that the wish of love is ours to “receive,” that is—it has already been given. What a revolutionary idea in a world where we are seduced into consuming the accoutrements we believe we need to “be” better versions of ourselves. We lack nothing—the love has already been given. Lest we doubt, meditating simply on a few people who have shown us care, however small, can begin a new habit in our minds.

My “compassion and gratitude notes” from the last few months include phrases and names:

“the lady at church who said she liked hearing me sing,” “the guy at the bike shop,” “the woman in the president’s office who took time to talk to me,” “the ING lady on the phone who was happy to keep explaining things to me,” “the old man at church,” “my old professor,” “Mrs. J always wrote such great comments on my papers,” “Miss Marilyn always made sure I had a dress to wear on Sundays,” “my stepdad was worried that I might not have a good TV,” “Sister CM always checks in on me.” And even: “bus driver was patient,” “the receptionist smiled encouragingly,” “the lady next to me squeezed my hand during prayer.”

It is as if, once I learned the posture of receiving, there was an abundance for me to receive. Once I opened my arms, they were filled with blooms of compassion. While I was practicing opening my arms to receive, I was also noting without judgment the inner thoughts that ran throughout the day. Instead of labeling them good or bad, I just followed Chödrön’s example and tried to say, “Huh. That’s a frustrated thought. Look at that.”

Then, incorporating Earley’s suggestions, I might add, “I can see that you feel frustrated. What do you need right now?” Remembering Makransky’s and Chödrön’s assertions that kindness, receiving, and listening are more fruitful than judging, I’d try to listen to that need, and even if I couldn’t hear it, respond with a kinder inner voice.  Of course, this is a new habit, and radically in opposition to the habits reinforced by the blogs and magazines I read daily, and the packaging of the things I buy.

I have noticed that I move easier in the world when I attend to my own thoughts and needs. I have also noticed that being compassionate to my self has encouraged a general posture of gratitude, openness, and willingness to be delighted by benefactors I come across.

Am I willing to let my hair wave on its own, to cede control over something to which I could simply let be and be grateful? Not yet, but the daily practice of curling my hair has changed—and the patience I now show myself is a growing patience I have for others.

And, as I am learning, the gratitude I can begin to feel when regarding my un-controlled hair is a gratitude I have access to all of the time. The love and affirmation are there; I must only practice receiving.  And above all, I remember this is practice—I have two decades’ worth of old synapses that are in a pattern of self-judgment and seeking glossy control. Makransky, Chödrön, and Earley reassure me that as I continue this new practice, it will be like warm streams of water on the rigidity of my old judgment; over time, those sheets of negative self-regard may finally break and float freer, leaving me better able to connect with myself and others.

I wrote this reflection on “self compassion” for a class on compassionate social engagement. Before we can begin the work of restorative justice and engaging socially, we must first learn to listen and show compassion for ourselves and those in our immediate communities.  To begin this work, I highly recommend the Pema Chödrön text.

Works Cited and Consulted

Chödrön, Pema. Start Where You Are. Boston: Shambhala. 2001.

Earley, Jay. Self-Therapy. Minneapolis: Mill City Press. 2009.

Makransky, John. Awakening Through Love. Boston: Wisdom Publications. 2007.


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I have a song that I listen to when I need to be revved up.  When I am feeling down, or not very smart, or not smart enough. When I’m applying for grad school, applying for grants, deciding to move, or feeling small.

There’s a drum roll, the cymbals clash, and then the bass starts up: I smile immediately, every time. I start to get excited.

“Where I come from isn’t all that great
My automobile is a piece of crap
My fashion sense is a little whack
And my friends are just as screwy as me.”

In fact, I have listened to this song while finishing, sealing, and mailing every grad school app I’ve ever completed (all four rounds). I have listened to it in celebration when I learned I was going to California.

“I didn’t go to boarding schools
Preppy girls never looked at me
Why should they I ain’t nobody
Got nothing in my pocket.”

“Take that, Harvard!” I holler to the mailbox.  “Take that, BU!” I shout as I shimmy and stomp around my apartment.

I sing harmony during the chorus:

“Beverly Hills – That’s where I want to be!
Living in Beverly Hills…
Beverly Hills – Rolling like a celebrity!
Living in Beverly Hills…

Look at all those movie stars
They’re all so beautiful and clean
When the housemaids scrub the floors
They get the spaces in between.”

I actually picture the esSex House during this verse, and Tom, Eric, and Jodut. I picture my sunroom bedroom, and to-do lists on the wall, and practice GRE math problems on the white board in the kitchen. I picture myself, triumphing intellectually, shaking my fist at everyone who ever thought he was above me in grad school, rocking an academic conference.

The best part is coming up. I always shout it.

“I wanna live a life like that
I wanna be just like a king
Take my picture by the pool
Cause I’m the next big thing!”


“Beverly Hills,” by Weezer. Self esteem in a thrumping, happy, rollicking tune. I always feel happy as soon as it starts, and capable of anything by the time it’s finished.

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Enumerated, because I want to blog, but won’t have time if I try to write “properly.”

1. Finally got my teaching certification in NY.  Been working on it in earnest since April.  I always joke that it’s a good thing I wrote a thesis on Kafka, because it prepares me for this numbing bureaucracy.  My salary is about to double, even if they pay me as a “first year teacher [not counting Missouri] with a Master’s.”

2. Tom has been staying with us. Wonderful. Three weeks earlier, and now he’s back, to visit us at school tomorrow, and spend the weekend.  Having him around reminds me of those early teaching mornings in the big house on Delmar, photo-taking exploration in early mornings in graveyards and abandoned houses in St. Louis, and broken-down dinner parties. Tarot card readers, wine in teacups, confessionals.

3. I’m doing _The Diary of Anne Frank_ with the seventh graders and _Romeo and Juliet_ with the ninth graders.  Today, I had college students in for the ninth grade performing _The Importance of Being Earnest._ They actually loved it; it was thrilling to see them love the live performance, staying fifteen minutes past dismissal without even noticing, lingering to ask questions and get close to the actors afterwards.

4. I am so excited to go to Cleveland for Thanksgiving next week. I love Matt’s family, and we have been so busy that we’re looking forward to just being in the car together for the drive, let alone the family time, cooking, dining, and togetherness. And maybe snow!

5. I got my hair cut two weeks ago. It’s shorter than I like, and more layered than I like. I don’t dislike it all the time, but I’m not crazy about it.  The actual hair cut _felt_ wonderful– her hands in my hair, the heaviness dropping, the combing and blow drying.  In the year leading up to the wedding,  I started cutting Matt’s hair, and he mine. I do a great job with his, but he was basically cutting along a straight-ish line at the ends of my hair. Being in a salon and having the full treatment was wonderful.  The ends look great, the hair looks healthy and strong, but I’m not thrilled sometimes when I see it flying around my head in the mirror. I guess it will grow?

6. I’m getting ready for the Sunday school Christmas pageant. Once again, I’m hearing from the tots what animals they want to be, and teaching old carols (I love the old carols best.) We had a Cookie Walk last Sunday, to raise money for a charity– the kids will research and learn about different charities throughout Advent, and then choose one and donate the money they raised.

7. My Mom and one of her friends was in town for four days. It was actually pretty nice.

8. I’m applying to PhD programs again… more soon on that.

Swedish sugar cookies (a classic in my childhood home) for the Cookie Walk.


Birthday tulips.


Cookie Walk!!


Light and shadows on the cathedral floor, St. John the Divine.

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Warts and all

First of all, because I’m a nerd, a quick etymology search tells me that “wart” is related to the word “verruca,” which means “swelling, wart.”  I made an instant connection.  Get it?  Remember Veruca Salt, from _Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory_?

Another search underlines the connection: “Dahl claimed that ‘Veruca Salt’ was the name of a wart medication he once had in his medicine cabinet” (Wikipedia).  She was a bad egg, “warts and all.”

Although, “warts and all” often has a slightly positive connotation, as in, “The candidate had nothing to hide; she was willing to talk to the press, warts and all.” Apparently, someone was painting Cromwell, and he wanted to be known as an honest man, not a gentlemanly soldier with vanities and affectations.  And he had a giant wart _on his face_, and didn’t mind being painted that way.

Note to my future biographers and potraitists: I want to be painted in the style of John Singer Sargent, for example.  Lots of light and luminescence.  No warts.

So: I have some warts.  I have one regular on on my ankle, and an entire constellation of plantar warts (flat, not raised) on the sole of my foot.  They are making me crazy.  I ruminate over them, over how ugly they are, over how they might spread, over getting rid of them.  I feel dirty and awful.  I _hate_ them.  I have tried cutting them out with nail clippers, and scraping them off with razor blades. Scary, I know.  And a mess, because it makes a mess of my foot, and doesn’t work.  But I want them _off_ and I can feel them all the time.  

I felt bad about using the doctor’s time with something so non-life-threatening and (relatively) insubstantial, but I couldn’t take it any more.  I need them gone.  I went today, and she was great.  She took care of one, and fixed up the scraping I’d done on my foot, and gave me a referral to a podiatrist.

She got out a big, colorful book with photos of amazingly horrible, terrible wart photographs.  I literally had to look away and focus on breathing.  The ugliness of them was outstanding.

But why do skin disorders bother us so?  If someone was talented, kind, smart, and good, but had fingers covered in warts upon warts… I wouldn’t want to take their hands.  And one of the photographs I’ve seen had a wart on the eyelid, hanging over the lashes.  I am riveted, and disgusted by these images.  And I feel so, so vain for worrying so much about these tiny, tiny things.

And no one even _sees_ my feet!  But just knowing they’re there…  My doctor said that warts don’t mean I’m dirty, or mean anything bad at all.  I said, “But there’s no euphimism for them–there’s no positive word for them–they have such a negative connotation.”  It’s true: I can call a zit a pimple, or a blemish, or even a spot, and feel better with each degree of positive connotation.  But what else can I call a wart?

I think, inspired by Mr. Dahl and Miss V. Salt, I will think of them as “bad eggs.”  Tiny, and many, but (merely?) bad eggs.  And soon, hopefully, they will be gone.

(Portrait of Cromwell via phrases.org.uk)

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Curly hair

Okay, an admission: My hair is naturally curly to wavy.  Curly on the ends, wavy in the middle.  Every other day, I wash and blow-dry it straight, and then put it briefly in hot-rollers, to both smooth out any excessive curl, and coax what’s left into tamer waves.  On the off days, it gets a rest from the heat of the blow-dryer, and it’s much faster to get ready.

Yesterday, I wanted to sleep in an extra thirty minutes.  It occurred to me, that if I let my hair go, I could shave at least forty minutes off of my getting ready time.  I could at least tie it back in a bun, and it wouldn’t be too out of control.  So that’s what I did, pretty happily.  I bundled most of it back into a loose bun, and put on a skinny headband to keep the short curls out of my face.

It looked pretty good.  Throughout the day, I wondered why I do that, why I go through this routine every day of coaxing my hair into something it is not.  I guess I like to predict, or control, and know what my hair will look like, on any given day.  If I let it dry naturally, it will be curly-wavy, and it might look okay, or it might look kind of out-of-control and crazy.  And once it dries like that, I can’t exactly get it back.  If I blow it dry and hot roll it, I can predict and know exactly what it will look like, all day long.

I guess I’m riffing off of the whole Lenten bare-faced experiment, but I’m thinking of letting my hair go, once in a while.  We shall see.

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