Cover image for The gay and lesbian self-esteem book : a guide to loving ourselves
Title:
The gay and lesbian self-esteem book : a guide to loving ourselves
Author:
Hardin, Kimeron N.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Oakland, CA : New Harbinger Publications, [1999]

©1999
Physical Description:
iv, 208 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9781572241312
Format :
Book

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Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Status
Central Library HQ76.3.U5 H369 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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Summary

Summary

A gay licensed clinical psychologist and professor with the Departments of Anesthesia and Psychiatry (University California-San Francisco) addresses the influences on self-esteem in childhood and culture; daily life choices and experiences that influence self-esteem; and improving self-esteem. Inclu


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One What Exactly Is Self-Esteem and Can You Really Change It? All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become. --The Buddha Most people have a general idea about what the term self-esteem refers to, but when you really think about it, what exactly is the self? Many philosophers have suggested that humans differ from animals because we are aware of something called the self. This self, or identity , is really a way of thinking about who you are that is shaped by your life experiences, both positive and negative. For example, if the majority of your life experiences have been positive and the only kind of feedback that you've ever received about yourself has been favorable, then you will generally think highly of yourself. On the contrary, if your life experiences have been primarily negative, then your identity is based on feeling worthless, incapable, or in some cases, even evil. Early Life Experiences and Self-Esteem When you were born, you had no concept of self. Imagine how you must have floated in the nice warm amniotic bath, with only muted sounds in darkness--and then were suddenly thrust into bright lights, strange and loud sounds, and an intense sensation of cool air on your skin. Your biggest concern was probably finding warmth again, getting away from the lights and noises, and snuggling into any comfortable spot. You had no sense of who, or even what, you were, and your only needs involved food, warmth, comfort, and elimination. If your parents provided these basic necessities, you most likely had the freedom to explore your world and yourself, both physically and emotionally. You probably learned first about your physical self by discovering your hands and feet, maybe by sucking your thumb or toes. After a while, you figured out what those tiny hands could do and then what sounds you could make with your mouth. Soon, you became a child who learned to communicate, first through crying then babbling and finally talking. Your brain grew rapidly and expanded during this time, enabling you to put together the meanings of events that happened to and around you.     Once you began to understand and use language, you learned not only the meanings of words, but most likely the meanings of certain facial expressions and tones of voice. You probably knew what "No!" meant even before you knew how to talk. You learned to comprehend both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication. The information that you used to develop your understanding of the world came from your immediate surroundings, and as an infant, most of your time was spent with parents or other caregivers. When you imagine that time of your life (or reconstruct it from family stories), were your basic needs taken care of quickly? Or did you have to wait to have your hunger satisfied or your skin dry and warm? How you answer questions like these most likely provides some insight into how you view yourself and your worth even today. The way your parents treated you, and the messages they intentionally or unintentionally gave you, helped form your identity, both then and now.     As you got older, and you ventured out into the world, you received messages about life, living, and your value from other sources like school, your community, your place of worship, and even the media. A child's mind is hungry for new information and experiences that will help it be able to interpret the sights and sounds and meanings of the world.     Some child psychologists believe that your earliest years are the most important in shaping your later view of the world and yourself. Unfortunately, a child is not born with the ability to screen out inaccurate or distorted information and forms opinions about him- or herself based on the information reflected back from the environment. Generally, if the messages you received about yourself when you were very young were mostly positive, loving, or nurturing, you are likely to have a more positive view of yourself today. If the majority of those messages about yourself were negative, you were just as likely to believe them and then begin incorporating them into your overall view of yourself. Not only was your general view of yourself shaped by these messages, but you may tend to continually repeat these early messages about yourself, often leading to regular feelings of insecurity, fear, and inadequacy.     So back to the question, What exactly is self-esteem? Your level of esteem (or high regard) for yourself depends a great deal on how you formed your identity of self through your background and your growing-up experiences. My primary goal for this book, however, is not to rehash old material that you'd just as soon forget, but to help you improve the quality of your life now. Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence Your self-esteem has an impact on every aspect of your current life--romantically, professionally, spiritually, and recreationally. It affects how you see your face or body in the mirror, your ability to socialize at a party, your dating options, and your job promotions. Your self-confidence will either be undermined or enhanced by the overall view you have of yourself. Every decision you make will be influenced to some degree by your level of confidence in your presentation and abilities. In short, how effective you feel you'll be in any situation is highly influenced by whether you view yourself as powerful or weak, attractive or plain, intelligent or average.     If you are aware of who you are and are satisfied with yourself, you are able to navigate through life fairly effectively--taking challenges as they come and feeling self-confident in your ability to overcome or handle them. You may even take some reasonable risks because you know that even if your plans fail, you have the resources to rebound and move on. You like yourself enough to forgive mistakes that you might make and move on without needing to punish yourself with negative thoughts like "That was stupid!" or "You are such a loser!" Without a pervasive sense that you are basically good enough, self-doubt may linger and affect your ability to take the kinds of risks that could propel you toward satisfying relationships and careers. You may feel as though you are an observer of life instead of someone who lives it, like a "wallflower" waiting for someone to ask you to dance. Good self-esteem leads to higher self-confidence, which then allows you to take chances and make choices without fear of the inevitable mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but people with good self-esteem seem to rebound faster, shake off the disappointment, and get back into the saddle! Changing Your Self-Esteem with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Over the last twenty or so years, a powerful new form of treatment has emerged that focuses on the identification and modification of negative styles of thinking. This treatment, referred to as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) , has been successfully applied to many problem behaviors including low self-esteem. It involves learning how to recognize and replace negative messages you give to yourself with healthier alternatives.     The early founders of the current forms of cognitive behavioral therapy, Dr. Aaron Beck and Dr. Albert Ellis (who called his form rational-emotive therapy ), began their careers as psychoanalysts, adhering to the predominant psychological theory of the first half of the 1900s. They both became unhappy with the traditional form of psychoanalytic therapy, which suggested that a client's problems were a result of unconscious conflicts between various biological drives such as aggression and sex. Ellis particularly found the traditional process of interpreting a client's problems over many months or years until they gained insight into the origins too slow and the length of time in therapy too long.     Within months of each other, both Dr. Beck and Dr. Ellis presented new forms of treatment that they developed independently but which shared common characteristics. They both observed that clients who shared similar symptoms, such as depression or anxiety, tended to have certain similar patterns of thinking. Beck (1991), for example, found that depressed clients tended to focus more on the negative than positive aspects of a troubling situation they were discussing. And not only did these clients tend to focus more on the negative in bad situations, but when they were depressed, they also tended to actually distort the meanings of events that were relatively benign or neutral. Ellis (1975), whose emphasis in this new theory was on irrational beliefs , observed that not only did his clients who were troubled tend to interpret neutral events negatively, but they also tended to hold beliefs about themselves that were long-standing and were completely unreasonable or illogical.     They both then took these clinical observations and applied them therapeutically to try to help their clients recover and feel less troubled. They did this by training the clients to refute overly negative, irrational, or distorted cognitions (beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes) as they occurred, which immediately led to relief from the unpleasant emotions.     Over the years, cognitive behavioral therapy has gained in popularity and has gone through many refinements. It continues to be one of the fastest growing forms of psychotherapy in the country, and its effectiveness has been demonstrated with many different types of problems from depression and anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorders and major psychoses. Because the techniques involved with CBT are relatively straightforward, they have been effectively communicated through self-help formats, like this book, to treat a full range of problems, including low self-esteem.     As I mentioned in the introduction, however, none of these books has been written specifically for gay and lesbian people. In most cases, it can be a smoother process for heterosexuals to identify distorted cognitions and change them because they are often no longer bombarded with illogical or negative messages as adults. Their experiences as adults help them to disconfirm old childhood messages more easily. Gay men and lesbians however, must not only identify cognitions fueled by old negative messages, but they must also learn to resist the pervasive negative messages that are present in our everyday culture.     The Cognitive Behavioral Model     My goal for this chapter is to help you understand the basic concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy and how to apply them to yourself. Once my patients understand these concepts, and learn to apply them to themselves, the benefits seem to generalize across many areas of their lives. They describe the process as enlightening, especially regarding the constant inner dialogue that they were always dimly aware of, but did not know how or where to begin to interrupt and change. They find that old negative images or messages, that previously went unchallenged, are much easier to recognize, challenge, and change.     The basic premise of cognitive behavioral therapy is simple. Negative thoughts lead to uncomfortable emotions that lead to ineffective or self-destructive behaviors. In order to improve your effectiveness in the world or to reduce feelings of insecurity, fear, worry or helplessness, you must learn to identify a negative thought, evaluate its validity, and if necessary replace it with a more realistic or healthy thought. To learn this process adequately, you must have an understanding of the CBT model in greater detail. According to the model, there are three layers to the thoughts: automatic thoughts, conditional beliefs, and core beliefs.     Automatic Thoughts     When an event such as a perceived rejection or failure occurs, you tend to have automatic thoughts . Automatic thoughts are triggered by situations that carry emotional significance. Such situations are often both personally relevant (related to specific traumatic or negative experiences in your life) and culturally relevant (related to stigma based on larger cultural beliefs rather than on personal experience). These thoughts are just below the surface of your usual awareness and they send and confirm messages about yourself. If you have low self-esteem, chances are that most of your automatic thoughts are negative, so you immediately blame yourself in most negative situations and you also tend to interpret even ambiguous situations negatively. Because these negative messages, also known as negative self-talk, are automatic, replacing them with positive messages takes some commitment. But doing so is an essential part of increasing your self-esteem.     Here's an example of a situation provoking automatic negative thoughts: Let's say that Christina has started dating someone new and after a few weeks of bliss, she promises to call Christina after work at 5:30 P.M. Then 5:30 comes and goes and no call. So Christina waits and waits, going through the various possibilities in her head about why there has been no call. She feels glimpses of shame, rejection, and anger and finds herself saying, "I knew this could never work out" and "She is already tired of me."     Obviously, the person was not able to keep her promise, which is an issue that must be discussed with her. What is problematic, however, is the automatic interpretation of not calling. In this example, an ambiguous event (one in which there are many unknowns) is seen through a cognitive lens, one that distorts the meaning into a negative, self-doubting thought process leading to hurt feelings and potentially an angry confrontation. A more rational, healthy approach in this case might be for Christina to recognize her concern about the "not calling" but quickly remind herself that there are many reasons that someone may not call, such as a personal emergency or no access to a phone. Even if memory failure is the cause, it would be helpful for Christina to understand that there are many reasons people fail to remember something other than lack of interest.     Making an emotional judgment about the friend who didn't call, and her intentions, before she has adequate information is emotionally inefficient and potentially inhibiting in making sensible decisions. By stepping back from the automatic thoughts and examining them more objectively, Christina will find that the feelings she experienced initially begin to change, to become less intense and perhaps even soothing.     Conditional and Core Beliefs     Conditional beliefs are the assumptions and rules that you live your life by. These beliefs function to help you survive and, like most other types of beliefs, are formed early in childhood. The rules you had to learn and follow as a child were not always written or spoken clearly and you may have had to develop rules that were unique to surviving in your own household. For example, in your parent's home, there may have been clear rules about when and where sexuality was discussed, if ever. There may also have been rules about what sexual behavior was acceptable, such as only having sexual relations after heterosexual marriage, and which types were not acceptable, such as same-sex attraction. As a gay or lesbian child, you most likely learned to avoid discussing your budding sexuality, particularly areas that were considered deviant or abnormal. A conditional belief that became established for you therefore may have been something like, "Never share your true intimate feelings with anyone or they'll reject you." You can see how such a rule might inhibit your ability to form close relationships as an adult. You'll read more about the development of conditional beliefs in chapter 2, Hand-Me-Down Messages.     Core beliefs are your true views of yourself--the relationship you have with yourself at your deepest levels. They may be so deep that you've never articulated them, even to yourself; yet they are often experienced as absolute truths. Some theorists believe that core beliefs are activated particularly when a person is depressed. The depressed person then tends to focus almost exclusively on information that confirms the negative core belief and she or he filters out any positive evidence to the contrary. Others feel that core beliefs are active continuously and affect every decision you make, either by making choices that support the belief or choices that are a reaction against them. The beliefs act as a lens through which you see the world--if they are distorted, the lens will provide a distorted picture of each person or situation you view. The saying "seeing the world through rose-colored glasses" is based on this concept; a person who does this tends to see everything from a positive frame of reference. According to the cognitive model, your lens (or beliefs) can range from very positive and optimistic to very negative and pessimistic.     The idea of an information lens helps explain why you maintain the old distorted beliefs even though you know them logically to be untrue. Core beliefs tend to be rigid and can influence the conditional beliefs that you live by, which in turn influence your automatic thoughts. For example, if one of your core beliefs is, "Being gay means you're not good enough," one of your conditional beliefs might be, "I must work twice as hard as straight people to prove I'm just as competent." If you don't live up to your expectations in a given situation, you're automatic thoughts will confirm to you that you're not good enough. You can see how this might be emotionally and physically exhausting for you over the years as you struggle to prove yourself. Figure 1 is a graphic representation of these constructs and their relationships to each other.     You will read about exploring the kinds of messages you received as a child, and how they affect your life today, in more detail later in the book. In fact, I will not only invite you to explore your early family life to uncover and challenge the foundations for your negative self-talk, but will also encourage you to examine other important influences on your self-esteem such as your community culture, religion, and the politics of the day. Once you learn to identify the origins of your self-esteem, you can begin to retrain yourself and challenge your negative beliefs. Recognizing Negative Patterns Before you can begin challenging and changing those long-standing, negative ways of thinking, you must first train yourself to recognize the patterns and catch them when they occur. Reading about such patterns on the page is one thing; identifying your own patterns is another. Here's an example that may help you recognize some ways you think negatively and then talk negatively to yourself: Let's say that you have an assignment at work with a deadline that according to your supervisor must be met or you and the organization will suffer. Also imagine that you have a limited amount of time to complete the task and while it's difficult to get started, you work very hard on it and complete it just before the deadline. The project must be at the copy store before it closes at 5:00 P.M. so that it will be ready the next morning for a big meeting. You glance at your watch and see that it is 4:30 P.M. now and it takes fifteen minutes to get there. You jump in your car, head off to the copy store, and on the way you hear on the radio that there's a huge accident creating a traffic jam for miles. At this point, you may already begin feeling a little irritated and anxious to get to the store. The jam breaks at 4:50 P.M. and you are on your way, perhaps at an unsafe speed. You finally arrive at the store parking lot at 5:02 and are horrified to see the shades closed and the "Closed" sign on the door. Your first reaction is one of numbness, but then you slowly become aware of a heavy feeling and you take a little gasp for air. Then the self-talk begins. Can you imagine what you might be saying to yourself in this situation? Can you feel the feelings you might be having, the physical reaction to the event?     For some people, the voice that follows such an event will be harsh and punitive with phrases such as, "You can't do anything right!" or "You are incompetent" or "You failed again." You may be particularly hard on yourself if you were raised to have unrealistic expectations of yourself, or if making mistakes or having an accident when you were a child was followed by humiliation or other punishments. The emotions you might expect to feel following such harsh self-talk would likely include intense panic, fear, despair, or a desire to run and hide. You might feel like dropping the project out of frustration and a sense of failure.     For others, the voice may be less harsh, but it still serves to promote a serf-image of incompetence, or at least an inability to succeed. This voice may sound something like, "I did my best, but it's just not good enough ... I'm not as smart as most people." While you may not be overtly punishing yourself at this level, you may experience a de-motivating effect or a sense of failure.     Then there are those who might blame the traffic jam or the copy place for closing on time and get incredibly angry and agitated. The voice is harsh, but it is directed at someone (or something) else. You may be so agitated that your sleep that night is disrupted or you are short with family and friends. If you explored a little deeper, you would likely find that the anger is directly proportional to the amount of underlying anxiety you have about how your boss will react the next day or about how horrible you expect to feel when you have to admit that the work is not ready. Regardless of whether you blame yourself and feel anxious or depressed or you blame the traffic and get upset and angry, the net effect is disruptive emotional upset.     Another, perhaps healthier, way to respond to this unfortunate occurrence might be to have a more balanced, more accurate appraisal of the situation that tends to focus less on punishing yourself for missing a deadline and more on encouraging yourself to deal with the situation effectively. Recognizing your inner voice, evaluating it for accuracy and utility, and then actively making changes if necessary is the basis for enhancing your self-esteem. Learning some basic techniques to help you recognize and evaluate your self-talk will help you confront situations throughout the day that may threaten your confidence and initiate feelings of anger, depression, or sadness.     You may have found that in the preceding example, you did not respond with negative self-talk, but managed to focus on solutions to the problems immediately. There are two reasons that this may be the case: First, we all develop areas in our lives that we feel better or more confident about than other areas. Professional competence may be that area for you, so your professional self-esteem is relatively healthy. However, you may find that events related to situations outside of work trigger the negative self-talk and uncomfortable feelings.     The second reason is that you may not recognize your own negative self-talk because of the relative depth of your negative beliefs. You may be so used to burying the negative self-talk that it takes time for you to learn to hear the messages more directly. It may take a little extra work on your part to recognize your negative self-talk, but having better serf-esteem is well worth the effort.     Automatic thoughts are typically the easiest to recognize and begin to address. In fact, most cognitive behavioral therapists begin treatment by having the client keep track of automatic thoughts as they happen and then teaching the client to analyze the thoughts carefully and objectively. Examining the patterns of your automatic thoughts will help you determine the rules you live by, which can be assessed for effectiveness. Then, the core beliefs that underlie all beliefs and rules will begin to emerge and can be assessed for accuracy and usefulness.     As a child, you didn't have the power to assess the accuracy of these beliefs as they were forming. One of the nice things about being an adult is you now have the ability to make more objective and healthy choices about how you view yourself. You have the power to change a self-image that is not healthy. So make a decision to begin the process today. For the next week, keep a record of your daily thoughts and how they affect your mood. Use the Daily Thought Record on the following page to help you keep track.     When you have become aware of your self-talk, you should then attempt to recognize patterns that will give you insight into your core beliefs about yourself. Once you recognize some of these patterns, and the emotional costs they have for you, you can then begin the process of challenging them, replacing them with more effective self-statements, and feeling the positive changes in your self-esteem. Recognizing your negative self-talk is an effective beginning; but it's often not enough to lead to significant change. The next step, and the most important one, is to help yourself engage in a rational debate with these old messages, evaluating their effectiveness, usefulness, and distortion.     It can be difficult to effectively recognize and challenge old ways of thinking. This battle is made more challenging when you continue to hear distorted and negative messages on a regular basis. Every time you hear a story about gay-bashing, listen to a homophobic joke, or watch a heterocentrist advertisement, you receive direct and indirect messages that suggest you are inferior, damaged, evil, or worthless. Your special challenge is to overcome the negative distortions from your childhood as well as to actively challenge current negative messages. You must become especially skilled at recognizing distortions or biases that are held as universal truths.     Before you begin your self-exploration, make sure that you understand the following central concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy: · Like all human beings, you are constantly talking to yourself; you may or may not be fully aware of the things that you say to yourself. · You are constantly interpreting events that occur in your life by using old information about yourself and your ability to handle the situation. · Most events trigger automatic thoughts, or self-talk, that help you interpret the situation. These automatic thoughts can be negative and can trigger unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, sadness, and anger or a sense of failure. Automatic thoughts are usually situation specific. · The pattern of responding is maintained by deeper beliefs called conditional beliefs, which are the rules you live your life by. These rules are usually established early in life and may have been directly taught by your parents or other caregivers. The rules may work well in childhood, but often, they don't apply as well to adulthood. · At the deepest level of your personality are your core beliefs--the absolute value you place upon your worth.     Although your family is one of the main influences on your early self-concept and your self-esteem, there are multiple other factors that shape the way you view yourself and the world. In the next few chapters, I will help you examine the origins of the core and conditional beliefs that underlie your automatic thinking. You will begin by examining family factors that shape your self-view and will go on to explore other important influences such as your religious background, your school experiences, and memorable media images. By understanding these influences more thoroughly, it will be easier for you to evaluate your self-talk more accurately and dispute it more effectively. Copyright © 1999 Kimeron N. Hardin. All rights reserved.

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