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Loving yourself, self-esteem and choice

Life isn't a to-do list.

· choice,self-esteem,self care,self-love

It's not always that simple.

People always say things like ‘you need to love yourself more’, ‘if you had more self-esteem you wouldn’t put up with it’, and lastly (a personal favourite of mine) – ‘you always have a choice’.

Usually, when any of these statements are made (whether directed at me or someone I am working with - or merely within my hearing range) – my response is one of profound frustration.

In my mind – they are over-simplifications laid on the shoulders of an already over-burdened human complex. And actually – to the person who is not there yet – they can be incredibly harmful.

It becomes just another thing they have failed at.

You need to love yourself more.

Why do I dislike this statement? Because it’s a construct. We cannot ‘just’ love ourselves more – it’s not like a hat you put on and suddenly everything changes. It’s something you feel for yourself, or you don’t. And if you don’t – then there is work to do first. And usually not alone. So let’s carefully figure out what needs to be done.

You should have more self-esteem than that.

This statement just makes us feel plain shitty about ourselves. Even more shitty than we probably already do. And it’s another thing that doesn’t just magic out of thin air. It takes work. Self-esteem is built on skills. So let’s skill up – get really good at something – and even better – make it something we are really passionate about.

You can always choose.

No we 'always' bloody can’t. Sometimes – when we are in the throws of pain and anguish, and intense emotions – we don’t have a choice. Nobody would actively choose to have a panic attack. Or to be anxious. Or paralysed with fear. Or be continually beaten, bullied, or sexually abused. Or, less dramatically, to be badly treated, or stay in a job they don't like, in a life they're not happy with, with a person they don't love. Real choice comes with a calm mind.

Being on the receiving end of this statement – can make us feel even more alone than we already do. Because the behaviour often doesn't feel like much of a ‘choice’ – and it certainly didn’t feel like it's all just about not loving ourselves.

What helps?

Finding out why we're stuck, why we don't feel able to make a different choice, what makes us feel bad and what makes us feel good - and why what we are feeling is perfectly normal - in simple, basic, physiological terms.

Through understanding, awareness and acceptance of what is, things can change: we learn to forgive ourselves for not being perfect - and through accepting this of ourselves, we begin to actually love ourselves.

The Triune Brain – it doesn’t always work in harmony…

Assuming that we can always take control of ourselves is denying the fact that only one part of our brain is designed to manage our feelings, integrate them and consequently make our behavior choiceful. And if we have been living in fear, high intensity situations, or with emotionally erratic behaviour – it is highly unlikely that this part gets to be in the driving seat.

We often forget that we are also a body, made up of physical responses and reactions. We don’t just live from the neck up. This part is all too often left out of self-help books and psychotherapy.

So firstly, we need to understand that we are part animal.

Yes people. We are still largely run by our primal responses.

Let me explain:


Simply put – our brain is made up of three parts, each wrapped around the other.


The reptilian brain is the oldest part of our brain. It is responsible for survival through territoriality, aggression, dominance, and ritual – making it rigid, obsessive, compulsive and paranoid. It is not capable of learning from past mistakes, because it is not capable of self-examination.


The mammalian brain is responsible for our emotions and instincts, driving us to feed, reproduce, fight back or run away. It is concerned with avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure, with community and connection.


The neocortex – the largest piece of the brain, making up two thirds of the total brain mass – is what distinguishes us from animals – it gives us our higher cognitive functions. Self-awareness, abstract thought, language, problem-solving. When functioning in an optimal manner, this is what enables us to control our ‘baser instincts’ and responses created by the mammalian and reptilian drives.


Now – this is a very crude sketch (if you want to read more I strongly recommend the books below) – there is a lot more detail and complexity to our neural activity. But one thing that has been agreed – these three systems sometimes work at odds with each other.

From birth to our teens, our brain is wiring and setting up neural pathways, which lead to habituated behavior, responses, reactions. And this is conditioned by what surrounds us.

‘Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love’.

If we are raised in an environment that is emotionally repressed, vacant, highly charged, or where our fight or flight responses are continually being activated, research has shown that it impacts the proper functioning (and in extreme cases – the actual development) of the other parts of the brain. This is often why, when anxiety becomes severely heightened, most of us cannot think straight. We cannot behave as we would like. All sorts of things happen in our brains and our bodies that interfere with our ability to react in ‘healthful’ or ‘choiceful’ ways. And the older, more reactive parts of our brain interfere and over-ride the more cognitive neocortical processes.

Further, when confronted with a situation that is familiar to us (whether we realize it is familiar or not), we will usually respond as we always did: according to the model of behaviour we developed when growing up. Unfortunately, over time the responses become ingrained, automatic and often completely out of our awareness. Until we get really miserable.

Awareness – the midwife of change.

That is why I say, again and again, awareness is the first step to healing. Then comes change.

And the medium - is empathy.

These things begin to create new neural pathways, which create new patterns of behaviour.

So before we go beating ourselves up for not loving ourselves, for not having more self-esteem, for not ‘choosing’ different behaviour – let’s try a little compassion.

And let’s try and understand that there are some things about ourselves to be discovered first.

Damage happens in relationship. So must healing.

What changes us?

Understanding and compassion. Received from others and eventually, through their example, bestowed upon ourselves.

What do you think? Do you think it’s all independent thought? How have you made changes in your life? Was it just by deciding it was going to be different? Who supported you?  Who are the people who helped change your life?

Books to read:

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