Episode 24: The Failure Of Success: The Transformation Trap and the Spider of Self-Esteem
In this episode Mark Michael Lewis of RationalSpirituality.com explores a common psychological and spiritual trap that those of us interested in self-development often get caught up in. He describes what it is, the bait for the trap, and the effects of getting caught in it. Then, he offers an escape from the trap and an opening into a deeper freedom to pursue Money, Mission, and Meaning without attachment, but with our whole heart and soul.
Welcome to Money Mission and Meaning, Passion at Work, Purpose at Play, where we explore how we can integrate our personal values and professional skills to Create Pleasure and Profit in the Business of life. I’m your host, Mark Michael Lewis, of RationalSpirituality.com, Author of RelationDancing: Consciously Creating What you Really want in your relating, Problems Are The Solution: Embracing Conflict As The Gateway to Love, and The Key Is In The darkness: unlocking the door to a spiritual life.
The Failure of Success: Ignoring the Spider of Self-esteem
This week, I want to talk about a trap that people who are interested in personal or spiritual development, manifestation, or transformation often fall into that I like to call the self-esteem game, or, the failure of success. In the process, I will give you a simple visual metaphor that can help you avoid this trap, and experience more of the true success and satisfaction you really want.
In the book, The Key Is In The Darkness (http://ThePriestAndThePunk.com), I describe two different ways of approaching the goals that we pursue in our lives. First, we can pursue our goals as what I call: 1) REWARDS, and second, we can pursue goals that I call Trophies.
When we approach our goals as rewards, we seek them for the pleasure, power, and beauty they will bring us in and of themselves. We want to eat a fine restaurant, for example, for the taste and nutrition it will bring us. When we approach our goals as Trophies, on the other hand, we seek them for the feelings of success, achievement, and status they bring us. We want the fine meal so we can feel that we are successful, to be envied by others, or to avoid feeling like we can’t afford it. While rewards feel good directly, in and of themselves, Trophies feel good indirectly, through the feeling of self-worth they bring us. Trophies, in this sense, prove that we are talented, competent, valuable, and worthy of love and respect. They are evidence that we are “good enough” Trophies give us feelings of self-esteem.
Now, the more we approach our goals as trophies, the more emotionally attached we become to our success at achieving them. It is not only about getting the rewards that the goals will bring, but proving our self-worth. Our value as a person becomes tied up with the goal. IF we achieve our goal, we feel successful. If we fail, we feel shame. It is as if we are facing a judge who can declare us to be worthy or unworthy of respect.
The more we focus on pleasing this judge, the more important winning (and especially not losing) these trophies becomes. We become more interested in looking good than being happy. When this happens, we have been caught in what I like to call the transformation trap, or the self-esteem game.
Having worked with literally hundreds of clients on enhancing the quality of their lives, I have noticed two things about this. First, it is my experience that we all play the self-esteem game to different degrees in different contexts. Second, no one wants to admit that they are playing the self-esteem game – Why not? Because to admit to playing the self-esteem game would be a blow to their self-esteem! In fact, the more people care about their self-esteem, the more they try to avoid playing the self-esteem game, but that avoidance IS the self-esteem game! That’s what makes it a trap.
This is the counter-intuitive TRUTH OF THE MATTER. The more important our self-esteem becomes, the more of our time/energy/attention gets caught up in trying to win or protect our self-esteem trophies, and the less time/energy/attention is available to build happiness, intimacy, and beauty in our lives. To the degree you focus on your level of success or value or accomplishment - to the degree that you care about your self-esteem - to that degree you steal valuable attention from those aspects of life that will really make you happy.
I like to think of the self-esteem game like a spider. Imagine you are at a picnic table having fun with your friends and a small and harmless spider begins crawling across the table. For some people, when they see the spider, it attracts all of their attention. They stop whatever conversation they are having and focus all of their energy on getting rid of the spider. They might back away from the table, or insist that someone else "get rid of it!" In other words, everything else has to stop until the spider is taken care of. The experiences of real value - the friendships and intimacy, the enjoyment of the food and environment, the plans and partnership you are discussing - all these go by the wayside so we can "deal with" this spider.
Self-esteem concerns act just like the spider in this story. Only with self-esteem, there isn't even a spider to be concerned about, only 1) our opinion of our Self, and/or 2) our beliefs about the opinions others hold about us. Instead of a spider, we see an imaginary trophy that we will either win or lose, depending on whether or not we are "good enough."
For example, I might be at the picnic table with my friends, and begin to worry about whether or not I have food in my teeth (or whether I am attractive, or thin, or successful, or smart, or graceful, or even relaxed or enlightened enough, etc...). In the process, my attention gets sucked away from the conversation, the friendship, the beauty of the picnic and focused on my teeth. However, instead of just asking someone if I have food in my teeth (that would be...unthinkable! How embarrassing - it would be proof that I am not good enough...and what if they said yes! How embarrassing! That would be more proof...), I put all of my attention on 1) pretending to still be involved in the conversation, while I 2) try to inconspicuously clean the spaces between my teeth (or internally talk to myself about whatever "self-esteem" concern that has gotten my attention). The more I focus on my teeth, the less "present" I am to the picnic, the less I particpate in the conversation, and the less joy I get from the experience. Further, I will typically become afraid that someone will notice that I am not present and ask me what I am thinking about, which would be embarrassing... In fact, I might leave the picnic wishing I hadn't gone because it was so uncomfortable for me to be around people because my focus was on my self-esteem concerns.
The spider of self-esteem is even more challenging than a real spider because we can actually deal with a real spider. We can scoot it away, put it outside, or even kill it. However, in life, there are an endless number of self-esteem issues to focus on. It is like an army of spiders coming from all sides. We can never address them all. The only thing we can do is just let them be, and focus on the positive experiences of the picnic.
This is often called forgiveness. It is to accept that we will never be attractive, successful, rich, accomplished, or enlightened "enough." There is always farther to go, and always "better" to get. In the face of this, we accept where we are, let go of the self-judgment, and focus on having fun with what we have. We are EXACTLY as we are. We are perfectly what we are. We are an expression of a universe that is so great and glorious that it is appropriately called divine. As we accept ourselves as a participant and expression of this divinity, we realize that we are free from the need to earn trophies. We are free to express our deepest sense of love, joy, and beauty, just because it feels ecstatic to do so!
This is the shift from trophies to rewards; from trying to prove that we are good enough to enjoying life as fully as possible; from doing something because we think we should, to doing it because it honors and expresses our deepest values; from trying to fit ourselves into the mold of who we think we should be, to exploring, discovering, and expressing who we are. Most importantly, it is to do this in the face of spiders, in the face of our own idiosyncratic silliness and mistakes. This is what it means to free ourselves to pursue Money, Mission, and Meaning without attachment, but with our whole heart and soul, and create pleasure and profit in the business of life.
I’m your host Mark Michael Lewis SEE-Inc. A Beautiful Future Now, and that brings us the end of our show. Thanks for listening and join us next week on Money Mission and Meaning; Passion at Work, Purpose at play as we offer you practical ideas to bring you Pleasure And Profit in The Business Of Life.
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