I had a revelation the other day. My aunt said, “I don’t think you have very high self-esteem.” I sat back in surprise. That seemed in conflict with everything I know about myself.
How can I have low self-esteem? I grew up very poor, and now I’ve saved enough money to travel the world with my brother every year. All of my bills are covered every month and I’m putting away enough money to retire. On top of that I’m writing novels, and I’ve got a great girlfriend! How can I have low self-esteem?
I went home and I thought about what she meant. I’m always talking about my accomplishments, waiting for the other person to say “good job.” Why do I feel this need to be validated by others?
I went to my mentor CB. And I asked him, how do I raise my self-esteem?
He told me “Self-esteem is a word invented in the last thirty or so years. We didn’t use that word growing up and I don’t like it. Self-esteem is related to what you’ve done that society approves of. You don’t need a higher sense of self-esteem. You need self-worth.”
I asked him what the difference was.
“When I was your age and starting my career, I used to stop at my doorway before I left for work, I would turn around and wave to myself jokingly. ‘Goodbye CB. I’ll see you in eight hours!’ I remember feeling like I had to leave myself at home. I would go through the motions at work and wait until I got back to be myself. But one day I turned to myself, and I said, ’Come on, let’s go to work, CB.’
’That same day one of my bosses came around the corner with her finger pointed at me, and she was yelling ’How dare you go over my head!’ I realized something about her as she was berating me, This has nothing to do with me. This woman needed to feel like she was important at work; her whole self-esteem was wrapped up in the office. The reason she was yelling wasn’t because I did something wrong; it was because she felt like she wasn’t important. From then on, I kept inviting myself back to work. This woman wasn’t going to affect my self-worth, because I believed that I could handle whatever that job threw at me.”
After this conversation with CB I went into work yesterday. I was tired, hungover, and over-caffeinated. I was hoping it would be a slow day, but for eight hours person after person came up to me, each demanding my attention. A family approached me near the end of my shift. I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open. There was an eight year old boy, and a six year old girl and they were traveling with their 90 year old grandfather who didn’t speak a word of English. He only spoke Portuguese. The eight year old was able to translate very well, and I told him what an excellent job he was doing, but eventually we got to a concept he couldn’t understand. I had to explain toll roads to him in English, but he couldn’t translate it. So the grandfather called his adult son in Brazil.
I explained toll roads to him, and handed the phone to the grandfather. I watched the grandfather’s face turn bright red. I could tell that the grandfather was embarrassed about the situation. There was a line of twenty people behind him, and both of his grandchildren had to help him. The grandfather said a few words to his son, and handed the phone back to me.
“He will prepay the tolls.” His son said. It was that moment that I felt something, I could see the embarrassment in the old man's body language. I could have hung up the phone or just handed it back to him, but instead I paused. I let my feelings lead the way. I had an overwhelming urge to do something for this wonderful family that was loving and supporting each other. I had almost handed the phone back to the grandfather but at the last second I took the phone back. I told the son on the other line, “You need to tell your father you love him.”
He laughed and I handed the phone to Grandpa. I watched all the embarrassment wash completely off the old man's face, and he smiled and grabbed his heart with his hand, his face lit up, and I could tell he almost cried. And it was because I was there, I hadn’t left myself at home that day.
I thought about this moment on my way to breakfast with a friend. I felt an immense bout of happiness that even stressed out, tired and hungover, I stopped what I was doing for a moment and helped an elderly man smile. I didn’t do it for a pat on the back, to impress a co-worker, or to make my job easier. I did it because that’s who I am. It wasn’t to raise my self-esteem, it doesn’t get me closer to retirement. It did give me a new feeling towards myself, a sense of appreciation and a sense of trust. I know what self-worth feels like now. Because I’m tired, I don’t want to go into work, and I want to keep writing, but I have to leave for work soon. I’m going to take myself along today, and trust I’ll find another moment to connect with others again. I’m doing that, because it makes me feel happy.