Sitting at lunch today, I overheard a woman describing her recent public speaking engagement. Apparently, members of the audience at times were dissatisfied or even heckling her, but she couldn’t hear it or see it due to the stage set up. She at one point said her PR rep told her, “They seem to have a love/hate relationship with you.”
As she recounted the story, she said, “Well, I guess we have that in common.”
Since taking a deep dive into maternal self esteem, I find myself on the couch with my therapist face to face with my own love/hate relationship with myself. I landed back in therapy (truly, there’s only ever a brief hiatus for me!) to work on some conflict resolution skills. In one session, my therapist identified that I was feeling shame. She could have been saying, “you probably bumped your head because you’re tall,” yet it felt to me she was unlocking the human genome. Of course it was shame! But, also, holy shit this was shame!
She went on to explain – and I can’t tell you how many times she has – her own definition of self-esteem. Unconditional positive regard, warmth, the ability to make mistakes and forgive ourselves for them, knowing that we are just doing our best in the moment. She then put this healthy self-esteem in the middle of a spectrum, with grandiosity on one end and shame on the other.
Shame is an intensely painful emotion. Individuals who experience chronic shame often internalize their perceived flaws and mistakes, leading to a diminished sense of self. Shame can be triggered by societal pressures, unrealistic standards, or past traumas.
Shame has a way of reinforcing itself, leading to a vicious cycle of self-deprecation. When we feel we are inherently flawed, we engage in self-sabotaging behaviors, withdraw from social interactions, or develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. This downward spiral hinders personal growth and fulfillment.
On the opposite end lies grandiosity, an inflated sense of superiority. Grandiosity often serves as a defense mechanism, compensating for underlying low self-worth. When we act in grandiosity, we may seek constant validation, engage in attention-seeking behavior, or belittle others.
We may become highly sensitive to criticism or rejection. This fragility can lead to strained relationships, an inability to form genuine connections, and an overall lack of contentment. The pursuit of external validation becomes a never-ending quest.
If you read either of those and thought, “shit that sounds like me,” just know that we all have moments of both. As long as we don’t settle in too long on either side, we can still find balance.
As a Buddhist and a non-dualist, I pair grandiosity and shame together, not on opposite sides of a long line but rather more like inhales and exhales. They exist in context with and in relationship to each other. When one person steps into grandiosity, the other experiences shame. When we feel shame internally, we act out in grandiosity. It’s a not a ping/pong between extremes but a spiraling around in a circle, ultimately always being led back to where you started.
So, for me, this is how it goes: I’m feeling good. Wow, I like myself! Cool, my relationships are thriving! (Blindsided by conflict of some type.) Shit, what an asshole that person is! I’m so much better than that person! I totally have this right! Oh, fuck, no, that doesn’t seem true. I definitely am not better than anyone else. I’m not even sure I’m good. I’m the asshole. I’m always an asshole.
Pregnant women experience a significant drop in self-esteem, and that drop continues until they are approximately 3 years post partum. The drop is most significant in first-time mothers. The drop doesn’t just affect the mother. Decreases in self-esteem affect infant regulation and relationship satisfaction. The entire family unit is impaired when a mother doesn’t have healthy self-esteem.
Fuck if I’m here to shame anyone who is experiencing a drop in self-esteem. If that’s where you are, that’s where you are. It’s where I’ve been the last few months. I had a shame-inducing interaction. I began moving quickly between these two extremes, like like a rapid inhale and exhale. It’s as if I was hyperventilating – metaphorically – and losing more footing by the moment.
My goal was to slow down my breathing.
A good step to repair metaphorical hyperventilating is to pursue literal slower breaths! Just noticing physiological sensations of shame or grandiosity can ground me back in the moment. Once I have my nervous system more settled, I can move toward the headier, intellect driven approaches to healthy self esteem.
For me, this is moving toward authentic connections in my life and pursuing fulfilling goals for myself. I ask, “Who can I be open with about my feelings?” “What can I learn?” and “What can I do to build myself up right now?”
These past few months have meant lots of chats with my husband, a few chats with good friends, reading a number of books and taking some visits to my therapist’s couch, and racing a 5k. Just tapping into a healthy competitive spirit was beneficial to me.
What do you do when you find yourself in shame or grandiosity? How do you reconnect with your healthiest self esteem?