I remember once hearing the late Jim Rohn, one of my favourite motivational speakers, say that when seeking to strengthen our belief in ourself, we could use our own testimonial.
That our own successes can provide the confidence needed to tackle some new challenge.
We too often look outside of ourselves for this reassurance and positive feedback that we’re on the right track, hoping it will provide the juice to keep us going.
We all have things we’ve accomplished, things we’re proud of that we may well have received kudos for from others.
But what if we were to write our own testimonial, stating out loud how great we are at that thing, whatever it is, or how well we delivered on our promise?
In Caroline Myss’ audiobook Self-Esteem: Your Fundamental Power, she proposes that self-esteem is built by keeping our word to ourselves. By making agreements and following through consistently without, as she paraphrases from William James, “suffering one exception.”
Too often, she says, we make promises to ourselves and then break them. This erodes our relationship with our big “S” self and thus our self-esteem.
And if we can’t trust or believe in ourselves, why should anyone else?
I recognize this in myself, and frequently see it in others. We give lip service to an agreement, then don’t follow through.
We make promises out of obligation, or to placate, or just to get someone to leave us alone, knowing full well, in some part of ourselves, that we have no intention of keeping the agreement. Oblivious of the cost to our self-esteem.
Myss puts forth a challenge to her readers/listeners to choose one thing and vow to your Self that you will do it everyday without exception. She used the example of walking, or some other simple form of exercise. She stresses that you are not doing this activity for the exercise, although you reap the benefits, but instead you are doing it for the esteem. To rebuild the broken trust with your grander Self.
I was inspired to take on her challenge and start walking every morning. I didn’t set a time or distance to walk, I just promised myself I would walk. I knew if I made the task too big or too daunting, I would just set myself up for failure. And since I wasn’t choosing this activity to fulfill any exercise requirements, it didn’t matter how far I walked or for how long.
What mattered was that I said I would, and that meant I would.
I purposely set myself up to succeed. I know myself well enough to know that if I didn’t do this first thing in the morning, other things would quickly get in the way. I made sure I had all my gear ready to go the night before and set a goal of 3 months to start.
I started in February of 2016 and by October I hadn’t missed a single day. Even while visiting family in another city, I made sure I had my gear with me and got out each morning.
Yes, I said October. Way past my original goal.
What happened after 3 months was interesting. I found the prospect of stopping more uncomfortable than continuing, so I kept going. After about 6 months I started to move the target in my head. I thought, maybe I should try for a year, uninterrupted. This became my new goal.
Funny thing was, I then found myself wondering why I would stop after a year. It had gotten so that I couldn’t imagine not walking first thing each day. But I also knew this thinking could be a trap.
I knew if I didn’t hold a specific target, the Resistance (described so brilliantly in Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art) would creep in and say stuff like, “Well if you’re going to do it forever, you can take today off.” Or, (in a whiny teenage voice) “We do this everyday and have to do it for-ev-er. It’s boring. Let’s take today off.”
I didn’t fall for it though. I stuck to my goal and eventually made it to the year mark with only a few missed days (over Christmas – what can I say). Lessons learned over that year were multiple and expansive.
Connecting the Dots
Here’s some of what I learned from my walking/self-esteem exercise.
As you build self esteem by keeping your word to yourself, you begin to extrapolate that concept to other areas of your life. You begin to believe that you can take on a challenge and win, because you said so. And, if you can do it in one area of your life, why not another?
Hence, using your previous success as your testimonial to grow your belief in yourself and your future success.
Testimonials are meant to provide social proof of legitimacy. In this case, by keeping your word to yourself, you’re providing your Self with proof that you actually mean what you say. That your spirit-self can trust you.
This is true self-esteem. Not ascribed to you from something external such as praise or acknowledgment from another, but from your own knowing that you can believe the promises you make to yourself. You can trust that you will follow through.
Now I ask myself a more empowering question: If I was able to walk each morning for a year, simply because I said I would, what’s the next promise I want to make to myself?
And I won’t choose just any old thing because if I’m not motivated to accomplish it, I’ll be more likely to break my word and that just defeats the purpose of the exercise.
Instead I want to choose something I believe I can do, that I want to do, while stretching myself beyond my comfort zone a little. It’s like esteem calisthenics.
Esteem like other characteristics are built over time. Promise by promise. Win by Win.
Word as Law
This means not making agreements you aren’t sure you can keep.
And when unexpected life circumstances prevent you from being able to keep that agreement, you communicate to those involved and make a new agreement.
In other words, you act as if your word really means something.
This has served me well in my adult life and I’m grateful I learned it when I was young. I don’t give my word lightly, because when I do, I mean it.
Sometimes people get frustrated with me because I won’t just agree to things. I need to take the time to discern whether I can actually keep the agreement. For me to make a promise just to make someone else happy in the moment, without knowing whether I can keep it, feels like outright lying.
Although Myss’ connection between self-esteem and keeping your word to yourself made perfect sense to me, it still provided an ‘aha’ moment for me. It’s clear that keeping one’s word to another raises your esteem in their eyes, so why wouldn’t honouring your word to yourself raise your own esteem of self?
As I continue the practice of making and keeping agreements with myself, I am very aware of the rebuilding of self-trust it offers. But I’m also aware of how strong the pull is to compromise myself, to make excuses and rationalizations in defence of breaking my word to myself. It seems easier to give up on yourself, but the costs are high.
My strategy, gleaned from these insights? I keep asking myself, “Is your Word, Law in the Universe?” If so, what are you giving your Word to?
How about you? Are there areas of your life where you are eroding your self-esteem by breaking your promises to yourself? What small step can you take to begin rebuilding that self-trust that will eventually serve you in all areas of your life? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.