As a clinical psychologist, I support the work people do to improve self-esteem, to better themselves, and to take responsibility for their mental health and life circumstances. However, there is a general flavor to the self-help industry—especially those that include martial arts and sports—that ignores the impact of systemic racism and the experience of marginalized communities and people of various minority identities (LGBTQ, disabled, people of different color or creed). To put the onus on the individual to simply change one’s mindset rather than address the system in which one must think, live, and operate is to blame the victim and absolve oneself of humanely caring for our brethren.
When the sports/self-help industry talks about mindset-shift, it is often with a sense of telling the self how hard they can work, how much pain they can tolerate, and how much effort they can exert. Even more insidious is the exhortation to stop thinking like a “victim” and how to simply see everything as attainable and within their grasp. It completely ignores all the burdensome work that oppressed people live with every damn day. To give these messages to people who have been oppressed and discriminated all their lives is to blame the victim for his mindset. Therefore, a simple mindset shift alone cannot be the starting place for self-improvement.
It is not crazy to have low self-esteem if you have been told both overtly and implicitly all your life that you are lesser, worthless, and undeserving of basic human rights and opportunities. Messages and experiences about being worthless or bad start in the early, formative years for children. Children are remarkably self-centered; they cannot conceive of a bad feeling or bad thing happening to them without seeing it as a reflection of who they are, their inherent worth. A child thinks: I feel bad and am treated badly, therefore, I must be bad. Children cannot compare systematic oppression as a societal structure to their true inherent worth. The analysis of outside conditions and context requires abstract thinking that they simply cannot perform yet. While developing identity and a sense of self, these children are bombarded with experiences and messages about how bad they are. The cumulative impact of this is devastating and, of course, impacts self-concept and self-esteem. Your younger self stays with you as you develop. That little boy or girl still hurts from those experiences and is still pained every day whenever they are mistreated.
Your low self-esteem is not necessarily your fault. Like so many of the impacts of systemic oppression, marginalized populations are starting one-down, starting with scarcity. The message to simply shift mindset is just a cognitive version of work harder, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Mindset shifts work. Cognitive restructuring works, but all of that must be done in the context of reality. Otherwise, it is demoralizing, and it leaves a trail of shame and pain in its wake.
I want you to know, and to feel in your heart and gut, that your sadness or shame, your anger and rage are justified and NORMAL. It would be abnormal and bizarre to NOT feel bad after the life experiences that you have had. But the mindset shift that can make a difference is the one of compassion for self, the one of understanding the factors and facets of your emotional space. It’s a version of reparenting or reraising ourselves.
This is an invitation to reach out to your childhood-self, to kneel to her level and tell her that she is not bad. Hold her hand and tell her this is not her fault, that you understand why she feels shame and fear so often, why she has negative thoughts about herself. Tell her she is worthy, that she has the right to exist. This part of therapeutic work and self-growth is non-negotiable. Without unconditional care and compassion for oneself any mindset shift which attempts to think differently about circumstances or self will not stick and will feel fake or odd. Self-compassion often feels odd or uncomfortable in the beginning, despite sounding positive. That is healthy discomfort and as the self-compassion becomes more and more internalized, the more comfortable and familiar it will feel.
Once you feel more self-compassion and have some distance between your self-worth and the oppressive systems around you, you can begin to shift your mindset to one that is strength-based, that is justice-focused, and that brings you safety and groundedness as much as possible.
Your pain is yours to name and author. Your self-love is too.
Jess Buckland is a purple belt training at Raptor Academy of Martial Arts in Central PA. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice and mom to a 13-year old. When she’s not training you can find her riding her bike, walking her dog, writing about jiu-jitsu or doing NYT crossword puzzles.