Three years ago, I hit bottom. Our family had been plagued by health problems and financial setbacks, and I saw no reason to hope that things would improve.
I had always been active in the Church, was married in the temple, and had served in many capacities including two years as a Relief Society president. It seemed to me that I had adequate faith and was worthy of the Lord’s blessings, but I found myself experiencing real despair—without adequate personal resources to deal with it. It was the darkest hour of my life, but it also proved to be a turning point.
In this situation, I came face to face with my own self-account-ability. I realized that, except for the Lord, I was the only one who could really help me. The responsibility for my well-being was squarely on my own shoulders.
Although no one else could face the demands of reality for me, there were people who could help me, and I turned to them with determination to succeed. I met with my bishop, and he directed me to LDS Social Services for counseling, feeling that the advice I would receive there would be consistent with the gospel. Turning to professional help was far from easy, but it was one of the best things I have ever done. After only a few sessions, I began an adventure that has encompassed three years of study and hard work, sprinkled with encouragement and inspiration from my Father in Heaven. It has been a quest that I expect will last a lifetime: discovering and taking charge of myself.
The first thing I discovered was that I had been looking for happiness and peace of mind in the wrong way. I had always thought that happiness depended on outward circumstances, but I learned that it is a product of a person’s approach to life and can exist in spite of problems. This new concept intrigued me, and I realized that I had never learned the skills necessary to be independently happy. To correct this, I dove eagerly into an intensive study of self-esteem which opened up a whole new world of me. I became quickly convinced of the necessity of knowing and liking myself—something I had neglected.
Real self-acceptance didn’t come easily. I had spent twenty-seven years thinking of myself primarily in negative terms and it wasn’t an easy habit to break. Debilitating thoughts continued to come uninvited to my mind at every opportunity, but now I recognized that negative thinking was my enemy—and I fought it with every ounce of strength I had.
First, I dismissed negative, critical thoughts, telling myself they weren’t valid. I learned to turn them off the same way I turn off the television set when something unsuitable comes on. In their place I substituted positive thoughts, reminding myself of the things I could take pride in.
At first it was difficult to find positive thoughts about myself. When I looked for my strengths, my mind would go blank! Luckily, my husband filled in the gap. He patiently pointed out to me over and over the things he saw in me that were praiseworthy—until I began to recognize and appreciate them for myself. The assurances from the Spirit that my Father in Heaven loves me also helped. Such feelings would often overwhelm me when I arose from prayer, and did much to reinforce my battered self-esteem.
Searching for my assets caused me to examine my values and priorities. As I brought these things into better focus, I was able to acknowledge the areas in which I was succeeding and identify ways I wanted to change.
Learning to think about myself in positive terms also led me to a more positive attitude toward circumstances, experiences, and other people. I began looking for the good in others and for the positive side of situations. I began to experience a greater sensitivity to other people’s feelings and needs and was slower to pass judgment. My relationships with my children improved as I began to notice and compliment them on things they did that pleased me. When problems arose, I was able to address the actions rather than attack the person’s character. I became more easygoing and more pleasant to be around.
The first time I saw the counselor at LDS Social Services, he listened to my troubled thoughts and asked me, “Why do you expect so much from yourself?” He helped me see that I had been imposing unreasonable expectations upon myself. Having adopted the notion that nothing short of perfection was acceptable, I was constantly discouraged and unable to feel satisfied with anything I did. I had literally programmed myself for failure.
Adjusting my expectations to a reasonable level was truly liberating. It dramatically changed my relationship to my Father in Heaven and to the gospel. Formerly I had pictured God as a stern, finger-shaking personage who was impossible to please. I had been taught that he loved me, but since I didn’t feel lovable I had built a barrier between us that made his love for me seem academic and meaningless. I was so overwhelmed by my distorted view of gospel “demands” and by my own lack of perfection that I could find little joy, comfort, or strength in the gospel that which should have been my greatest resource.
As I re-experienced the gospel from my new vantage point, the meaning and purpose of life unfolded to me with a clarity, unity, and beauty that I had never before imagined. For the first time in my life, that stern, fingershaking personage was gone—and God was my Friend. He had a smile on his face and had abundant approval and encouragement for me. I realized that he truly wanted me to experience the joy of learning and growing in my own way and at my own speed. Prayer became an avenue for genuine communication.
When I had thought about sin and repentance before, I had always conjured up images of a massive ledger in which angels carefully recorded my every error and shortcoming. But now I think of repentance as growth, and forsaking sin means avoiding things that limit growth. I now find myself free of the terrible burden of guilt, inadequacy, and fear of not “making it” that used to haunt me. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by my weaknesses, I feel a genuine desire to grow.
A third thing I learned as I continued to monitor my thoughts and reactions was that I depended too heavily on other people’s approval. Of course there’s nothing wrong with enjoying approval, but being too wrapped up in seeking it can be stifling. I was paying more attention to what others wanted me to do than to my own inner convictions. I came to realize that disapproval is an inevitable part of life: because each of us is different, someone will invariably disagree with almost anything we do. This frame of mind helped me focus on my own reasons for my choices and on seeking confirmation from my Father in Heaven. It helped liberate me from needing the approval of all those other people. During this process, I came to see that many circumstances have more than one acceptable alternative—and I learned to think in terms of “different,” saving the concept of “right” and “wrong” for appropriate moral situations.
Eliminating my need for approval also helped me overcome my fear of failure and criticism, which had prevented me so often from trying things I wanted to do. Since then, I have experienced the joy of trying new things—enjoying the process of doing instead of focusing only on the success or failure of the outcome.
All of these things helped me become motivated from within rather than from without. I can see now that although I had always tried to be a “good member” of the Church, my “good” behavior was more a product of my desire for approval than an indication of the person I really was inside.
As I learned to look within for direction, I came to know myself much better, and the promptings of the Holy Ghost seemed to come more clearly.
This self-discovery and self-nourishment has been very rewarding, but also somewhat time-consuming. I have had to set aside time to think, study, ponder, pray, and listen. And I have had to guard against becoming too busy. This isn’t always easy in a world that prizes productivity and encourages a rigid routine of goal-setting, schedules, and achievements. But I’ve eliminated things I once did only out of a sense of obligation, and now devote my time and energy to developing relationships with family and friends and to pursuing real interests. I’ve found that quality living cannot be measured by the quantity of interests and activities I may have. In this respect, more may be less.
This new-found attitude has extended to other aspects of life as well. It became obvious in the decor of our home. We have come to value space more than excess furniture, for instance, and as we hauled load after load of once “essential” belongings to Deseret Industries, we discovered that we can live more comfortably with less. In fact, disposing of things we rarely or never used has left us feeling unburdened. Even the kitchen cupboards are less cluttered now and easier to keep clean. Our attitude has rubbed off on the children, and they, too, have come to appreciate an absence of clutter.
Some people feel that taking time for self is selfishness, but my experience indicates otherwise. Few people would willingly let themselves starve physically, but we frequently allow spiritual malnutrition because we fear that taking time to properly nourish ourselves would cause us to neglect other, more important obligations. I’ve learned that in order to be efficient and productive, I must be spiritually and emotionally well nourished, as well as physically rested and well.
The Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength.” (D&C 10:4; see also Mosiah 4:27.) This advice is good for all of us, though it is easy to ignore. I always used to feel that I was rationalizing when I invoked it. But now I know that when my energy is spent and I try to carry on as though it weren’t, I accomplish little good. I have to have strength before I can use it, and I’ve found that the more I develop within myself, the more I have to give to others; the fuller my own cup, the greater becomes my natural desire to serve and to share. Thus, this attitude is far from selfish. It makes service more possible.
Setting my priorities straight has benefitted my marriage as well. For years I considered my marriage to be my first priority; and since we worked hard at maintaining it, it has been a very rewarding relationship. When I decided that keeping myself well nourished should come first, the result was a stronger marriage, not a weaker one. Because I was becoming a more substantial person, I had more to bring to our relationship—and my taking responsibility for my own well-being released my husband from the burden of trying to keep me on an even keel. As a result, our relationship is more spontaneous, more fun; it’s a source of greater joy and satisfaction than ever before.
I admit that I am careful not to overextend myself these days. Other women’s capacities may be different from mine, but I have learned to compare myself only with myself. And I have learned the hard way that there is a difference between having a healthy challenge and being hopelessly overloaded. Recognizing my limitations has helped me be more creative with the energy I have. I try to get to the heart of a project; clearly define the objective, and then look for the most efficient way to help those involved. In the process, I try to eliminate anything unimportant or wasteful. I look for ways in which I am particularly well-suited to meaningfully help others.
Besides learning how to give more wisely, I have learned about receiving as well. At times we all have needs greater than our ability to fill them. I have come to recognize this as a manifestation of our humanity, rather than as a comment on our personal righteousness. When I consider the way I hope others will receive my help, I am impressed with the importance of accepting help graciously.
In addition to learning how to accept help, I’ve learned the importance of not expecting it. There have been times when my needs have seemed critical, such as a time when my husband was hospitalized, leaving me the responsibility of our four small children on top of my concern for his condition. Those I expected to come to my aid did not. From experiences such as this, I have learned an important lesson: we protect ourselves from disappointment and hurt feelings when we don’t expect from others that which they do not have to give, even if it seems that they “should.” Refusing to become upset over another’s failure to rise to my occasion, I can accept the ultimate responsibility for my own well-being and avoid the bitterness that might otherwise grow like a cancer from harboring an unforgiving attitude.
Looking back over the last three years, I am amazed at how my life has changed. As a result of the healing influence of the Spirit, my self-image is now a positive one. I am happier, more confident, more in touch with myself. I find more enjoyment in each day than I used to find in a month. The amazing thing is that we still have all the problems that seemed so overwhelming three years ago. The only thing that has changed is me!