How to cultivate self esteem, when you’re so far behind on your to do list

Pausing for coffee and scanning our life journey, we clearly have more to do: books unread, closets unorganized, friends not called, teeth not flossed, financial and career goals not on track.   Not even close.  The thing is, we have high expectations and life keeps interfering.  Some items stay on our to do list for far longer than we intended.

If we believe the cause of delay is outside of us, we can get extremely frustrated.  If, truth to tell, we have procrastinated or become stuck, hung up on an unresolved decision, we have moments of being angry with ourselves.  Perhaps the feeling of falling behind takes a toll on self-esteem as well.  We sincerely intend to do better.  Where’s the reset button?

Most of us are great at making lists, and finding a little irony in them.  After all, who wants to get to the end of the list of interesting books, or highly recommended films?  Our failure to do so is an indication that our curiosity grows faster than we can respond.  That’s a wonderful problem.  But maybe the list hasn’t budged.  That can be discouraging.

Some lists are a form of self discipline: the list of undone housework tasks, for example, or the check off list as you get ready for a trip.  Keeping chaos at bay is an endless process.  How much effort  is enough?  If nothing short of complete reversal of kitchen entropy is the standard, we are doomed.  If we secretly expect this of ourselves, we have what is called a maladaptive thought, and it leads to depression.

Discouragement doesn’t necessarily come from  having a long list of things left undone.  Sometimes I deliberately make to do lists longer by breaking them down into small items that can be quickly and satisfyingly crossed off, with a fat pink highlighter.  (Dust the monitor.  Find the suitcase.  Feed the cats.  Buy pistachios.)

It’s the sense of having a stagnant list that can weigh on self esteem.  We all have an inner voice that constantly critiques our progress, and it can be harsh.  Call it our inner editor, critic, executive, or nag.  Its useful purpose is to help us maintain focus; it seems at times to lose its empathy and sense of humor, though, especially when the items on our to do list have important consequences.

If self esteem is being wounded by the rumblings of the inner critic, it’s time to make peace.  If you have been hitting the snooze button on the self-assessment process for, say, 3 years running, she may feel neglected.    The dread we may feel about  facing ourselves, and sitting with our internal contradictions, is poignant.  We can make sure the meeting goes well.  Ok, so we want to go to the Y and we don’t want to go to the Y.   By facing our mixed feelings, we gain strength.

So what to do, when you reach that moment of awakening that progress has stalled on one of the great lists of life?  Perhaps this is a time for more coffee and reassessment.  Is the list still valid, a genuine expression of your life goals?   There is no shame in revising our priorities.  Explicitly giving ourselves permission to do so is empowering, and respectful of the wisdom we have accrued.   Remembering why something was on the list in the first place, is an opportunity to notice the gradual shifts we have made without even noticing, and consciously choose them, or change them.

Here comes the soul searching part: when is a revision of our list an authentic and realistic reassessment of what needs to be on there, and when is it just caving to lethargy, lost confidence, addiction to Angry Birds, or negative input, aka sabotage?   Here’s the good news: even if you discover one of those problematic habits of thought, you are better off than you were before, because you have identified something that can be changed.  Depression and low self esteem come to us when we feel powerless.  Identifying a problem is empowering.

Of course we are behind on our plans.   But in the meantime, life has taken us on some lovely uncharted journeys, like ivy climbing on a found surface, to catch an unexpected view.   There’s much wisdom in the excursions off the list, into places the thinking brain has never considered, but spirit nurturing nonetheless.

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About Lynn Schlossberger

I am a mental health counselor, writer and photographer living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
This entry was posted in Depression, Mental health, Stress and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How to cultivate self esteem, when you’re so far behind on your to do list

  1. janine lieberman says:

    Hi Lynn,
    My list-making is legendary in my own little world. How did you get into it?
    Part of what writing it all down has done for me is to allow me to reach out into things for which I have not enough time (new planned items). But that’s okay. When some paths get blocked, I always have others to continue on. Having too much to do, for me then, keeps me feeling involved in life. On the other hand, or from another self-perspective, I see it (in the last few years here) as a slightly desperate attempt to hold onto life, as I see old friends and relatives dying and watch the shifting sands. I guess I accept that in myself because I just keep going this way.
    More later. Thanks for your blog, Lynn.

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