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Esteem Privilege and Thoughts on Otheration

There was a great essay by Ashley Judd that made its way around the Internet a few weeks ago, a rallying cry for women to not stand idly by while the media attempts to make them feel like crap about their appearance.  The essay as a whole is fantastic, but I kept returning to this one paragraph that niggled at my brain because it felt like it didn’t tell the whole story.  Or maybe it just made me feel guilty.  One or the other.

Judd explains that she doesn’t read her reviews or interviews anymore.  She went from reading everything to only reading the good ones, and then realized this was detrimental too.  She writes,

Over time, I matured into the understanding that good and bad are equally fanciful interpretations. I do not want to give my power, my self-esteem, or my autonomy, to any person, place, or thing outside myself. I thus abstain from all media about myself. The only thing that matters is how I feel about myself, my personal integrity, and my relationship with my Creator. Of course, it’s wonderful to be held in esteem and fond regard by family, friends, and community, but a central part of my spiritual practice is letting go of otheration. And casting one’s lot with the public is dangerous and self-destructive, and I value myself too much to do that.

Of course, she’s correct.  It would be best if our self-esteem was constructed internally, completely within our control.  Because external validation can (1) sometimes be difficult to obtain, (2) isn’t quite as satisfying in the long-term once you receive it; you always need more and you often begin to second guess the esteem helping already in your belly once you start to digest it and (3) you are in a constant state of seeking it without knowing when it will come next much in the same way hunters and gatherers consume vs. people who produce their own food.

In fact, the analogy of hunter/gatherers vs. farmers is probably the best way I can explain what I’m calling esteem privilege.  All people need food.  The majority of us don’t have the skills to produce our own food, therefore, we aren’t farmers, raising crops and nurturing animals until we need to eat them.  If all the food stores disappeared tomorrow, I — like you — would be roaming the streets, foraging for berries and hunting the great Morningstar Tofu Chicken (you may be hunting the real deal, but I would seek that mythical Tofu Chicken until my dying day).  We would need to eat, but we’d lack the knowledge and resources of farmers.  Over time, if we received support, if we found knowledge and were loaned a few seeds, we may get to enter the world of farming which brings with it a continuous, easily obtainable source of food.

But then it wouldn’t ring true if we turned around, once we were there and said, “everyone can farm.”  And it certainly wouldn’t ring true to the hunter/gatherers if the farmer’s daughter who has known no other way of life were to tell us that farming is open to everyone.  If that were the case, we would never use that time to forage and hunt knowing that there was a way to live that led more directly to food.  This is not to put down hunter/gatherer societies, and I know that most have a higher quality of life in many aspects compared to the stagnant western world, but the point is not to say one is better than the other; the point is that one practice pretty much promises food in the end barring natural disasters or a maniac running into your barn and slaughtering your animals, and the other practice hopes for food in the end.  And if you offered me one or the other, I’d take the semi-sure thing even if it was much more work overall and left me little free time.  You can’t eat time.

External validation — what Judd cautions is a dangerous practice (and it is), what makes us feel like crap about ourselves when we can’t find it — is akin to foraging.  You are asking the universe to bring you food… or good feelings.  And sometimes it comes.  And sometimes it doesn’t.  Internal validation is like farming.  You make your own garden grow.  It takes hard work, and there may be setbacks, but in the end, you have a steady supply of food, delivered right to your home multiple times a day.

I guess what didn’t ring true for me is that Judd, on one hand, is a farmer now, even if she hasn’t been a farmer all her life.  It is easier to find internal validation when you already have external validation, when you’re not in a state of hunger for attention, kindness, or accolades.  Because most of us are pretty damn hungry for that positivity.

I feel like I’m entering the lush world of internal validation ONLY because I have spent a lot of time with external validation.  It is easy to start building it from within when it’s already around you.  I’m not saying this to be immodest but to make a point; I have accomplished a lot in the last few years, reached personal goals that I wanted to reach and also received accolades and opportunities based on my hard work.  And so, because I have that abundance on the outside, it’s easier to crawl around inside and build that self-esteem.  In addition, teaching life lessons to the twins; I’m also learning some of these things myself.   Reinforcing what I should be doing.  When the farmer teaches his kids how to plant the seeds, he’s also getting some additional practice and reminders in planting them himself.

And to that point, even the twins will be more Farmer Judd than hunter/gatherer kids.  They may not be growing up in a home with monetary wealth, but they certainly have esteem-building opportunities that other kids don’t have because of their parents as well as their own intellect (I had nothing to do with the Steve Jobs note; that was a teacher marking the Wolvog due to his intelligence) and talents.  They too will probably experience low self-esteem, but they have so many advantages because they are constantly receiving this message from the outside telling them that they rock.  And because they get it, they can crawl inside and build that self-esteem.  Which is to say that I think the whole “don’t compliment your kids too much” ideology is a load of crap.  I give them a healthy dose of reality, but I make sure they hear several times a day how much they rock.  How else will they be full enough to give farming a try?  People can’t farm when their stomach is growling — that’s when they need to spend their time foraging to stop the hunger.  But when people aren’t tending to their immediate needs, they leave room to seek knowledge, understanding, resources.

And that is esteem privilege.  We talk about male privilege and socio-economic privilege and white privilege, but I googled the term and couldn’t find one place on the Internet that spoke about esteem privilege, a privilege that separates out members of society just as much as money or race.  We are not wealthy, but my kids are growing up with two parents who are over-educated writers who give our time and patience to our kids, something that we’ve noticed others can’t or don’t do.  We give them the tools to achieve so they’ll feel good about themselves knowing full well that it’s that advantage that is going to lead to great things more than throwing money at them.  That is esteem privilege; knowing without a doubt that you are loved and respected, being told that anything is possible and given the tools to not only achieve but to deal with disappointments when they come.  My kids have the advantage here over so many other kids in their school, and one day they will have the confidence to take that chance or to try again when they’ve been rejected because we gave them this external esteem from which to learn how to create self-esteem.  If all goes according to plan, they’ll take advantage of their esteem privilege and keep going during a time when other people would give up, not believing in themselves.

I work on this every single day because it is the advantage my parents gave me.  So if I am a farmer, it is because my parents gave me the knowledge that farmers have, handed me a plow, and helped me out so I could grow my own food in the future.  And I have to admit that my personality is such that I have a tendency to go hunter-and-gathering from time to time, forgetting those farming lessons, but that esteem privilege is such that the muscle memory is always there.  I have never spent a day of my life wondering whether or not I’m loved, feeling respected and encouraged, and that is esteem privilege and it has given me an advantage even when age, race, or sex might hold me back.

With Judd’s essay, context matters.  The fact that she has self-esteem because she received external esteem matters.  For instance, I could write a post about how comments don’t matter (oh, please, don’t believe that.  They really really matter) but you’d have to take into account the fact that my viewpoint is constructed after getting a bunch of comments.  Again, I’m not saying this to be immodest, but because it’s fact.  Conversations happen here, and I’m grateful for them.  You often make me see my words in an entirely new way.  And I’d be sad if the comments went away.

I come from a place of comment privilege, so of course I get to look at them through that lens.  I happen to see their enormous worth, so I point out their intrinsic value.  But I’ve equally heard people who receive a lot of comments write things like, “comments don’t matter that much” or “it doesn’t matter where the conversation takes place.”  And that just isn’t true except for a few like-minded comment privilege people because that is pure comment privilege pontification.  For the majority of bloggers, it is clear from the number of blog posts on the topic, that comments matter very much and many people would like to have the conversation unfold in their comment box in order to keep all the thoughts in one place vs. scattered across the Internet in various streams.

Context there is everything.  If you have a lot of external validation, it’s easy to build your internal validation.  If you have a lot of comments, it’s easy to let go of the hold comments have on you.  Without one, it is very difficult to get the other.  Not impossible; but those people are probably boring and eat really healthy too.  And go to sleep at a normal hour.

Every once in a while, someone adds a comment to Operation Heads Up where they say that a procedure “wasn’t that bad” and then follow it up by stating that they took a previous commenter’s advice and took two Alleve ahead of time.  I sometimes want to add an editor’s note and say that the Alleve is the most important part, even though it’s usually mentioned in passing towards the end.  Because those people have no clue what their HSG or sonohysterogram or pick-your-uncomfortable-procedure would be like if they hadn’t received that external knowledge first, enabling them to build a very different internal knowledge.  Do you see the theme here?  There are so many places in life where privilege comes out to play, and we can’t dismiss that privilege and honestly think that it doesn’t matter.

I’m writing this because I don’t want to get hung up on this paragraph in Judd’s essay because the rest of it kicked some serious ass.  I have this deep need to release it and stop playing with the word “otheration” in my head while I try to sink down into humble warrior pose in yoga.  I have nothing but respect for Ashley Judd as an actress and writer; but she is coming from a place of privilege, being named one of People’s most beautiful women and being a well-respected actress.  She should be proud of the work she has completed internally, and perhaps her desire to go internal stems from experiences with the external.  But I also think that we would all opt for internal validation if we could; if we all had esteem privilege to get there.

17 comments

1 Anjali { 05.02.12 at 7:50 am }

I agree with you completely, Mel. Judd’s essay was so moving and intelligent, and a wonderful push back against the hate. At the same time, it is so much easier to fight against patriarchy when that same system of contorted values puts the dagger and slingshot in your own hands. Would Judd have had the confidence, the strength to write that essay, to think those thoughts, if she were 100 pounds heavier?

This post reminds me of a wonderful documentary I saw about Gloria Steinem. She was criticized for being such a beautiful feminist, i.e., of course people will lend power to her words when they come from such a pretty mouth.

It goes back to that old argument…To topple patriarchy, is it better to come from the outside and knock it down, or work on the inside to destroy it?

2 Pam/wordgirl { 05.02.12 at 8:42 am }

Dearest Mel,
Sometimes I think you and I share a wavelength. I just wrote my first post in quite a while musing on the idea of privilege and I didn’t even really articulate it as such the way you do here… But I can see in some ways they may be linked. I have to read this essay again

For me, I spend a great deal of time trying to figure out where my internal blocks are. I find that I often can trace them back to something very fundamental in my beliefs about the world. those beliefs are so tricky… It’s not impossible to undo but in some ways it feels my life’s work to undo them and yes I think it’s such a wonderful amazing thing if we’re given the privilege of having children –to provide for them esteem privilege. Ultimately, my conclusion of my post came to that. I may not succeed in the particular ways I imagined but I can learn from my own blocks to be able to create a better life for my daughter.

As always, thank you for the thought provoking, intelligent, and moving post.

Xo

Pam

Ps: I am using my phone’s dictation function to write this… Please excuse the typos.

3 Chickenpig { 05.02.12 at 9:00 am }

I think everything you say is true. However, you can’t separate ‘esteem privilege’ from other forms of privilege. I grew up in a single parent household, and my mother was wonderful at letting us know that we rocked every single day. Unfortunately for us, our peer groups were more responsible for our self esteem growing up than my mother’s words. My mom worked her butt off to make sure we ate healthy food and had good clothes to wear, but we always stood out. My feelings about my self esteem are still affected by those formative years. Would your kids still feel that they ‘rocked’ if they were being picked on for their hand me down clothes and home hair cuts? It didn’t matter how much my mom pointed out that what those kids said didn’t matter…it mattered. If Steve Jobs hadn’t been adopted but had spent his formative years being kicked about the foster care system, would he still be Steve Jobs? You need the basics of privilege before you can even begin to acquire ‘esteem privilege’ .

4 a { 05.02.12 at 9:07 am }

I don’t know – has Ashley Judd been in the attention-seeking arena much? I don’t really follow celebrity news too much, but I don’t have that perception of her. So, that leads me to believe that maybe she had the internal validation before the external came along…and the external strengthened it. All of that is to say that if she’s speaking from the framework of esteem privilege, it may be the same framework that you and your children have, enhanced by life experience.

These days, I think more (older, cranky) people complain about the surfeit of esteem privilege – young adults who were told how much they rock that they expect everyone to believe it without any evidence. I spend a lot of time trying to ground my child in reality while telling her how wonderful she is…because she sometimes has the idea that she should be an expert on her first try. It is a delicate balance.

Anyway, back to Ashley Judd, I don’t know that I agree with you – I think she’s saying that it’s easy to get addicted to the approval of the masses, and that she must consciously and constantly remind herself that external validation can have a serious downside.

5 Lollipopgoldstein { 05.02.12 at 9:25 am }

External validation has a SERIOUS downside in that people can take it away, but I also didn’t think that paragraph rang true at all. She states: “I do not want to give my power, my self-esteem, or my autonomy, to any person, place, or thing outside myself.” And that’s a beautiful idea, but by that definition, she doesn’t build any self-esteem from the love she receives from her partner, her family, etc. She only feeds herself with self-love. Because she states that she doesn’t give her self-esteem over to any person to create. And that just doesn’t ring true to me.

Unless she lives in a bubble, never interacting with other people, she takes her self-esteem from others via positive interactions. Through receiving love. And I think that is healthy. What I don’t think is healthy is taking your self-esteem from strangers since they don’t actually know you. And those people are more likely to take it away.

There was just a great post on BlogHer about how we’re fed by the validation we get from our blogs and how it changes the way we write: http://www.blogher.com/validation-trap-online-life. I think whenever you write publicly vs privately — whether or not it receives feedback — you change the way you write. But it is an interesting post on whether it changes us drastically; is it possible to get addicted.

A, your comment reminds me of that SNL sketch with the show called “You Can Do Anything!” where young adults come out with this bloated, unrealistic self-esteem. I think parents need to temper that, but also build it. Build it with a foundation, I mean. You can’t build it in the air or you get kids floating away on their ego.

6 Lollipopgoldstein { 05.02.12 at 9:29 am }

Chickenpig: In the Steve Jobs biography, there are whole sections talking about how his accomplishments were a perfectly balanced recipe of intelligence and parental support. That he got such deep, unconditional love AND he got their rapt attention. And that is what he thinks built his personality.

I do think there are plenty of obstacles that get in the way of utilizing external validation — everything from personality to other forms of privilege.

7 KeAnne { 05.02.12 at 9:50 am }

Thank you for this. The Ashley Judd essay rubbed me the wrong way, and I tried to elaborate on why, but I didn’t do a good job. I think you’ve hit on why it bothered me. All of her previous external validation never led her to comment on the focus on her appearance; one incident of external invalidation and she must respond.

8 Corey Feldman { 05.02.12 at 11:13 am }

Great post, and esteem can and is a privilege. The more I have been working on my self, dealing with my anxiety and mild depression issues, as well as putting out my children’s poetry/story on my blog, I have been trying to find some balance. Building my own internal esteem and trusting in some of the external praise I have been receiving. I think there is a balance to strike, but it is a hard one to find.

9 Curly Sue { 05.02.12 at 3:27 pm }

This was awesome. So well thought out and explained and I agree with you 100%. And I think esteem-privilege is *so* important, as you say, with children. It really can make the difference for them as adults. Wow. Just wow. You have totally blown my mind and got me thinking. Also, Ashley Judd’s essay should be pinned to every woman’s bulletin board and read often.

10 jjiraffe { 05.02.12 at 3:49 pm }

Very thought provoking. I’ve been thinking about this post all day. My feelings are like Chickenpig’s: my parents boosted my self-esteem more than anyone’s parents I know. They truly thought I was exceptional and could do anything and spent so much of their time helping me. But, in an area of extreme wealth, it was my relative poverty which defined me to my peers, and that unfortunately was a drain on everything my parents were attempting. I’m glad they did parent the way they did, and I have such happy memories of my childhood and being with them. But peer influence is big deal…I don’t know the answer to this. Home schooling? ;)

11 Justine { 05.03.12 at 12:59 pm }

My parents did *not* do a lot to boost my self-esteem when I was growing up, and DAMN, that foundation is hard to build. So I’ll agree that it’s possible to build it yourself, but it has to come from somwhere: whether from good grades at school (ah, teachers love me) or a good job at work (ah, my boss loves me) or friends … though it’s hard to have those without self-esteem, too, and I’ll agree with jjiraffe and chickenpig that peer groups can do a lot to destroy what parents try to build.

Also: even in farming, there are droughts. Let’s say you know how to farm. You buy good seed stock. You have good equipment. If the rain doesn’t fall for weeks on end, you’re SOL. And then you have to go forage, and there’s nothing to be had elsewhere, either, because the drought isn’t just in your field. I don’t think we can ever *completely* rely on internal validation, because it’s replenished by external validation, even if only occasionally.

12 TasIVFer { 05.03.12 at 8:53 pm }

I want to love this post so much, but we read things during our life – on good days and bad. And today I am having a bad day. I was just musing on how guilty I feel that my infertility and loss induced extreme appreciation and love for my son doesn’t make the bad days easier. I’m sitting in my car on a cold, wet Autumn morning so my son will sleep. I am out of my mind (and incoherent) with tired, and there are people around that are this healthy on the inside?! Gah!! I will save this post for later to love, but for now my experience of today doesn’t let me.

13 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.04.12 at 1:30 am }

I first read this post right before yoga yesterday. And I had already been pondering the Validation post on BlogHer. I can tell you that together they made for an insightful meditation. Even without a humble warrior.

“It is easier to find internal validation when you already have external validation, when you’re not in a state of hunger for attention, kindness, or accolades. Because most of us are pretty damn hungry for that positivity.” — yes, yes.

14 Bea { 05.05.12 at 3:03 am }

What you say in the comments perhaps should be higher. There is real value in external validation and we would not want to live in a world of arseholes who listen only to themselves. The importance and rightness of internal v external validation is highly cultural and I am not at all convinced that the average western view is best. Frankly, I think westerners could stand to forage a bit more. I could extend the metaphor at length by talking about the pitfalls of industrial farming but we all get the idea. That said:

I think you do need to be very careful in your assessment of external feedback. As a forager, you wouldn’t eat any old berry you find growing on any old tree – it might be poisonous. You need to ask yourself why another person’s comments matter before you take them to heart.

15 Bea { 05.05.12 at 3:06 am }

Oh and yes, privilege then allows you to be more selective in what you consume. When your hungry some pretty nasty berries can end up looking like the best bet.

Hey, this ties in to the food thread, too!

16 Bea { 05.05.12 at 3:07 am }

You’re. I have distractions around me.

17 Esperanza { 05.07.12 at 6:54 pm }

I never commented on this post, because I wasn’t quite sure what to say in response. But it did inspire me to write this post, which I thought you might want to read. Again, it’s not a response to this, but this post got me thinking about praise and the way I try to praise my own daughter and how I find it kind of daunting.

http://www.picturesandprint.com/a-different-way-to-praise/

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