I used to feel as if I were living in a foreign country. It was as if I were an outsider, never comfortable with the customs, never fully understanding what was expected of me. And so I was always walking on eggshells: Did I do the right thing? Did I somehow unknowingly offend you with my last remark? Was my work not quite good enough? Were my friends, lovers acceptable? I felt as if I were being judged, and most often coming up short, like I was playing a game with a set of rules no one had bothered to explain to me.
The older I got, the more uncomfortable I became. One night I had a vivid, frightening dream. Motivated by the desire to untangle it, I began psychotherapy. In my sessions I talked about the many instances when, as a child, I felt as if I had come up short: showing a marked lack of graciousness, for example, about the arrival of my baby sister; my constant need to know my mother's whereabouts at all times—perhaps suffocating to her. My therapist wondered aloud about how I, by then a mother myself, might feel toward any other child—my son, for instance—who demonstrated that behavior. It was a no-brainer, literally: My heart was instantly awash with compassion. As I remembered more of my childhood shortcomings, and forgave them, it became like a practice—the forgiving—and before long I was doing it with my adult self, too. Forgiving myself for past mistakes in love, in work, in the many daily interactions always open to missteps. I would forgive the mistake, learn from it, and try to do better.
Is all self-esteem nurtured by mastery? I'm not sure. But it was mastering forgiveness that nurtured mine.