“He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.”

— Nietzsche

If you read my column last week based on Jordan B. Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, hopefully you worked on rule No. 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back. This simple postural maneuver can improve serotonin levels, mood, self-esteem, pain levels, and even how others perceive you. If you tried it, keep going, as you likely already noticed some positive changes in yourself and your life. If you haven’t, give it a go.

Rule No. 2 in Peterson’s book is: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.

What does this mean and how is it helpful? It turns out a lot of us suffer from low self-esteem, guilt and negative judgments about ourselves. If we treated ourselves as kindly as we would a child, relative, friend or colleague we are helping, many dynamics would change.

As an example, people are much more likely to give their pets prescribed meds from the vet than to follow through on taking those prescribed for them by their human doctor. We may be less attentive to ourselves than even to our dogs.

Peterson, a religious scholar as well as psychologist, delves into the roots of the challenges in treating ourselves well. He uses the biblical account from Genesis of man and woman’s descent from grace into an awareness of good and evil, of their newly found “nakedness” before God, and a consciousness of their own limits and weaknesses. The Genesis story reflects the archetypal existential dilemmas of human kind. How can we best survive in community caring for each other when at a root level we may feel inadequate, imperfect, unclean.

Much of human history could be recounted in the cruel exploits of those who do not acknowledge this shadow self and thus project their own self-doubts and fears on another person, race or nation. Both the sadist and narcissist experience a reaction formation to deep self-doubt. They respond by pretending they are powerful, ultimately confident, competent, and worthy of the adoration of others. When this is not forthcoming, anger, resentment, abuse, and lashing out is their self-justified response.

Jordan encourages you to make choices that are truly good for you, that align with the power of your vision and direction. Start with yourself, strengthen and care for yourself, define your identity, refine your personality. Such actions can help rid us of shame and negative self-consciousness. By making and keeping promises to yourself, rewarding yourself for adhering to your principles and goals, discipline will reign and you are likely to become and stay a good person. Celebrate your uniqueness and the special role you play in humanity in this generation.

We can thus establish a natural pride and confidence in who we are and in such a nurturing state, confer our gifts to the world. Stepping up to care for yourself, getting your house in order before trying to fix others, and running your own race, not another’s, are a means for a healthier, balanced life.

Persevere if you do not succeed initially. Remember the wise words of Mark Twain, “Habit is habit, not to be thrown out the window by any man, but coaxed down the stairs, one step at a time.”

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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