Self-esteem can be a tricky son of a bitch. How many people do we all know who want to change something about themselves? Or focus on something they perceive to be less than good enough about themselves?
The truth is, we all do it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it can be productive to be self-aware and want to improve and grow. But it gets a bit sticky when we focus on our areas for improvement at the exclusion of everything we should be proud of. We perceive them as bad things instead of just things that are still in progress. Or worse still, we focus on them at the expense of everything else and start to see ourselves through a lens of what we feel we’re lacking in.
For those of you who know me, I’m sure you’ll agree that I am outwardly bubbly, confident, and happy. Which I actually am, it’s not a show. But you can be all of those things and still struggle with self-esteem. Confession (and this is a delicate balance between epic emo over-share, and what will hopefully reveal itself to be a positive message by the end of the post), I have really deep-seated self-esteem issues. Mostly around body image, but a little around confidence and worthiness too. And I mean, really woven into the fabric of my entire identity. I do a fairly good job of not focussing on it too much (mostly to preserve my own sanity), but it’s there simmering away under the surface.
I’m not 100% sure where it came from, I had these kinds of thoughts way back to childhood, and they definitely got more active when I was a teenager. I remember feeling utterly ashamed of eating in front of anyone, and either going hungry or hiding in a toilet to eat at school because my relationship with food was really challenging. And I remember feeling I never had the right clothes either, and even once borrowing my mum’s clothes to go to school on a non-uniform day because I just didn’t feel I looked right.
At this age though the thoughts aren’t so dark and twisty and I don’t dwell on them if I can help it. Rather they act like a sneaky filter that holds me back from asking that guy out, or going for that promotion, or wearing that outfit, or getting up and singing in public despite being a professionally trained singer. They are the quiet voice that whispers in my ear ‘the reason he doesn’t like you is you’re not hot enough’, or ‘you’re not quite as capable as everyone else in your team’, or ‘the fact that you have self-doubts makes you even less attractive’. That last one may actually be true – it’s what counselors call meta-emotion; having a feeling about having a feeling (Inception eat your heart out) but it’s not entirely helpful to realise that.
Ok, so ask yourself how often you praise yourself. I find this one tough because let’s face it, I’m British and self-praise has been culturally programmed to be received as arrogance. Which in itself is a bit sad, but I’ll admit I’m one of the biggest culprits for flinching when someone gives themselves a nice big public pat on the back. Why is it acceptable to self-deprecate but not self-praise? This makes me wonder how much of my own poor self-esteem is genetic, how much is learned from my experiences, and how much has been absorbed by osmosis from our social culture?
Body image, for example, is a classic one. You can tell me until the cows come home that I look fine, that size doesn’t matter, that we should all be body positive. But every day I am bombarded with images and messages about what is attractive, sexy, beautiful, feminine, and even acceptable. I can tell you now I rarely look like many, if any, of those images.
Some dear friends have made supportive comments along the lines of ‘why would you think that?’ and ‘you’re mad’ and the sentiment is greatly received. But they haven’t lived my life or walked a mile in my shoes. They haven’t been told ‘goodness you’re a big girl aren’t you’ or had to have special costumes made because an entire theatre department doesn’t cater past a size 14. The worst ‘helpful’ comments are the back-handers. Like ‘go on just try it on, it might fit’ despite it being 4 dress sizes too small; or ‘no you’re not that size, I don’t believe you!’ Good intentions, but the bottom line only confirms that my actual size is somehow unacceptable, but it’s alright because I’m perceived to be smaller than I really am.
What I also find hard is what I have lovingly dubbed the ‘who’s got it worse war’. This is when you have a feeling or an insecurity about something, but someone else has got a more severe version of that problem. For example, in my case, it might be someone who also struggles with size-related body image but is larger than me. We seem to have a culture where you only ‘earn’ your feelings if you have the most extreme case of whatever it is you feel them about. But actually, all feelings are relevant. And our self-perception doesn’t only come from the situation itself, but also from our level of sensitivity and our life experiences….it’s a complex web built over many years. Basically, all feelings are valid and we shouldn’t be grading on a curve. It is what it is to the person concerned.
A couple of years back, I went on a bit of a spiritual journey and in that process started to really understand the nature of and importance of self-love. That instead of loving myself by trying to improve myself, I should start to love myself exactly as I am. And that was when everything changed for me. One weekend, I traveled to a holistic therapist for a session on self-esteem and the topic of body image came up. We talked a little about my emotions around it, and then moved onto some physical and medical challenges that contribute to my weight struggles. During said chat, she started talking about my body in the third person, as though it was a poor neglected child who I (as its guardian) just didn’t love. Being a maternal type who cannot bear the thought of anyone feeling unloved, this struck some chord in me and it was like someone uncorked a dam. Her words got through and made me painfully aware just how little I loved myself, and how utterly devastating that was to me. I cried buckets all the way home, and at one point even had to pull over for fear of totaling the car I was crying so hard. It was then that I vowed to change. Not my body, but my mind.
I’m in no way completely better, and in fact, I still have all those rogue whispers telling me all those negative things, but now I am absolutely determined that whatever my instinct is, I will respect and love myself even when I find it difficult. I would love to lose some weight, but if I don’t manage it I will tell myself every day that I am beautiful anyway. When I like a guy and he doesn’t like me back, and the voice tells me I’m not good enough, I tell it to shut the fudge up and that I’d be worthy of love even if I was the size of a hippo because we are all worthy of love. And sod him, it’s his loss. And when I feel like I’m not good enough or confident enough to go for that promotion, I now decide to do it anyway and learn as I go. Or just realise I already know how!
So whatever your challenge, be it medical, emotional, mental, physical, or practical, you are beautiful, you are worthy of love, and you’re definitely not the only one feeling it. We’re all a work in progress, we all have stuff to improve and learn, and we’re all bloody wonderful just as we are!