Reversing a lifetime of having low self-esteem
Published on Medium and Soulspring
My whole life, I had been my worst critic. I was my own judge, jury and executioner. I strove for perfection, sought validation and felt that I have to compete for everything in order to deserve something. This is a result of people - most especially my family- criticizing me, telling me in many different ways how I was not good enough and how I need to be different and do better. Undoing that damage is neither easy nor quick. The solution was both simple and complicated but I am now peeling away the ugly layers that covered up my true self.
Growing up, I was constantly ‘teased’ about my flaws. My skin was too dark. My smile was too gummy. My lower lip was too thick. I was too skinny, too shy, too weak, too clumsy, too slow. There was a never-ending list of things that’s ‘wrong’ with me. And those were mostly from my own family — cousins, uncles and aunts, grandparents, siblings, and my mom. For who I was and whatever I did, I was simply not good enough. I felt like I could never measure up to standards set by those around me.
One of my first memories were of my parents broken up. I don’t remember them being together at all. Before my father died when I was 17, I remember seeing him only twice. I guess, this is where it all started, as a little girl asking, “Why doesn’t he want to see me? Am I not good enough for him?” That feeling of being unwanted by him didn’t leave me until I was about 18. Did I have daddy issues? Perhaps. I’ll leave that to the experts. But I honestly think that this is not the only culprit that eroded my self-worth.
My mother had to raise me all on her own. She never received a penny of child support from my father. She worked in a different city and I didn’t get to live with her under the same roof until I was about 14. She left me under the care of my grandmother. I didn’t have any kind of structure while I was growing up and not a single bedtime story was read to me. While my granny took very good care of me physically, the other aspects of me were left completely unattended.
When I was six years old, I was recognized as the best in my class. I wasn’t even trying and was totally clueless. Come ‘graduation’ day, I was too anxious to get up on stage to receive my award and cried myself to oblivion. My mother was seething. Instead of saying comforting words like, “It’s going to be okay. You don’t have to be afraid, I’m right here with you,” she said, with steam coming out of her ears, that she got all dressed up for nothing. I remember her trying to drag me to the stage while I clung on to the chair as I cried.
There I was, a sobbing mess — frightened and insecure — and all she could think about was the missed opportunity to get up on stage and claim my ‘prize.’
Before I move on, let me just say, I love my mother dearly. She did the best she could having borne a child at age 18 and her marriage broken before I was old enough to remember any of it. She raised me to the best of her ability and in ways that she knew how. She also taught me, among other things, the value of education, working hard and being independent and self-sufficient.
Anyway, I did well academically all the way through college. You’d think that such an ‘achievement’ would finally gain me some pats on the back — and it did. But it also brought high expectations that would haunt me throughout my student years. If I got anything below A-, I’d be in hot water.
And there’s this constant uttering of “Why can’t you be more like Jane?” The name changes with any given situation but the point is, they always compare me up with someone instead of down. Perhaps if they did the latter, they could have seen my redeeming qualities more than my ‘shortcomings.’ But alas, the positive words came too far in between.
As an impressionable child, I believed everything they said. Their words formed my self-image and kept my confidence lacking. So, it’s no wonder I ended up striving for perfection most of my life. My husband used to say that if everything was already 80% good, I would still focus on the 20% that’s not right. And he’s not wrong about that. I had high expectations from myself.
And the competitiveness? It was a desperate attempt to assert my value by proving that I was better than someone else (See? I am more than good enough. I could do better than you!). And don’t even get me started on my need for validation. It was so paralyzing that, many times, I couldn’t make a decision unless I got someone’s approval. I was always second guessing and chastising myself (my favorite mantra: How could you be so stupid?). But those were not so bad, relatively speaking.
The saddest part was that I unconsciously imbibed the ways of the people who dimmed my light. I became judgmental and dished out criticisms to others the way it was done to me.
So, my saving grace came in the form of strangers and people outside of my family who have said kind words to me or appreciated who I was and what I did.
Like the time we were buying some tickets at a museum and the lady behind the desk said that I was beautiful; or that time I was getting off a plane and one of the flight attendants thanked me for making her day. Most especially that time when my boss truly believed in me and insisted to the powers-that-be that I was the best person to take over her job.
All those people showed me that I do have some value, after all. There’s nothing like a total stranger walking up to you to tell you you’re the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen (true story, and no, I didn’t believe him, but it felt good anyway) or how they think you’re nice or that something you did made them feel better.
That might sound petty and superficial but for someone who felt invisible most of her life, it’s a big deal. I held on to their uplifting words and kind actions like I was hanging on to dear life and used them as building blocks to slowly reconstruct my demolished self-esteem. These people reminded me of my self-worth and I thank the heavens for sending them to me.
Putting this Humpty Dumpty together again
Sometimes, you need to completely knock down a house in order to build a new one. And that’s what happened to me. Everything that I worked hard to achieve was taken away from me, leaving me with nothing but the ruins of a career that I had meticulously built. The invisible forces that flipped over my life were giving me a chance to rebuild myself. Not just my life — my SELF.
As I grateful as I was for those people who helped me rebuild my confidence somewhat, I realized that I will never be completely okay unless I — me and myself only — learned to nurture my own sense of being.
I couldn’t understand why the ‘critics’ throughout my life could do such a thing. But when I was doing it, I understood that it’s so I could feel better about myself. I shudder at the thought that I used to be that way (past life, moving on).
I also realized that I worked so hard on all my achievements not because I wanted them but because I wanted to prove myself to those that thought I will never make it. I wanted so hard to prove them wrong.
The workplace, for example, was a breeding ground for people who like to make you feel you’re smaller than a gnat. There were many instances where I was overlooked, ignored and downright insulted in the various jobs that I held.
Like this one time when I had just resigned from a job and a long-time employee of that company asked me why I was leaving. “Better job, better pay, better growth opportunities,” I said. She seemed surprised that I was able to manage to find something like that. Then she replied, “Oh, you might as well. You’re probably never gonna go anywhere in this company anyway.”
Another time, at my last employer, I rose two ranks higher within a year in that company and a male coworker from another department walked into my office and asked, “How did something like that happen?” without so much as saying congratulations. I replied, “Simple. Twenty years of hard work. It might have happened quickly here but I’ve been working on it my whole life.” Still, he looked at me with doubtful eyes like I didn’t deserve it, perhaps wondering which boss I slept with to get to that point.
He was not the only one. Once, I went to an offsite meeting with a bunch of coworkers for a very important project and one of my peers, a department director, introduced me as a manager. WTF. I didn’t care about the title. But I cared about how he looked me straight in the eye and told this person in front of us what he thought I was worth. Good times.
The strangers that threw me a lifeline
I grew up in a culture obsessed with lightening their skin. I bought into that crap. I can’t tell you how many products had been shoved into my hands to make my skin “whiter” (they didn’t work, by the way). Until, one day in college, a female fellow student said to me, “I like your tan.” Me: “Tan? What tan? This is my natural color.” Her: “I like it. Looks nice.” That was the beginning of the end of my relationship with skin whitening products.
Then I married a Caucasian man. Living in a place that’s pretty much dark and damp most of the year, I found myself surrounded by people who rush outside at the first sight of sunshine breaking through the clouds to get some ‘color.’ I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of the situation (Oh, they want my color!).
I needed to pick up the broken pieces of myself and put them back together because no one is going to do it for me.
I’ve read hundreds of books and consumed many other materials to guide me through this process but in the end, I realized all the answers that I was seeking were within me. But, since old habits die hard, it was the last place I looked.
Many people say you need to love yourself first, but as a child, how was I to know what self-love is when nobody showed me what that looks like? Nobody told me to believe in myself. Nobody told me that I am okay just as I am, that I am complete on my own and that if I loved myself, I wouldn’t need or want anything that I can’t already give to me. I know all of that now. I do all of that now. I AM all of that now. But much like a recovering alcoholic, I still need to maintain that sobriety.
Two keys unlocked it for me — love and forgiveness. First, I needed to forgive myself for everything. Especially for being too hard on myself all the time and calling myself stupid whenever I made a mistake or hating myself for not being able to live up to other people’s expectations. I stopped being my worst enemy and became my best friend.
I didn’t have to forgive those that ‘wronged’ me because just like me, they are walking their own path and learning the way we’re all supposed to be. They were just forging through life like me so there was nothing to forgive. I held myself accountable for my life and how it turned out and I saw them as instruments to my own growth.
And then there’s love. Loving myself unconditionally was the hardest thing to do. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror without being self-deprecating. It took years before I had a breakthrough, but I did it. I faced all my fears, anger, resentment and every other emotion that were eating me up inside.
Until finally, I understood that love should come from within before it could flow from without.
More than that, I know now that I deserve to be loved simply because I exist and all I have to do is to be myself. I know now that if I love myself and just be myself, there is nothing else that I could ever need from anyone else to make me feel safe and worthy. Now, I feel that even if no one else in this world would love me, I would still be okay, because I do; and no one could ever take that away from me. Not anymore.
Inner work is for the brave of heart and I wasn’t sure if I was one. It took a lot of strength and courage to peel off the labels that defined who I was but as I did, I discovered that I was still whole. I was never broken, after all.