I’ve recently become fond of the essay format and read an especially well written one, “On Self Respect” by Joan Didion and it inspired a musing of sorts:
I try not to talk about my self esteem. Mostly because I think it’s obvious on me. It hangs there like an undeniably obnoxious sweater. People can see it. As recently as a year ago, when they joked with me, they must have seen the quick hurt on my face and quickly tried to assuage my fears and I think to myself, is it that obvious? I wilted under the slightest criticism. Everything I did was a test of my competence and any failure fed this monster of self doubt. I stuttered over words and had no conviction in what I said even if I wholeheartedly believed what I was saying. I wasn’t afraid to speak, but I was afraid to speak. And trying to understand my sense of self felt like grasping at straws.
Self esteem has always been a tedious and insidious thing for me. I have never known a time when I didn’t have low self esteem until maybe 3 years ago when I saw an inkling of who I could be without that crushing self hate and doubt. It started slowly, first believing that my opinions were worthy of being voiced. Of course, there are still many days when I don’t want to develop it, when I feel almost safe in my self pity and berating of myself. And there are just days when the criticisms of past and present threaten to overwhelm me. And for years, I didn’t know that the little criticisms that always pervaded my brain had a subtle but invisible effect on me so I constantly felt this heavy burden on me that I didn’t know was even there. That every time I told myself I couldn’t do it or every time I mentally degraded myself for not doing it as well as I thought I should have done it, I was slowly but surely eating myself away. But I thought I couldn’t do it because I was not smart enough or just not enough.
That enoughness is what I kept pursuing. This feeling of being good enough. Whatever that meant and I was sure when I found it I would know what it meant. But foolishly, I kept trudging through trying desperately to find this imaginary line. During this quest to find, when I fell, I fell hard and told myself I deserved to fall. And when I was happy, I didn’t think i deserved this happiness, because I don’t know, it was just because I was me and that was that. And being me just was not good enough. Not interesting enough. Not funny enough. Not enough of anything. Maybe if I tried to be more social, I can be funnier. Maybe if I tried this, I could be less awkward. Maybe if I studied harder, I would be less stupid. And without realizing I started to associate my self esteem with what I did instead of who I was. When I didn’t perform as well on an ochem test as my peers, I grew bitter and angry. When I couldn’t think of a snappy comeback to a funny joke, I thought about it for days. When I was at a loss for words or when I failed to think of something my friends had but I hadn’t, I angrily thought I was stupid. I felt like a fake person who was “trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials”. And then despairingly, I thought maybe there would always be a disconnect between who I am and who I wanted to be.
If we do not respect ourselves…we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out–since our self image is untenable–their false notion of us.
I don’t know what specifically changed this year but I realized how intense the problem was but I was tired of it just inching forward. I wanted something more drastic to change. When before I sought that feeling of being enough, now I was more desperate to find an inner peace within myself.
Of course, when I am in doubt about anything or need any kind of help, I always consult the internet first. I read dozens of essays, books, and articles on self esteem in the hopes that I would find an answer.
And I think I found part of the answer in the pages of the internet and started to apply it. I started consistently journaling about the things I liked about myself no matter how corny I felt. I started repeating daily affirmations to myself everyday. I started to push myself to speak as honestly and as clearly as I could. I started thinking about other people and tried to give back more than being self absorbed all the time. I started to believe in the best outcomes instead of the worst. But there are two important things about building self esteem that I’ve learned are the most important. The first is to forgive yourself.
It’s a foreign concept–forgiveness. It demanded that I gave myself the time and space to grow and learn without crushing myself. But it makes the world. Instead now when I make a mistake or did something I didn’t really like, I forgave myself, told myself how I could improve and moved on. There’s a lot of comfort knowing that whatever I can’t change about my situation, each day starts clean and making improvements has no start or stop timeline.
The second factor was knowing that there is no give or take in this universe. Just because I had one good day does not mean the day after will be bad or maybe it will be. And just because an amazingly wonderful thing happened to me does not mean I have to sacrifice something to maintain that gift. Believing this helped me believe in the best possible outcomes for myself. To start focusing on what can happen rather than what cannot. And of course with that came the conviction that I deserved this happiness.
You never know how important self esteem is until you have it. As Joan Didion so perfectly describes in her essay, “to have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth…is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love, and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference”.
I might have more moments of self despair and feeling as though I lack so much than is warranted from an average person. In fact, I had that moment today as a friend was delivering delicious, custard and strawberry filled croissants to me. I spent an inordinate amount of time annoyed at myself for not saying things I should have. The old me would have spent several more inordinate days thinking about what I should have done. The newish me spent a few, agonizing minutes. But as I finish this post, I realize I am who I am and even so, tomorrow, there is always time for improvement. I got this.
The source of my inspiration and all the quotes in this post (including the header): Joan Didion’s, “On Self-Respect“. Parts of it is racist and slightly off putting but her musings on self esteem resonated a lot with me.