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Self-Esteem and Recovery
I first heard the expression “low self-esteem” at a support group in 1982. One of my friends said, “Susan, I think you have low self-esteem.” “What does that mean?” I asked. “That means you don’t like yourself,” she replied. I didn’t know what to say. I had never really thought about whether or not I liked myself. I didn’t even know it was important to like myself. When I thought about it, I realized she was right. I didn’t like myself. So, I decided to go searching for self-esteem. You might say I was “desperately seeking Susan.” Little did I know how much finding self-esteem would help me grow and change.
I began my quest by reading a lot of books and magazine articles about self-esteem. This promoted my self-awareness and kept me focused. My favorite book was Celebrate Yourself, by Dorothy Corkill Briggs.
Reading helped me understand that my low self-esteem was related to my childhood. When I was growing up, I took my mother’s lack of attention as an indication that something was wrong with me. The teasing of my classmates reinforced this negative attitude. Their voices eventually became my inner critic.
To counteract my inner critic now that I was an adult, I began affirming myself consciously thinking nice things about myself. I told myself that I was a worthy person despite my shortcomings. I also made a list of my attributes and began focusing on them. In effect, I was trying to brainwash myself. It worked a little, but there was still more work to be done.
I have always felt that intimacy comes from revealing ourselves to a nonjudgmental person. The combination of acceptance and knowing is a powerful one. It naturally follows, then, that to love myself more I not only had to accept myself, I had know myself better.
I began trying to get to know myself better by making a list of all the things that I liked and disliked. I also read a book about personality types and found out which one I was. Then I looked at my values—my code of ethics. As the weeks passed, I spent time alone with myself. I talked to myself. I reread the inventory I had made of the things I wanted to change about myself. I explored my feelings when they came up. I began dreaming about my future. I remember asking myself, somewhat facetiously, “Susan, what do you want to be when you grow up?” (I wanted to be a writer, by the way.) In general, I stopped focusing on other people and spent more time focusing on myself. In so doing, I developed a friendship with myself that I continue to enjoy today. And it is easier to esteem myself now that I know who I am.
I have always been a perfectionist. I don’t know if I was born with a preprogrammed sense of order, or if I just wanted to be perfect to get my parents’ attention. I do know, however, that I have always been ruled by an inner mandate to do everything just right, and that this perfectionism eventually became a hindrance to my self-esteem. In other words, I could only feel good about myself if I could do something perfectly.
Eventually, I came to realize that this attitude was a trap, because human beings cannot be perfect. We are perfectly imperfect. We always live in the shadow of perfection. I also began seeing my perfectionism as arrogant, as well as impossible, and I began to see how it eroded my relationships with others. Finally, I began to see the relationship between perfectionism and my obsession for control. To deal with this, I lowered my standards and decided to settle for being human. I started giving myself credit for things like showing up, doing my best, making progress, and so on. Giving up my all-or-nothing attitude boosted my self-esteem.
While I had to give up perfectionism, I couldn’t feel good about myself unless I lived up to some reasonable standards. This is where my self-respect comes from. Therefore, I had to begin incorporating some reasonable self-discipline in my life. This meant giving up my addictions. I knew I couldn’t be totally out of control and have high self-esteem.
At first, I thought the idea of earning self-respect contradicted the idea of self-acceptance or loving myself unconditionally. However, I finally decided that, because of the complexity of human nature I did need to find some balance between the two. So, today, I expect to put forth some effort in order to engender self-respect, but I also love myself when I fall short.
Over the years, my low self-esteem often manifested itself as a lack of self-care. I neglected my appearance, and I found it impossible to do anything nice for myself. Instead, I focused all of my time and energy on doing nice things for others and making sure my children looked good. Somehow, I knew this was somehow eroding my self-esteem, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
Eventually I came up with a plan. I decided that since we take care of what we value, it only makes sense that we will learn to value what we take care of. So I began taking care of myself and doing nice things for myself even though I didn’t feel as if I deserved it. I stopped spending all of my money on my children. I took time to pamper myself. I even learned how to be selfish now and then. It was difficult, but once I got used to it I started to like it, and it had a tremendous impact on my self-esteem. I started to feel like a genuinely valuable person.
I not only started taking better care of myself, I also let other people do nice things for me. I gave up my monopoly on giving. I stopped dismissing compliments and returning gifts (so I could use the money to buy gifts for others). I let the love of others come in, even though this made me feel uncomfortable at first because deep down I was afraid to be loved<\#209>it was too new and different.
As part of my new self-care, I also started setting limits with people who were trying to take advantage of me. In other words, I started standing up for myself. This meant learning to say no, expressing my own opinion, walking away from abuse, being assertive when appropriate, and no longer apologizing when I hadn’t done anything wrong. Reading books about codependency helped me understand why I found it so difficult to do these things, and once the pattern became obvious, it went on my list of things I wanted to change about myself.
At some point in my recovery, I went to a workshop about self-esteem. The teacher said that high self-esteem was linked to altruism. She said people feel good about themselves when they are generous and charitable. I questioned the teacher after class, because all of the nice things I had done for people over the years hadn’t helped my self-esteem.
The teacher didn’t have an answer for me, but after I thought about it, I came to realize that altruism has to be balanced with self-care. It also has to be freely given. All the giving I had done over the years had been motivated by an attempt to buy love. Therefore, to a certain extent, my generosity had been contaminated by my own neediness and less-than-pure motivations. As a result, helping others didn’t build up lasting self-esteem, it was just a quick fix. After I realized this, I decided that I would only give to others when I could do so with a free heart with no strings attached. Also, I decided to always combine my altruism with self-care. You might say I decided to love my neighbor as I love myself not more than or less than.
Another bad habit that eroded my self-esteem was comparing myself to others. Instead of loving who I was, I always wanted to be someone else. I looked at my friends and envied their success, and my envy always cast a dark shadow on my own life, keeping me from feeling good about myself. So I made a real effort to stop comparing myself to others. I have been somewhat successful in doing this and it has helped my self-esteem.
I believe strongly that creative people have high self-esteem. I know that when I started writing and sharing my work with others, I began to feel really good about myself. I wrote poems to my family instead buying them birthday cards. I started writing in my journal so that my children would someday be able to see into my heart and soul. I started teaching about addiction at a local adult school and writing articles about codependency for my students. As I got better at writing, people thanked me for my efforts.
Before long, I was compiling my class notes into a book that was eventually published. By using my creative energy instead of hiding it under a bushel, I was not only allowing the world to see me and validate my budding talent, I was being who I was born to be. This made it much easier to love myself. It’s hard to love our false self or our undeveloped self that part of us that is lost in the wilderness of addiction or caught up in survival mode and afraid to change.
While self-love comes from within, I am only human, and I do need some human validation. Unfortunately, before I knew better, I tended to choose companions who did not validate me. They abused me in the same way that my classmates had abused me when I was a child. I finally realized that, although I didn’t have a choice about the people who surrounded me when I was a child, as an adult I am free to choose my friends and lovers. It only made sense to choose people who affirm me. So I started doing this.
Unfortunately, when it comes to family and coworkers we can’t always choose our companions. We can move from job to job or just ignore our family, but I didn’t want to do that. So instead, I learned how to stop taking my family and coworkers so seriously. I learned how to filter out inappropriate criticism or counter it with positive self-talk. This got easier over time, and today I’m much less sensitive to what other people think of me. As a result, I have the ability to protect my newfound self-esteem.
Nothing can be substituted for the warm feeling of self-esteem. It brings a subtle kind of happiness that’s hard to describe. Because it’s linked with confidence, it provides the courage we need to face our fear of changing. And with the absence of fear, there is one less stumbling block to the natural process of changing.
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