First, grow a leg

A couple of years ago I had a bit of a stint with self help material, trying to work out how to avoid some the deep holes of despair I regularly fall into. It became evident that I tick a lot of boxes for low self esteem. This has consequences. I have found it hard to say no to people. I do not cope well in situations where my wellbeing is compromised, and mentioning this might inconvenience someone else. I am attention hungry and affirmation seeking, needing fairly steady signs of being approved of just to stay functional. This, it has to be said, is not a very good way to live.

The self help books talked about how to improve self esteem. Resting more, taking time to pamper yourself and doing happy things, not valuing yourself purely on achievements and most critically, not looking for external affirmation all the time. It felt like being told to grow another leg (hence the title). Your problem, Nimue, is that you don’t have enough legs. Grow another leg, it’ll work then. But there was never any information about how to do what felt like the equivalent of trying to grow a leg. I found that less than helpful.

It’s sent me on a long journey. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far…

Good self esteem is not intrinsic. It’s a thing schools now actively work on because having it enables kids to be happier and do more. Private schools, it is worth noting, go out of their way to develop and reinforce the self esteem of every student. The comprehensive system of my childhood did not do this.

Where do we get our self esteem from in the first place? Well, my best guess is that this develops, or doesn’t, as a consequence of our relationships with our first caregivers. It’s worth noting that what a caregiver thinks will help, and what actually helps, are not exactly the same. Children are developing identity, ideas and beliefs about the world from the moment they arrive, if not before. It’s a while before they can express much of that and give you any kind of sense of the sort of person they are, and what they might need. So even when everyone is trying their best, you can, with the best will in the world, mess this sort of stuff up.

Not every child is wanted. Not every child fits their parent’s idea of how a baby is going to be. Some are a disappointment – wrong gender, not pretty enough… and not all parents respond with open hearted love and generosity to children who have something wrong or unusual about them. Not all parents have as much time to give as an attention-hungry infant craves. There are lots of ways you can start out in a well meaning home and not feel loved, valued or wanted, and gods help you if you start out not being loved, valued or wanted.

I was told, from as far back as I can remember, that I could not make value judgements about whether anything I did was good enough, and that the only opinion that counted for anything, belonged to someone other than me. Lo and behold, I have carried that my whole life, looking for people to stand in that position of authority and power and tell me if I am good enough. People for whom my being good enough might mean something, and would ward of the terror, and the darkness that exist for me in the realms of failure. I was taught to live and die by other people’s assessments, I was taught to have no inner capacity for holding self esteem.

Grow a new leg, they say.

I’m finding better ways of managing the need for validation. I’m also getting better at picking my people, and finding generous hearted folk who help me feel good about what I’m doing. Increasingly in my life there are people for whom I tentatively feel that I do not have to ‘do’ and that they will accept me, just as I am. To be good enough without achieving, without making or working. To be good enough in and of myself, for someone else. That was the thing that had not happened before, and had not taken root. It’s a very small seedling of a possibility just now, but apparently things like this can be grown from scratch, in the right circumstances.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

9 responses to “First, grow a leg

  • caraemoore

    I don’t think it is as drastic as “grow a new leg” as to strengthen the ones you already have. (like the leg metaphor as my leg went out of the hip and had to be manipulated back in, it was still there, but not working). I don’t like the trend now that doesn’t recognize unhealthy, unsafe situations and that you “should be tough enough to withstand them”. Yes, you can fortify yourself, but you need ultimately to get out of that situation and the conditions that contribute to causing them. Putting anyone in these situations is unacceptable (ourselves included). We wouldn’t expect plants to grow in conditions not suitable for their constitution, but people are expected to somehow grow and thrive or least survive in artificially created hostile conditions. Thank you for your intuitive audit of life. I look forward to your posts.

    • Nimue Brown

      thank you, that is such an important point, and the tone in self help books always seems to be about fixing the problem in the individual, and not looking at the context – neither the immediate context nor the wider, social situation.

  • treegod

    We’re born confident. Babies don’t have self-esteem because, in a way they are self-esteem. No affirmation is needed because it’s not something you think, it’s what you are. Then upbringing anfd education screws it up. Self-help approaches confidence as “an extra leg”, encouraging us to artificially affirm it, leaving a sense. Real confidence is being it without thos beo

  • Cadno Ddraig

    In my experience, people with high self-confidence are often selfish, unreflecting and shallow. On the other hand, inner discomfort and self-doubt frequently lead to a questing spirit, insight, and sensitivity to the realities that others inhabit. You are lovely as you are. Just say no to things you know in your heart of hearts are not part of your mission, and you’ll be fine.

    • Nimue Brown

      It is my hope that some kind of midground exists that allows all the good things doubt brings, while also allowing the holding of boundaries. Too much self esteem does tend to beget tyrants…

  • Éilis Niamh

    ” Increasingly in my life there are people for whom I tentatively feel that I do not have to ‘do’ and that they will accept” Beautifully put. In this world, I can think of one to two people who are that for me. How to find more of them in physicality, I don’t know! I have friends and family beyond that who love me, but unconditional acceptance? Hard to say, either they don’t at all or I have yet to test them on it, risking rejection. Now in the otherworld it is a different thing entirely. I’ve practically got a whole clan who give me unconditional love, I could name at least six or seven at the start. Learning how to grow into knowing I am enough regardless of who I’m with is a journey I’m still taking, like you put so well here. The point is to realize I am enough even when the people in the physical world around me say otherwise, and they do say otherwise more often than I care to recall. Even with steadily growing self esteem, believing I am enough is a challenge I have to practice meeting daily, and I’m better at it some days than others. But my otherworld kin don’t judge, and one day I will truly see in myself what they have been saying and showing to me all along. Be patient, it might just take a lifetime. Hugs.

  • Little Green Footsteps

    Thank you for sharing Nimue, it resonates a lot x

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