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.