How to grow wings and a tail

As far as I can tell, it all comes back to self esteem. I’ve read a lot about depression and anxiety and the gist goes like this: Rest, make time for good things, look after yourself, don’t push through pain and exhaustion, don’t keep going when you feel threadbare, take your needs seriously. It’s probably good advice. I’ve read books on self esteem, and the good advice there is about not pinning your sense of self worth to achievements or other people’s perceptions, because that way, getting knocked down is inevitable.

Pin your sense of self worth to something that isn’t about achievements or how other people perceive you.

I’ve gone round that phrase repeatedly over a lot of years, and I always come back to the same place. But what else is there? And those achievements, and the usefulness to other people that underwrites my sense of being ok, is hard to maintain when I’m sore and tired, and spiralling downwards. Without achievements I can point at, and people I can be useful to, the downward spiral becomes a nosedive. I’ve repeated it often enough to be confident about the mechanics.

Every time I go round this (which at point of writing adds up to a lot of times) the ‘wisdom’ I come back to is that if I tried harder to grow a self esteem that was a proper self esteem like a well and normal person would have, it would all be fine. I ought to be able to do this. I’ve yet to manage it. The whole thing seems about as feasible and available to me as sprouting wings. Despite all the books and all the sagely advice, I have no more idea how to develop self esteem that isn’t based on achievements or other people’s opinions than I did when I started down this route a good four years ago.

There is an uncomfortable truth in all of this – that the idea of thinking well about myself frightens me. To say I did ok, or it was good enough, or I am good enough… even as I type this I can feel my throat tighten, and my stomach. Dangerous things to say. And then the other voice pipes up, the one that says I have no right to say whether I’m any good or not and no basis for knowing, or judging. That my view of myself is inherently suspect and invalid. I know where that voice comes from, and the only viable response I’ve ever found for it, is to have achievements I can hold up, and the good opinions of people I trust to know better than I could, whether I am ok or not.

Self esteem is not actually something we grow in isolation. We learn it early, or we don’t, from those who are around us – family, friends, peers, teachers, neighbours, etc. We grow it from what’s reflected back to us. When you’re never good enough for the people around you, self esteem is bound to be in short supply.

As an adult it’s turned into a need to please. A need to prove that I can be good enough, and do enough, to be worthy of respect and inclusion. It has made me incredibly vulnerable to people who wanted to use me. For most of my life, all a person had to do was hold the hoop a little higher than I could reach and watch me desperately try to jump through it anyway. I think some people find that kind of thing entertaining.

I look at my desire to fix the self esteem issues, and I realise that I can’t, in no small part because I see it as something to achieve, something I am supposed to do so that other people find me easier to be around. I’m still not trying to do it for me, I want it so as not to be high maintenance, or inconvenient. Think how much more useful I could be if I didn’t get regularly mired in bouts of depression! But that thinking negates the whole project.

Seeing the mechanics is not the same as having an answer, but it’s a lot more useful than just keeping on doing what other people tell me I should be doing in order to become what they think I should be. In acknowledging that I’m still not really doing this for me, and not even comfortable (panic levels of not comfortable) with doing this for me, I am probably further forward than I’ve ever been. And yes, I am going to chalk it up as an achievement because I do need to score it that way.

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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

5 responses to “How to grow wings and a tail

  • Kaylee

    I grew up with very low self esteem. By my early twenties, I would have been happy with none, that would have been far better than what I had. I had all kinds of awards and good grades and whatnot, but none of it helped. I had things that others thought should make me feel good about myself, but I didn’t. I hated myself. The only advise that I can offer is to be yourself and do what makes you happy. That and seek treatment for anxiety and depression. Other than that, I don’t know how I ended up actually liking myself and gaining self-confidence. I know it’s possible, but I honestly don’t understand how you get it at all.

  • angharadlois

    I’m beginning to suspect that there might be no such thing as a “normal person” – that, in fact, they are mythological beings concocted to keep us feeling bad about ourselves by comparison.

    Pinning self-esteem to achievements doesn’t seem like a terrible idea – it has to be pinned to *something* (you have to grow your wings from somewhere). The key, I think, is figuring out which achievements make you feel more comfortable in yourself. A lot of achievements – grades, jobs, salaries, awards – are effectively people-pleasing. But some achievements, like working on a project, or planting a pot of herbs, or a good night’s sleep in a bed you have made as welcoming as possible – all these are the kind of things that, in my experience, nurture a sense of who I am, and that being who I am might not in fact be a bad thing.

  • Audrey

    ‘When you’re never good enough for the people around you, self esteem is bound to be in short supply.’

    Hello Nimue,
    This makes so much sense to me as a person who has struggled with low self-esteem for many years. Depression and anxiety have also been constant companions and these are all related. If I’ve learned anything in nearly 61 years of life, it’s that ‘being liked’ is *not* as important as some people tell us it is. We can’t be liked by everyone (however ‘nice’ we try to be), just the same as we are not going to like all the folks we meet.
    Best wishes

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