Tag Archives: self esteem

A haircut to die for

It may seem strange that so many people are keen to get out and shop, have haircuts and do other non-essential things during a pandemic. I wrote last year about the way in which white western culture especially, pays to get its needs met. More of that here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2019/08/04/buying-your-needful-things/

Often, a haircut isn’t just a haircut.  For a lot of people, it’s also about confidence and self esteem. It’s about fulfilling that need – created by social pressures – to look certain ways. It may also be the only time someone touches you kindly.

If retail therapy was your anti-depressant, of course you want to go shopping. If being in the pub was as close as you got to having friends, then you’ll be missing the pub, not specific people. The things people are clamouring to have back may not seem worth dying for, but these are things that we’ve been substituting for quality of life for some time.

Paying to meet your basic human needs keeps the economy moving. The less able we are to meet our needs through real relationships and meaningful experiences, the more willing we become to pay for them. Little wonder then that the UK government doesn’t want you hugging people or seeing your lover, but is happy for you to get in a crowded shop with a bunch of other emotionally fragile people who just want to feel better.

Is a haircut worth dying for? No. But a lack of self esteem might kill you, and having no one to touch you kindly may well give you such a poor quality of life that you can’t face it. Right now, a lot of people are going to make risky choices as a consequence of normal life being so inadequate. Most humans could be emotionally sustained by relationships. What we’re seeing, is people turning back to the things that they used to depend on as substitutes for the things real relationships give us.

Try not to be too hard on them, or on yourself if it affects you. Colonial capitalist culture has been ill, and making people ill, for a long time. This is a new manifestation of that.


Crisis Tactics

One of the things it is common to lose to abuse is a sense of where your own edges need to be. Abusers will work to erode your confidence and self esteem, because when you don’t feel you can say no, you’re more vulnerable to their predations. Standing my ground, defending myself, flagging up problems and expressing distress all still put me in a place of expecting to be knocked down harder than I was by the initial problem. It’s hard to hold boundaries when you fear that protecting yourself will invite twice as much trouble.

I’m not living in that kind of environment any more. However, that knee-jerk reaction remains. If I need to express distress, then fear of what that will bring is with me. Until I’ve tested something like this, I don’t know how anyone will react to me – will they double down? To navigate this I’ve given myself a set of rules. Having established this rule set means that under pressure and feeling emotionally vulnerable, I have a set of defaults to work with.

One. I am entitled to say no to anyone for any reason and I am not obliged to justify that decision. If someone hurts me and I want to just back off and not deal with it, I am allowed to do that.

Two. If I express distress then there are a number of acceptable responses – anything with an element of care, concern, apology. Anything that accepts my response as valid even if it wasn’t where I was supposed to end up. Anyone kindly explaining why it wasn’t meant that way. Any kind of ‘oops’ or ‘oh shit’ noises. I may need further conversation to sort things out, but any of these responses are worth working with.

Three. If I express distress and am met with blame, criticism, mockery, dismissal, being told why I shouldn’t feel like that, being told why I ‘made them’ do it or why their position is justified, or anything else of this shape, I am entitled to end the conversation and step away from the person.

Four. How much slack I cut is totally up to me. How much I am willing to forgive is totally up to me.

Five. How much I love a person is not a reliable measure of that person’s inherent worth. If a person does not value me enough to care when they have upset me, then they do not merit the gift of my care and attention. I am allowed to feel that I have made a mistake in investing in them.

Six. How a person treats me when I am upset is not a measure of my worth – although it may well be a measure of my worth to them, which is not the same thing.


The power of belief

Normally when we talk about belief in a Pagan context, it’s about what we believe in. However, there is also considerable power in who we believe in, and who believes in us.

When you believe in someone, it’s often because they lead and/or teach. That belief can bring all sorts of problems and benefits with it. The inspiration we can draw from good leadership and informed teaching is valuable stuff. The cost of belief in a fraud or scammer is enormous. And in between those two points are the people who are better at PR than they are at content, and whose shinny, alluring surfaces turn out to have nothing much underneath. Your belief in someone is a powerful thing.

Being believed in can be transformative. When I first met Tom, I was not in a good way. I had little confidence in myself and a great deal of anxiety about all the many things I’d been told were wrong with me, or not good enough. He saw something in me that I could not see in myself. He saw a person worth bothering with, worth getting excited about even, and he put that where I could see it. Repeatedly. I was intimidated by the distance between how I saw myself and how he saw me, but I also wanted to be the person he thought I was. Trying to live up to his faith in me has required me to grow and become a better sort of person. He’s also helped me question many of the things I’d been told about myself.

When we invest faith in each other in this way there isn’t the same kind of power relationship you get with leaders and followers. We can believe in each other. When we are able to believe the best about each other, we can lift each other up and inspire each other to be the best that we can be. When we share what we can see of each other’s potential, we can help each other reach into that.

A lack of confidence isn’t something most people achieve on their own. It’s a common side effect of abusive and bullying relationships. The person who has no confidence has far less means to resist a bully or abuser so dismantling confidence is often a deliberate part of that process. Lack of confidence can come from ancestral stories, it can be a wounding passed down through generations. It can come from prejudice and from ignorance. People whose dyslexia wasn’t recognised, whose autism wasn’t diagnosed, whose dyspraxia wasn’t acknowledged and all other things of that nature may have had a terrible time in the school system and come out with little self esteem. It takes the confidence of others to help undo that and to change the story. It’s very difficult to fix on your own what’s happened as a consequence of other people.

Placing your faith in another person can be a powerful gift. It can be a life changing action. To imagine that someone else sees you as worthy, and worthwhile can change everything. There is, without a doubt, magic in the power of belief.


Utility and identity

Being reduced to your utility is not good for self esteem. However, there’s a powerful flip-side to this as well – if you aren’t sure of what space there is for you, utility can be a good thing to hide behind. I’ve gone into many spaces offering my usefulness and willing to work simply so that I could be confident there was a space for me. I find it hard to ask for space if I’m not clear about what I’m offering. I feel more secure when I have a defined role.

Workishness can also be a good defence from having to look too closely at areas of insufficiency. I’ve done this, too. If you’re always busy, if there’s always a stack of jobs to do, you never have to pause and look at your life. Emotional insufficiencies can be blocked out by work. If you are busy, you never have to ask what you want or need – something else is always more important. If your situation isn’t that happy or rewarding but you want to stay in it, being busy can enable that, but it isn’t always the best choice.

Relentless working can become a part of your identity. The idea of ‘hard work’ as a virtue can mean that grinding yourself down every day seems like a noble or necessary activity. If you take up residence here, then the work, the doing, and being someone who works flat out all the time can become a major part of your sense of self. I’ve watched a few people go down this road and it isn’t pretty. Once you buy into working yourself into the ground as part of who you are, there’s a lot of motivation to hang on to it. Who would you be without the work?

Who am I? It is always a challenging question to ask. Who am I aside from this thing I have pegged my time, energy and identity to? And the more frightening question: Am I anything at all if I am not useful and working? It can prove far less frightening to keep slogging away so as not to have space to ask that question in the first place…

Relentless slogging leads to diminishing returns. Exhaustion, burnout, lack of ideas, lack of inspiration and input all take you in a downward spiral, locked into an embrace with the very thing that is taking you down. Breaking out of that is hard. If you’ve become utility-orientated, the best break out comes from seeing utility in different terms: If you want to be creative, inspired, able to do radical new things and make real change, you need to be well resourced. You need energy and inspiration and this means you need to take care of your own needs and wants at least some of the time. Resting improves efficiency.

The other question to ask, is what are you working for? What is this supposed to achieve? Because unless your vision is of a world where we all work ourselves to death as fast as possible, the odds are you aren’t moving towards your own vision here. I’ve seen this come up repeatedly for activists and creators alike. Living in a way that is at odds with the world you want to create isn’t a good idea and manifestly does not deliver your intentions.

It’s important to pause regularly and draw breath. Ask what you are doing, and why, and whether the means truly support the ends. If you are routinely hurting yourself, ask what you are protecting yourself from in doing this. Dare to ask what you really want, and what the best way to get there might be. Being busy isn’t always the most productive approach, sometimes it’s a way of avoiding the things you most need to do.


Work, depression and self esteem

Here are some mechanics I have observed repeatedly in my own life, and am fairly sure I am seeing in the lives of various of my friends who suffer from depression.

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → unable to work → feeling even more inadequate → becoming even more depressed.

Or…

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → working harder → becoming even more exhausted → becoming more depressed.

When you look to work for validation, for a sense of self worth and achievement, and depression is gnawing away at your underpinnings, the odds are you aren’t going to win. But, if you don’t work (be that paid or unpaid), you get to feel even more useless. Depression is good at telling a person they are useless, worthless, unlovable, unacceptable.

Thus when depression kicks in, I turn towards work to try and feel validated. While resting might help my body, it can actually leave me more anxious and insecure than trying to crack on. Instead of turning to others around me for help and kindness, I dig in to the most utilitarian relationships. I focus on where I am most useful, not where most good flows towards me.

I’ve looked hard at the mechanics of this, as it happens in my own life and as I observe others on the same downward spirals. The conclusions I have come to are that it is very hard to get off this spiral on your own, and that once you are on it is not a good time to be dealing with the things that cause it. The real answer lies in what happens the rest of the time – how loved, supported, valued, resourced and welcome a person feels. The degree to which utility dominates relationships in the normal scheme of things. The amount of positive feedback and soul food.

This in turn leads me to thinking about how we normally treat each other. How transactional are our relationships? How much of a feeling of scarcity underpins how we treat each other? How much do we do to validate each other in the normal scheme of things? What do we do for the people around us if we suspect they aren’t ok? If we can support and validate each other on terms that are not primarily about usefulness, I suspect we can all help each other stay out of the awful downwards spirals.

There is a massive amount of power in telling someone you value them, and that their value is not conditional on what they do for you.


Rest and Happiness

There is nothing like being exhausted to bring on the depression and anxiety. There is also nothing like pushing yourself to work when exhausted to lower self esteem and make you feel awful. Rest is a basic human need, and if for some reason you can’t have it over long time frames, your mental health will suffer, as will the rest of your body.

We need rest to heal, to recover from illness. We need time to draw breath, reflect on life, make plans, regroup and digest what we’ve learned. Life without this is stressful and feels like constant fire fighting.

I’ve done seven day weeks and twelve hour days – when you’re self employed and not very well paid the pressure to try and do some extra thing for whatever extra pay you can get, is vast. Some years ago I ditched hard work in favour of smart work. I started taking better care of myself. If I’m not teetering on the edge of burnout all the time, I’m faster, more effective, and more efficient. I’m also happier and better able to enjoy what I’m doing.

I normally take weekends off. Sometimes I take afternoons off, or a day in the week. At the end of December I had the wonderful luxury of a whole week off. I plan rest and recovery into my week. As a consequence, I get more done and feel better while I’m doing it. I’ve also seen marked changes in my self esteem. I’ve spent most of my life with low self esteem, easily persuaded that my wants are irrelevant and that my needs aren’t proper needs anyway. Everything and everyone else has always seemed more important. In putting my own need for rest on the list I’ve challenged those beliefs head on. It’s been interesting.

Having made room for my own needs, I’ve become less open to people who want to run me until I break, or use me until I’m used up. I’ve chosen better, healthier and more supportive spaces to be in. This has also greatly improved my happiness and wellbeing.

When you suffer from low self esteem it’s hard to give any priority to your own happiness and wellbeing, or to get out of situations that aren’t doing you any good. Failure to meet basic needs makes you feel even less like a person. Something as simple as resting can have a massive restorative effect. Not only does it replenish the body, but you also affirm your sense of worth and personhood by doing it. You have the same needs as any other person and the same entitlement to meet them, and that can be a huge building block to better feelings about yourself and having better standards and boundaries that will serve you, not someone else.

Resting gives you the time to look at how your energy is used and to reflect on what’s working. The person who is run ragged all the time doesn’t get space to plan an escape route, or energy to question what’s happening. Rest enables reflection, and reflection helps us make much better choices. Not only does rest help with mental health issues, it opens the way to being actively healthier and happier. It’s not a quick fix – the more entrenched the problems, the deeper the exhaustion the longer it takes to get on top of this. To begin, you have to treat it like it matters, and that can be hard. If you can’t treat resting like it matters, there are some huge questions to ask about your life, and you’re going to need to make the time to ask them. No one can run flat out forever.


Depression and self esteem

For some years now I’ve watched a number of friends who suffer from depression hit burnout on a fairly regular basis. I used to burnout regularly too. Sometimes it’s easier to think about what’s going on when looking at someone else’s patterns rather than your own.

Exhaustion can cause depression and will always make it worse. Avoiding this is a process of self care in which you do the pretty obvious thing of dealing properly with your own needs on a day to day basis. However, for people with low self esteem, this doesn’t work in the same way. If you feel that your needs don’t matter, it’s really hard to put them first. If you feel that putting your own needs first would turn you into a terrible, selfish monster, then running yourself into the ground can feel like the responsible choice. In terms of your mental health, it might be less terrifying than trying to be nice to yourself.

People don’t develop poor self esteem all by themselves. I think most of us learn it, or at the very least get it reinforced. And then when you burn out and people tell you off for not taking proper care of yourself, that doesn’t help. I had a lot of rounds of well meaning people pointing out that I could hardly look after anyone else if I wasn’t in good shape, but for a long time that wasn’t something I could work with, only feel as another form of failure.

Low self esteem will keep you feeling like a failure. Feeling like a failure will make you anxious and depressed. You keep running as hard as you can, doing as much as you can and burning out and falling over, and the question to ask is why? Why does that seem like a good idea? It is a hard question to ask and the answers may be tough.

If you don’t feel entitled to exist, then you may spend your whole life trying to make up for being here. Trying to justify your existence, or do something good enough that you can feel entitled to be just like a real person. However, anxiety and depression and burnout won’t raise your self esteem. Not meeting your own basic needs actually adds to low self esteem and keeps you locked in cycles of burnout, effort and despair. These are hard cycles to break. If looking after yourself leads to anxiety about being awful in some way, it’s really hard to look after yourself.

I’ve made a lot of progress on this in recent years, but not by tackling it head on. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to honour nature in my own body. If Druidry is honouring nature, then treating my mammal body the way I would any other mammal body is something I can get to grips with. Treating my fragility as nature manifesting, as the limitations of my physical self, and the natural realities of my existence has helped me cope with it better.

I’ve also learned that if I am complicit in something unethical, then I support and enable unethical behaviour. I need to model the ways of being that I want to see in the world. There are a number of lovely younger women in my life and I don’t want to show them how to trash yourself and burn out. I want to show them how to live well and take good care of themselves, and to do that, I have to embody it.

It is easier to think about how things impact on other people. If you have low self esteem, it may be easier to do things for other people than it is to do things for yourself. Setting a good example is also something you can do for the people around you. Living in the way you would like the people you care for to live, can be a way of breaking out of the awful cycles that low self esteem can otherwise create.


Self Care and Self Esteem

For people with low self esteem, self care is not something that automatically seems important. When you don’t feel much sense of self worth, putting your needs first is difficult. If everything else around you seems more important than you are, taking care of yourself is hard, and maybe you won’t get round to that until you’re too sick, exhausted, burned out and broken to have any option but to stop.

At this point, helpful people telling you that you should take better care of yourself can feel like further proof of how useless you are. Of course if you’d been any good you’d have done all the things AND the self care and wouldn’t be letting everyone down by falling over… So let me suggest that if you want to help someone who needs to do a better job of self care, telling them off or making them feel useless is likely to push them the other way. If you want to tell someone else that it is their fault they are crashing and burning, think carefully about what this might do to them.

For some people, there’s an extra layer of horribleness here. If you’ve dealt with abuse, then you may well have learned that doing anything for you is dangerous. If you’ve been verbally or physically punished for taking care of your own needs, or ever trying to put your own needs ahead of those of your abuser, self care may feel dangerous. There may be mental health backlashes when you do try to care for yourself. You may experience a great deal of anxiety around self care – and if you haven’t examined the mechanics of why that happens, you might not know it isn’t because self care is a bad thing when you do it. Facing down old memories to build a new perspective is hard work and something to do gently.

If this sounds like you, let me mention that everyone deserves to have their basic needs met. If you feel fear, queasiness, distress, or frozen up in face of the idea of self care, there’s probably something in your history that has badly undermined you. However, with time, and care and gentleness, you can rebuild, and looking after yourself can stop being a fearful thing. You are entitled to that.

It’s easy for people who haven’t been round something like this to get frustrated, and cross, with people who struggle in this way. People who cannot take care of their own needs can be frustrating to deal with. It can be horrible watching someone march grimly towards their next inevitable crash. But none of that makes it a good idea to get angry with people who struggle on this score. Telling someone off will only reinforce their low self esteem. Blaming them for the vicious circles they are trapped in will only add to their low self esteem. Broken self esteem is a serious affliction. Blaming a person for the consequences is like blaming someone who injures themselves sometimes because they have poor co-ordination.

Encouragement is good. Reminding people of what they are worth, and that they deserve not only the most basic of life sustaining things, but also nice things, is good. Showing up and being and doing the nice things can also help. Doing it once doesn’t magically fix everything. If you want to help someone climb out of a hole, that takes time, and a lot of care to help offset where there’s been a shortage of care. Patience is key here. Broken self esteem is a much harder fix than broken bones and takes a good deal longer.


Self esteem and childhood

Most people develop their self esteem in childhood. A child who is loved, praised, supported and encouraged will have a sense of their own entitlement to exist. Many children however get their self esteem crushed early, or never get to develop much sense of self worth. Obviously, abusive families will damage their children, but there are other sources for this, too.

Many families don’t set out to harm the next generation, but pass on family truths, stories and patterns. They may think they are protecting a child by stopping them from getting unrealistic ideas, above their station. They may have a child who doesn’t fit the family narrative about what’s ok – a queer child, a left handed child, a neuro-divergent child, a child who is too quick, or too slow, or thinks too much or moves too much… Landing in a family that cannot understand your very nature does not make for a good start in life. There’s no malice here, but incomprehension can be pretty damaging.

I’ve met adults who were told at school they were stupid, or lazy, and didn’t get a dyslexia diagnoses until much later in life. I’ve met kids who were set back because no one realised they needed glasses. I’ve also met a lot of kids who had clearly learned some really unhelpful things at home – violent kids, and kids so spoiled they didn’t know how to deal well with anyone else. I’ve never met an ugly, useless or evil child, but I have met plenty of kids who were either treated that way, and thus growing into those roles, or learning problematic ways of being.

We’re learning from the moment we’re born, if not sooner. Every sound and movement from the beginning shapes our sense of the world and our ideas about who we are. Well meaning families can still produce children with no self confidence. Families who take against a child can do massive damage.

As an adult, there’s nothing you can do to go back and change your beginnings. Trying to talk about it with those who were there isn’t always helpful. But I think trying to understand the mechanics can be good. If your family didn’t allow you to grow up happily as yourself, trying to understand why they did that can be productive. It’s easy to end up with a short answer of ‘I wasn’t good enough’ but I invite you to consider whether you can imagine another human being who was not born good enough. If your shortcomings feel vague and hard to pin down, if you just, for some reason, didn’t seem to deserve love, or attention, support or praise then it probably wasn’t about you. It should have been about you, of course.

If you take out the assumption that there was something intrinsic in you to explain why you didn’t have a good experience of growing up, it becomes easier to see what was going on. It can be much easier to let go, when you can find a different perspective on this. It can be easier to forgive, where that’s appropriate, to recognise abuse, where that’s the size of it. The emotional neglect of a child is a form of abuse. It may be that your parents in turn were emotionally neglected and don’t even know where to start. Sometimes these things have their roots deep in our ancestry.

Tell yourself a new story, about how you were as inherently acceptable as any other child ever born, but your environment didn’t really work for you. Imagine what the right environment for you would have looked like. Consider how you can make that for yourself, now. Do some of the things that were missing. Find people who can play the roles you need people to play. Know that growing up feeling like a failure doesn’t make you a failure, and is not a truth about the sort of person you are.


Re-personing

A person who doesn’t get their basic needs met can experience a loss of personhood as a consequence. If it starts in childhood, the sense of not qualifying as a proper person entitled to basic things can be hard to shake. Everything I’ve read about self-esteem has talked about how the individual with low self esteem has to develop more of it. Many people seem to assume that self esteem is natural and innate, and I think it isn’t. For most of us, how we feel about ourselves is influenced, if not defined by what we learn from our environments.

Developing self esteem is not something most of us can easily do alone. It is a process of building a sense of being a proper person deserving of all the things proper people get. What’s needed here, is a process of re-personing. Or for some people, getting to become a person for the first time.

If you are involved with someone who is de-personed, this will take time to change. A few positive comments here and there won’t fix things. They won’t magically change in face of a few small gestures. It’s important not to get cross with people if they are slower to re-person than you think they should be. It can take years of persistent, positive feedback to help a de-person become a person. They will likely have little confidence in themselves, they may be pessimistic, and from the outside their sense of self may look crazy. If you blame or shame them for this, you will add to the self esteem problems.

From the inside, it can be difficult trusting anyone who is positive. You may feel like they are setting you up to fail, or mocking you, or over-estimating you. Their positivity may seem like a build up to you inevitably letting them down. It’s hard to get past these things and it takes time. An evidence based approach here can work well – gather data on what actually happens. It won’t help that if you have low self esteem, your mistakes and messes will look bigger than your successes, but if you can identify successes at all, you’re under way.

If you’ve taken a serious emotional battering, you may feel that thinking well of yourself is dangerous. If you’ve been knocked down for being happy, for success, for getting too big for your boots and ideas above your station, the idea of good self esteem can itself be fearful. If you think that treating yourself as an ok person will attract violent pushbacks and emotional abuse, it can feel safer to stay with hating yourself. It takes time to learn how to trust other people not to do this to you. It takes courage to give people a chance to prove that they won’t knock you down as soon as you try to stand up. If you aren’t in a safe environment, you may be right to keep your head down.

We all need to spend most of our time in places that allow us to be people. We need room for our own feelings and responses, for our basic needs, and for a few wants and desires as well. We all need to feel safe and respected. If someone has robbed you of your self esteem, growing a new one is not a quick or easy process, but the thing to remember is that it can be done, and that you do not deserve to feel worthless.

If your cock-ups are normal, human mistakes – poor judgements, misunderstandings, over enthusiasm, insufficient knowledge and so forth, you do not deserve to be knocked down. There are worthless people amongst us, certainly. They spend their time on deliberate malice and cruelty, knocking down others, taking what they aren’t entitled to, grabbing and wounding as they go. And even in those cases, a punishment involving the denial of basic needs doesn’t seem like a good answer. If you’ve not deliberately harmed anyone else, you certainly don’t deserve to be treated like some sort of criminal.