Tag Archives: self esteem

Knocking people down

There’s no surer sign that someone is in serious trouble than them constantly wanting to knock other people down. It’s also a really difficult thing to respond to in a helpful or positive way. Inevitably, people who deal with their own pain by trying to hurt and attack others, are not attractive. There’s not much motivation to move towards someone who is behaving in that way.

I’ve probably learned most about this through parenting. Small children crave attention, and will do anything to get it. Thus being shouted at, told off and punished will function as an emotional reward for anyone who is otherwise deprived of emotional rewards. Children who are praised, encouraged and given attention more kindly will focus on doing the things that lead to the praise. Give a child attention simply for existing and you’ll end up with a relaxed and confident person.

Adults want attention as much as children do, and social validation is a huge motivator for a lot of people. I wonder how often people who seek attention through spite are doing so because they are still playing out the patterns from emotionally neglectful childhoods. I wonder how much of it comes from not being able to seek attention in healthier ways, and what kinds of tragedies might be playing out in the lives of people who have no good ways of seeking attention.

I see a lot of this sort of thing on Twitter. I’m currently seeing an unusual spate of it in the blog comments – I’ve had quite a few lonely souls rock up lately. They are clearly people who are in pain and who only know how to try and knock other people down. I don’t honestly know what to do with any of them. This isn’t really the ideal space.

Everyone needs opportunities to be recognised and appreciated. Many of us seek that through paying work, through service and volunteering – which can be a decent enough answer. Feeling valued is vitally important for most people’s mental health. Praise and affirmation help people feel better about themselves, so creative outlets can also offer excellent opportunities for lifting and encouraging people. I used to spend more time running supportive spaces, and perhaps that’s something I should invest more time in. 

What I can say is that if you’ve got a project, a piece of writing, an idea… and you don’t have a platform you can use to put it out there, I’m always open to taking relevant guest blogs. If you feel like there’s no point being creative because it isn’t going anywhere, then I’d be glad to offer you some space where you might find an audience for your work. This is open to anyone reading.

Knocking other people down can feel powerful in the short term. However, it doesn’t answer any needs in a meaningful way and it does not lead to social recognition or feeling valued – it may well push the other way. If you need to be seen, to be heard, to feel valued and respected, then there’s far more to be achieved by putting something good into the world and asking people to respond to that. If you’re reading this and struggling, and in need of support and recognition, and if I can help with that by making this blog space available to you, then I’d be delighted to do that. Leave me a comment, or drop me an email – brynnethnimue at gmail dot com.


Soothing the troubled mind

Person A: I feel terrible about myself.

Person B: I think you are an excellent person.

Person A: Thank you. I still feel terrible about myself.

Person B: Why do I even bother?

The thing to remember about hurt and wounded people, is that it was seldom one event. People who are depressed, anxious, who have no self esteem and who feel grim about life tend to have gone through a process. However much we want to fix and heal each other, saying one nice thing once won’t restore the brain of someone who has spent years under attack.

Helping someone rebuild themselves means being in it for the long haul. One complement isn’t going to change everything. Over-complimenting can feel weird and uncomfortable. 

The best thing you can do for a person is be affirming. That includes affirming that their responses to their own historical issues are valid and reasonable. Affirm that it’s ok if things are difficult now because of what happened before and be patient while they work on things. Affirm that their choices and decisions are good, whenever you can. Give positive feedback whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Saying things like ‘I understand why it might seem that way to you’ or ‘your response makes sense to me’ can be a good opener if you need to explain that they’re wrong. People can get trapped in perceptions of the world that really harm them and need help getting out of that.

“I can see why this is making you feel bad about yourself, but it was an honest mistake and we all do that.”

“I can see why this makes you uneasy, but this isn’t going to play out the way that other thing did.”

Affirming the other person’s validity as a person, affirming their feelings and reactions can go alongside gently challenging all of that baggage. When we feel valid and safe it’s a lot easier to do the work of healing and moving on from past woundings.


External sources for internal viability

The advice around mental health is consistent. Don’t base your self esteem on external sources like approval or achievement. Don’t base your will to live on things outside of yourself, or other people. Don’t make your sense of self about how other people treat you. We’re encouraged not to be too focused on things we see as evidence of success or on the opinions of other people.

All of which assumes you have some kind of internal resource to draw on where you can realistically base those things. I blogged a while ago about what it’s like having nothing to reboot from, and this line of thought follows on from that. 

Internal resources are something most people will build during childhood. The experience of feeling secure – practically and emotionally – is a key experience. The child who grows up feeling loved and wanted, respected, valued and worthwhile will internalise those values. If you grow up without those experiences, all of your sense of self worth depends on the conditions you are in, and the conditions placed on you. The less-functional childhood doesn’t offer unconditional acceptance, instead the child learns the terms on which they might earn praise, approval and other affirmations.

For some children, there is never the experience of being good enough. This can particularly impact on children who show early signs of being talented, gifted or unusually clever and who are then burdened with high expectations and come to feel inadequate as a consequence. I hear from my neurodivergent friends about the ways in which not being able to do what the neurotypical kids did impacted on their childhood. It’s not always about deliberate cruelty, control or neglect – although it can be. Well meaning parental ambition can really mess a kid up. 

If you have nothing to reboot from, you may find it really hard as an adult trying to build a sense of self worth from scratch. But here’s the thing – happy children don’t actually do that by themselves. They develop self esteem from the supportive, encouraging feedback they receive from the people around them. Trying to grow confidence or a feeling that your life has meaning as a solitary, inner process is hard, perhaps impossible. The key is to find people who can help you with that.

Unconditional care isn’t something that only parents can provide to children. Your true friends will value you for who you are, and they won’t make you jump through hoops to win approval. There are many people out there who will treat you with respect and dignity simply because you exist. There are people who default to kindness. If you grew up without this, you may find it hard to trust or recognise, but that’s the inner work to focus on. Work out how to find the people who make you feel good about yourself. Start imagining that you are allowed to feel good and be happy, and that you don’t have to jump through hoops to earn that. Find the people who don’t want you to jump through ever more hoops.

Mental health is not something that exists in  isolation. There’s always a context. How we treat each other has huge implications for our wellbeing. Some people grow up with the confidence to know that they deserve kindness and respect. Some people don’t start from there, and can struggle to imagine deserving to be treated well. No one can fix that on their own, but we can do a great deal together. 


Suicide, utility and recovery

I’ve been dealing with suicidal feelings since my teens. After a particularly awful round last week, I was able to sit down and make a list of the persistent thoughts occurring to me around why I should kill myself. This was not an easy process, and when I’m not very close to these things I can’t readily access them and mostly don’t want to go there.

The list had themes, and I only saw them because I’d written them down. A few of them were about pain – physical and emotional and not being able to take any more. I’m fine with that. On its own, I can deal with pain and I also feel that wanting to die in face of a pain overload is a perfectly reasonable response. The thing to work on, if I can, is the pain. Most of the reasons were about utility – that I am not good or useful enough to be entitled to live. Some of them were stacked on that as issues of how I fail as a human being.

I note that every time I’ve kept going in the past I have done so on the basis of not hurting or letting down anyone else. It works in the short term but feeds the narrative that the worth in my life is my utility for other people. I need to stop doing that.

Philosophically, this outlook is bullshit. It’s not what I believe, it’s not my value system and I wouldn’t apply it to anyone else. It isn’t me – and I’d never really seen that before. It represents a way of thinking about people, worth, and life that I do not believe. It is not something of my making. It is, I realise, a consequence of what’s been done to me. After more than twenty years of living with these thoughts, this is a significant breakthrough. It changes who I think I am, and it changes what I think is happening when I fall into these patterns of thinking.

To be worthless as a person depends on having a way of measuring a person’s worth that isn’t simply that they exist. It raises questions about who is supposed to benefit from my life and what I am supposed to be for. Narratives that make a person all about their utility are intensely de-personning.  We live in a culture that does a lot of this, especially to the poor and disabled and to anyone disadvantaged.

I’ve also realised that these thoughts come up as panic responses, not as depression issues. Depression is just a miserable grind, but it’s not the thing trying to kill me. The dangerous stuff is what gets set off by high levels of panic.

I think it probably isn’t just me. I wonder how many people who end up wanting to die do so because their sense of self has been cripplingly injured.  How many people feel there is no point in living because they’ve been taught to measure their own worth in terms of utility to others? It’s also really hard to ask for help when you feel that you are suffering because you are worthless and useless. It’s hard to believe you deserve help, or that you are entitled not to feel awful, when the thoughts driving the experience are all about what a waste of space you are.

No one gets here on their own.


A matter of trust

I’ve known for a while that I have a hard time trusting people to like me, or think well of me. When life is smooth and straightforward, it’s not that big a problem – if the people around me are affirming and encouraging, I feel ok and can trust them enough. However, if anything goes wrong, it leaves me rapidly in a place of having no emotional resilience at all.

I’ve put in the time to work out why I have trust issues of this particular shape. I didn’t get here by myself, it would be fair to say. I got here through a number of key experiences where it was made explicitly clear to me that I was not loved or wanted. The details won’t be useful to anyone else, so I won’t go into them. I’ll ask you to take it on trust that they were the kinds of experiences that shaped my reality and that it was reasonable of me to respond that way.

It is really hard to notice the things that enter our realities as normal and being simply how the world works. For me, it has been so normal to think no one would want me, that I’ve had a hard time noticing when people do. I’ve struggled to feel like I have a place anywhere. I don’t feel like I belong. I struggle with this around relationships of all shapes and around involvement in communities. It has, for many years, also undermined my ability to hold boundaries. It’s part of why I feel that having any place at all is totally conditional on doing what everyone else wants, never asking for anything, never being awkward or making a fuss or saying no. This has not gone well for me, historically, and reinforces the sense of not being wanted beyond the ways in which I am useful.

I did not get here on my own. I am not overcoming this on my own either – I could not have done so.

Recent experiences tested my ability to trust to the limit, and beyond. I don’t think it was a scenario in which a really secure person would have found it easy to stay confident. I broke down, over and over, banging myself against that rock of unacceptability. It was in that repeated breaking process that I became able to see the mechanics of how I see myself in relationships. I was able to line up the experiences informing my sense of self, and to look at them properly, and to be properly horrified by them.

I became aware, during this process, of the many people who have gone out of their way to be affirming. The many people who make explicit that they want me in their lives. I have hit a tipping point recently. The people who want me and are clear about it are simply more numerous, more present, more vocal, than the people who taught me I was worthless. The people who value me have enabled me to shift how I see myself. I am, suddenly, able to imagine that I am someone it might be worth loving and caring about, beyond my utility. I am, for the first time in my life, able to imagine that I am a good person to have around – at least for some people.

Self esteem issues are not problems we develop all by ourselves. A sense of self worth is usually underpinned by our relationships with other people. I am increasingly convinced that anyone who says you should not base your self-worth on external things or other people’s opinions simply has enough security to make that security largely invisible to them. A person’s self-worth is very much dependent on how they are treated. We do not get hurt around this stuff alone, and we do not overcome it alone either.


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.