“Every girl answered with a version of the same idea: that self-esteem is all about what other people think and how that affects her opinion of herself—not how she sees herself regardless of the opinions of others.” –Haley Kilpatrick, The Drama Years
I struggle with self-esteem. Under the brand of theology in which I spent much of my younger days, respecting one’s self and being confident in one’s inherent worth and value were looked upon suspiciously. The message given and received seemed to be that God needed his children to think of themselves as worthless wretches in order to get the glory for any kindness, goodness, talent, skill, or passion that resided within them. “It’s not me,” I was taught to think, both by word and example, when someone praised me, “It’s all God. Without him, I’d be a miserable, selfish mess, unconcerned with anything beyond my own comfort and fleeting happiness, doing nothing of value for anyone or anything.” The idea of self-esteem was mocked from the pulpit and the hymns we sang to our god were rife with reminders of how terribly rotten we all were at our core. Hearing, saying, and living that mostly unspoken but always present message for years had me pretty darn convinced that it was true.
I remember the day I stopped believing that my core self was despicable and disgusting, made tolerable only by divine intervention. I was sitting in church after singing yet another hymn that decried humans in their natural state as terrible beings–untrustworthy, selfish, hateful–and praised God for loving us even if he had to hold his nose and murder his son to do so, and I thought some of the most powerful thoughts of my life: It isn’t true. I am not a bad person. Even if I stopped believing in God, even if I stopped praying, even if I stopped reading my Bible and going to church, I would still be worthwhile. I would still be good. I would still care about others, be kind, treat people, animals, and Earth with respect. I would still give money to people in need. I would still help my friends move. I would still offer forgiveness to my husband when he hurts my feelings. I would still be remorseful when I hurt his. I am compassionate, patient, loving, peaceful, kind, joyful, and good not because of God or in spite of God, but just because I am. The seeds of valuing myself and my humanity that had been planted by countless individuals as I watched them live with respect for themselves sent out shoots of self-esteem.
After more than 20 years spent believing that respecting one’s self and finding confidence from within was sin most dangerous, I was unused to looking to myself for approval. It was something I had never thought to practice. I made strides towards honoring my feelings, thoughts, passions, and pursuits as valuable and worthwhile, but I was still on the lookout for a second opinion, or a third, or a fourth. It was all well and good to like myself, but I really wanted everyone else to like me, too. Trusting myself was easier when someone else agreed with me. Bursting with ideas for what I wanted to do with my life, perspectives on issues both trivial and mind-shaking, and projects for improving my life and the world around me, I’d bring the thought du jour to people and gauge whether or not I should embrace it by their reaction. I betrayed myself countless times by letting the responses and opinions of others keep me from saying or doing something that came from the most genuine-me parts of myself. I confused self-esteem with esteem from others and my opinion of myself rose and fell according to the opinions others held about me. The shoots of self-esteem that had only recently sprung up from the ground began to wither as I waited for people to water them.
So, what about the Leah of today? Have I mastered the nuances of self-esteem? Did I write this to tell you my top 10 secrets to valuing and trusting yourself even if no one else does? No. I wrote this because I read the sentence at the top of this post last night and realized that, although I’ve made a lot of progress towards being true to myself even when it looks like madness to an outsider, I need to be mindful of my propensity to seek permission from others to be myself. I need to be aware of my tendency to shape my ideas of whether or not I am a proper mother, writer, wife, friend, activist, human from another person’s definition. I need to have a firm grasp of my identity, strengths, weaknesses, and values apart from the opinions of others. I need to water the garden of self-respect and confidence with my own hands. And I need to get to a point where I am not so likely to think I like this post. I think it is really good. Perhaps I should try to get it published on another website like TinyBuddha because that’s a real website and I’m just making up Parrot & Ox as I go along. I’d hate to waste this on my silly little site.
Yeah…I still have work to do.