My name is Kim, and I confess that the opinions of others deeply influences my own opinion of myself and my self-worth.
I know it shouldn’t be the case. After all, aren’t there millions of books, audio recordings, workshops, etc. that say over and over again that the only opinion that matters is your own? Doesn’t real self-esteem come from within? If we love ourselves, isn’t that all we ever need?
Like many things in life, the answer to each of the above questions is not a simple “yes” or “no.”
The fact is, we are social beings. Much of our opinion about ourselves comes from those around us. It would be great if that was no longer the case, but speaking for myself, it never stops.
When I was a kid, I was desperate for praise. I can remember being seven years old and cleaning the bathroom without being asked, hoping to win my mother’s approval and attention. When that and other attempts failed to elicit any reaction, I discovered that I could win praise from my teachers by being a “good kid” and “A” student. It worked. Even in classes where I did not excel, I got compliments for always doing my work and behaving well.
Soon, I became hooked not just on being told that I was good, but that I was the best.
Later on, even after years of therapy and learning I was a chronic people-pleaser, I still needed others’ praise and enforcement that I was doing something right, whether it was related to work, dating or simply being me.
Intellectually, I knew that I was looking for the parents I never had: I was searching for that unconditional love that would never go away no matter how badly I screwed up.
Likewise, I was also smart enough to know that I was not going to find it, but it still didn’t stop me from looking.
The worst was getting involved with friends and lovers who espoused all the supposed values and miracles of self-help and who were always trying to “help” me with “constructive criticism.” While I have no doubt that a few were operating from places of love and caring, many appeared to use this an opportunity to dump on me in order to feel better about themselves.
For instance, I had one “friend” who was constantly telling me to stand up to others all the while going absolutely ballistic if I mentioned to her that this constant criticism—constructive or otherwise—was making me feel more helpless and stuck than empowered and motivated to do something.
In my case, I had a child who was a late developer and did not walk until she was nearly two years old. (She would not be fully toilet trained either until she was well over three years old.) Despite reassurances by doctors, psychologists, and physical therapists that this wasn’t my fault and there was nothing I could have done to prevent this, I felt that somehow I must have done something wrong.
When I asked what more I could do, one of the experts looked at me in the eyes and said calmly, “You’re doing that all you can, and it is enough.”
While my daughter did eventually catch up with her peers and was deemed “on target” with other children her age, the experience nonetheless taught me a lot. Once the shock of having a late-developing child wore off, I came to realize that my attention should not have been about me and how I was feeling, but on her.
She was never going to be a failure even if she never did reach normal. Each milestone, each step, was good enough for me no matter how late it came. Even seeing her attempting to crawl was good enough in my eyes.
She was good enough for me. I would never say anything otherwise. So why was I holding myself to a standard that I would never hold my own child to?
Needless to say, learning just how to be good enough is still difficult for me. I wish I could say I have mastered it and could share my secrets so no one else would ever have to experience what I did. However, I would be lying if I said that.
I still desire praise at times. I still am my own worst critic most of the time.
However, I have noticed that I am less attached than I was at wanting to be the best. “Good enough” or even “tried but did not succeed” is getting to be less scary. In fact, it’s even welcomed.
Considering where I started, that is quite an accomplishment indeed.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman