I thought I was stupid, ugly and unlovable.
My lack of self-worth led to poor choices, coming from a place of grief and desperation: I have to stay in this abusive relationship because no one else would ever want me; I’ll let this friend use me because I don’t deserve any better; my job sucks, but I’m lucky to have it since I have no education and no skills, so I better not quit. Lacking confidence, I missed out on opportunity, adventure, passion and meaningful relationships with nurturing people.
It’s not surprising that I was depressed and irritable most of the time. Because I gave off an aura of negativity, I repelled potential friends, lovers and employers. My mother nicknamed me “Poor Pitiful Pearl” because I was always feeling sorry for myself. The people closest to me, all meaning well, said the same thing: “You need to have self-esteem.”
Self-esteem is important.
I’m pretty sure that most of the world’s biggest problems are caused by people who feel awful about themselves and decide to take it out on others. Hitler? Osama Bin Laden? Guaranteed they had low self-worth, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have been driven to hateful, violent measures to prove that they were powerful.
Those are extreme cases, but most of the nasty or just plain miserable people in our lives are probably suffering from the same problem. When people can’t value themselves, they lash out at others. They want to feel better about themselves, but have no idea how to do it, so they grapple for unhealthy, external power sources like physical violence, addictive substances, gossip, Internet trolling and manipulating others, to name just a few.
“Be confident,” I heard over and over and while I sort of understood these concepts abstractly, I had absolutely no clue what concrete actions I could possibly take in that direction.
The old cliché “You can’t love anyone else if you don’t love yourself” is absolutely true, but whenever I heard it, since I didn’t know how to love myself, I’d sink further into self-loathing.
Then one day, everything changed.
I met a 90 year old man named Howard who had it figured out.
Howard was a regular customer at my work. A recent widower, he was lonely and liked to paint, so he came into the art studio where I worked every day and we quickly became close. One day, after watching me struggle to have a conversation with a guy I really liked and wanted to date, Howard told me the same old thing about how I wasn’t confident enough and how I needed to see how great I really was.
“I don’t know how,” I said, sadly.
“Confidence isn’t something you can simply say you have, darling. It’s about action,” Howard explained.
“So how do I act confident?” I wondered, frustrated.
“It must happen on its own, but I can tell you from where it comes. You’ll find confidence by achieving things you can be proud of. What are you proud of?” Howard asked.
Instantly, a flood of all the things I was ashamed of flashed through my mind. Doomed relationships, tempers lost, failures of kindness, gaping holes in willpower, irrational fears, regrets, a lot of them. What was I truly proud of?
“I am a great cook, Howard,” I said.
“I’m proud of my painting. I’m proud of teaching the mosaic classes on Wednesday nights,” I said.
Howard nodded his approval and I thought some more.
“I’m proud that I’m usually a pretty nice person, but I wish I had more courage,” I continued.
“You have a good start. Think of other things you can do that would make you proud of yourself and do them. And try new things. Trying new things makes us braver. Try as many as you can find. If you do that, the confidence and courage will follow and it will all fall into place for you,” Howard said, “You’ve already begun.”
That day it finally clicked. I got it and now I had a concrete plan of action.
In order to feel better about ourselves, we need to accomplish things that make us proud.
In my case, I focused too much on the choices I’d made that I was ashamed of. I worried too much about my regrets and failures and blocked out the positive parts of my personality. Worse, I compared myself to other people and worried how others would judge me. Don’t do that. Accomplishments are relative, and a life spent ignoring our own desires while trying to mold ourselves into someone else’s idea of success, is a sad and wasted life. Confidence arrives when we make and follow our own plans and achieve our own goals, not someone else’s.
The stupidest thing I ever did was drop out of high school. I hated my GED and my lack of education and I realized that this was one of the main sources of my lack of self-esteem. School isn’t for everyone, but I had a mind made for academics and knew I needed to be in classes. After my conversation with Howard, I finally went back to college. I started at my local community college, which was hard and boring at times, but I did it, and with each class passed, I felt better and better about myself. I was no longer a high school dropout. I was a college student, and eventually I was a college graduate. Then one day, many years later I was a college instructor. I can promise you, the first time I stood in front of my own class, I was pretty darned proud of myself.
Going to college was a biggie for me, but there were smaller successes too. I wanted to learn to garden, so I did. I took sailing classes and learned to sail a boat by myself. I’ve volunteered, traveled, written a book and slowly, I’ve turned myself into the person I wanted to be. With each new accomplishment, I find more confidence and am better able to forgive my past mistakes.
Howard had been right, after all.
The secret to self-esteem is to figuring out what would make us proud, be it career or academic achievements, breaking bad habits, being in better shape, changing our diets, volunteering or quitting our jobs, and then doing those things. It is forgiving ourselves for our pasts, understanding that we are not defined by our failures and bravely, patiently creating the futures we desire.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant archives