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A few weeks ago, I was knocked down hard by a big, scary shame monster.
This monster was (ahem…is) relentless.
I must admit this place was a familiar one—I’ve certainly been here before. I looked back at old journal entries and saw the same struggle staring back at me. Year after year, the same content with the word “Why?” circled and underlined with thick pen strokes. My subconscious was desperately searching.
But this knockdown was different. This time I felt the lowest of the low—a guttural sorrow with grieving that wouldn’t end—a deep, dark, gripping hole. But again, why?
On a mission of self-discovery, I did what any upstanding, high-achiever would do and scoured every place information could hide: in books, articles, the internet, friends, family, and podcasts. I was trying to grasp any little piece of safety and hope. And after spending hours and days and weeks wallowing, I finally I stumbled upon a breakthrough.
Self-esteem. I had none.
It’s so simple, yet embarrassing to admit. At 33, I couldn’t confidently say I was enough for myself or that I was living in alignment with my truest being. My wound told me, “I don’t deserve XYZ, because as it stands right now, I haven’t lived up to my expectations. I haven’t shown up as my highest self. I haven’t achieved enough to deserve what I want, and I’m not good enough.”
I was a high-achieving fraud—a cover-up artist. Any work failure or relationship end was soul crushing, like a complete loss of self. Undeniably, this shame trap has been holding me back in all avenues of my life. Previous attempts at achievement-based and relationship-dependent happiness just didn’t work. My happiness was never satisfied because my self-esteem was a shattered mess.
So much processing. So much ugly crying. So many texts and phone calls to friends. So many conversations with roommates. How could someone who advocates for restorative justice, loving-kindness, patience, and forgiveness have forgotten to offer that same grace to herself?
Exhausted and with puffy eyes, I had finally acknowledged and honored my tired soul, the effects of long-lived emotional trauma. An air I had breathed for decades. This time, I saw into my own soul—a young girl laying exhausted, crumbled on the floor. I ached. I grieved for the girl who didn’t know who she was.
In my grieving, I knelt down and held her young face. I looked her in the eye and said, “Sweet girl, you are enough, just as you are, right now in this moment. Nothing more is required of you.” I embraced her weary frame and wiped away the tears from years of silence.
In recognizing my truth, a weight was lifted. How freeing to know there is a reason, beyond my control, why these blocks existed. There was finally hope and clarity.
I’m still very much in self-esteem recovery, but there are a few tools that have been instrumental for me in renewing my essence. I don’t claim this to be an exhaustive list, but I know I feel different. I feel hope. I feel power. And I hope these tools help bring light to other dark places.
Here are the seven tools that have helped me reclaim my self-esteem:
1. Acknowledge and honor the pain. After decades of downplaying my experiences, it took honoring and accepting what I lived through. I began listening to the small voice that told me I was enough. Right then, even in a moment of hopelessness, I was everything I needed to be.
I started to acknowledge that where I found myself wasn’t my fault. So I allowed myself to be in the moment, to feel all of it. I wept. I wrote. I talked to people. I read. I slept. I gave myself space until I was ready. I let myself be tired. My eyelids were heavy.
A yoga teacher at The River yoga studio in Denver once said that people need both the shadow and the light. I let myself remember these dark feelings are temporary. We can stay there as long as we need, and when we’re ready, we move on. Anyone who stays in this place of feeling is a warrior.
2. Follow joy. It might sound intuitive, but so often we ignore those inklings to explore what calls our hearts. For whatever reason, we protect ourselves from failure, or choose to protect those around us, or simply stay small.
In my low places, I couldn’t even decide what I wanted on simple levels, like what I wanted for lunch or how I wanted to spend my afternoon. So I started making lists and mind maps of all the things that even remotely sparked the tiniest ounce of happy for me. Nothing was off limits and writing them down helped me visualize who I was, even when I claimed to not know. I revisit, edit, and rewrite this list often. Identifying our joy, even if scary and unknown, is a way to begin connecting our path, which leads to #3.
3. Consistent action. Sometimes this was hard. I would revert back to old habits of seeking something big to accomplish or relying on perfection or staying stuck in indecision. None of that mattered with consistent action. I told myself the pieces didn’t have to make sense at the beginning or lead to some result—it was the effort toward progress in the direction of my joy that counted.
I started to be intentional about doing something daily, no matter how big or small, that followed my joy. Something that engaged my brain and more than one of my senses. I’ve found anything creative to be even more beneficial. These consistent actions allow me to feel power and to be aligned with my truest self through their nature. Whenever I’m stuck, I revisit my joy list.
A friend of mine recently recounted The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Mason. He describes how humans need to be working or struggling toward something to be in happiness. This seemed counterintuitive, but I love the concept that getting uncomfortable lets you feel life and guides you on your path. The pieces don’t have to make sense at the beginning. Over time, the small, consistent actions build a life we love.
4. Be in community. I struggle with this one the most. When everyone is partnered or having kids and my family lives far away, I do not want to be a nuisance or overbearing. I have the hardest time letting down my guard for people to truly get to know me.
My old patterns step in to protect me, which may have helped in childhood, but now they prevent me from building relationships and being close to people. Will they like me for who I am? Can I rely on them? What will they think when they learn I curse like a sailor, listen to country music, or sit quietly in my own head? I’m convinced, however, that our togetherness helps heal. Humans are meant to be in community. So I find groups and activities that align with my joy list and I show up, even if I’m a little hesitant.
I’m learning to trust that the nervousness that accompanies my choices for community means I’m on the right track. I’d love to know how you build community. Let me know in the comments!
5. Read, write, and reflect. It helps me to know we’re not alone. I read about other people’s journeys—I read all the books I can get my hands on. I reflect often with my close friends, family, roommates, colleagues, and my therapist. I write in a journal often. In addition to stream of consciousness, it helped me to begin rebuilding myself by intentionally journaling on topics that allowed me to explore who I was, to uncover and rediscover me.
I recommend reading and using the journal prompts from Lachlan Brown’s article, “How to love yourself: 15 steps to believing in yourself again.” Daily journaling on these tangible prompts helped me reframe and retrain my brain by remembering who I was.
6. Say yes—and, say no. We should say yes often to what lights our hearts on fire. We should say yes to challenging ourselves. And when we must, as responsible humans and adults with obligations, we sometimes have to say yes when we can’t say no.
Pets and kids and family need care. Saying yes to obligations and responsibilities when I needed to was and is totally okay. I honored those times and respected myself for continuing to show up where I was needed, even when I was hurting—and I began to fill up my own cup slowly from my joy space. But I also began to say no to things that were out of guilty obligation. I’m slowly honing the ability to honor my quiet, authentic voice and let acting on its behalf guide my life into alignment.
7. Pause and offer ourselves grace. Our recovery isn’t linear. Recognizing my ability to treat myself as I do others was a breakthrough. I can already feel my grip loosening, because every day I’m becoming more connected to my essence. I feel inspired to live out my truth.
While the shame monster is a gnarly beast, I affirm the universe needs me and you—our uniqueness and our gifts. We are part of an intricate web. We are loved. We are enough. We deserve the life of our dreams. We are a perfect work in progress.
I’m curious, if you’ve struggled with self-esteem, what has helped you crawl out from the depths and flourish in building your life?
Recommended Reading List:
>> Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen
>> The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Also, this article is not intended to replace professional medical or therapeutic advice. Please connect with your doctor or reach out to talk lines if needed.