Letting Go of Low Self-Esteem

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An ornament hanging in Sugarloaf Mountain Park in Md.

For about four decades I questioned my worth pretty much every day of my life. I grew up in a household that was different than most kids I knew, and I felt lesser because of it. My family didn’t have much money, and I didn’t know my father. He elected not to play a part in my life, and that made me feel like there was a piece missing inside of me.

For most of my childhood I was smaller than the other kids, and I had crazy hair, so I felt weird. I was shy and constantly afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. Being laughed at or teased, even if the teasing was meant affectionately, assured me that I was inferior. The only thing worse than being made fun of was being overlooked, which happened a lot.

Even within my own loving family I sensed a hierarchy, with my mother and I stranded several rungs below my uncles and their families.

Insecurity shadowed me for a very long time. I tried to overcome it, and I did an ok job most of the time. But sometimes I couldn’t escape feeling like I was on the verge of collapsing into my self-doubt. Throughout most of my life, I chose counterproductive and temporary ways to push down the doubt.

Many of the stupid things I said and did over the years were based on a suspicion that I didn’t and might not ever measure up. I struck out when I felt challenged. I argued with friends and significant others because being wrong or not being taken seriously felt like a confirmation that I was deficient, insufficient, insignificant. I craved validation but found it difficult to accept when it did come my way.

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From the BASK Mural (by Ales Bask Hostomsky) at Foolish Pride Tattoo Shop in St. Petersburg, Fl.

I knew I was smart and funny but didn’t believe I had enough of either attribute to make up for my faults. The slightest mistake on my part would get blown out of proportion in my mind–another piece of evidence that I was a loser and everyone could see it. The success of others was taken as a sign that I couldn’t possibly have anything to be proud of about myself.

I wanted so desperately to like and respect myself, but I didn’t trust that chick for one second. Did she really deserve my unguarded embrace?

On top of it all, I frequently feared dying in a horrific accident or discovering I was terminally ill. I know now that this dread was a clue that I could not bear the thought of losing control. And it was tightly woven into my lack of confidence issues, making them both feel central to my very being.

Fifteen years ago I started seeing my second therapist, and slowly things started to get better. Gradually, I replaced the rickety rope bridge that was my ego with a stronger, more solid pathway forward.

Over the last few years, I’ve explored additional strategies for making peace with myself. This blog is a record of the more recent steps in this journey. The path isn’t likely to reach a magical destination one day where I can celebrate certain victory over my self-esteem issues. But that’s ok. As long as I stay on the path (mostly–I’m not perfect) and keep passing milestones, I’ll continue making progress. Embracing the journey is necessary and, surprisingly, it’s not the arduous task it might seem at first. And, the process can be just as comforting as the result.

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Trying to be in the moment on a recent kayaking trip on Lake Linganore in Md.

Lately, I’ve found meditating very helpful. If I make time for it every day and take some of the practices into other areas of my life, I can feel the calming effects. It helps me avoid wallowing in my stress; gives me the strength to resist my anger; and encourages me to stop identifying with my negativity. I can still acknowledge those feelings when they arise, and then move on.

Just the other day I got that old panicky feeling that there’s something physically wrong with me, something that could lead to death and the great unknown. I momentarily felt out of control, like a fist was clenching my heart, but I was able to use techniques from meditation to get past it quickly.

Previously I would have been afraid to let go of the fear. Who was I without it? And what if I died suddenly, and I wasn’t properly in terror beforehand? What then, indeed? Releasing my attachment to this pointless distress has been a true gift to myself.

Putting the mindfulness piece together with a few other key pieces is making a real difference in my life. It’s not always visible to others, but I can tell you that the ugly chatter in my mind has subsided considerably. And it only took half a century to get here!

In the coming weeks I’ll write more about the other pieces of the puzzle.

Up next: My somewhat successful experiment with limiting media consumption.

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