“Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.” ~ George Washington
I’ve been trying to counsel quite a few people lately whose problems fundamentally stem from the fact that they have crippling low self-esteem. This tends to make them obsess about what other people think about them to the point it’s almost impossible to ascertain what they think, what they want, or how they feel. It’s also led them to put up with some pretty appalling behaviour from other people.
As insecurity and lack of confidence are said to be common to those suffering trauma and/or severe depression I started wondering why I’m not similarly afflicted. I’ve experienced abuse, and judgment, and stigma but I haven’t particularly internalised any of it.
And the explanation appears to have less to do with the fact that I have a high level of confidence or self-esteem – I struggle with those things as much as anyone else I think – and more to do with the fact that I’m very unwilling to allow the locus of control of my self-image to exist externally to myself.
I don’t, as a general rule, care what other people think of the way I look, who I am, how ill I am, or the way I choose to live my life because I don’t have enough influence over their opinion to feel comfortable affording it any significant amount of weight in my decisions.
I absolutely hate to feel like I’m not in complete control of myself and my life in any way – which is unhelpful for someone with a stress disorder.
This can be useful.
- It means that my self-confidence is based on things that I know I’m good at and qualities about myself that I’ve decided that I like.
- It keeps me from feeling self-conscious about the way I look or pressurised by media images.
- It makes it difficult for other people to undermine me because they’re being competitive or trying to project their own insecurities on to me.
- And I’m comfortable taking on responsibilities and owning my decisions.
But it also means that I’m never entirely comfortable either delegating or in accepting help; I’ve avoided going on proper dates because the point of the other person being there is for them to assess you against a whole bunch of criteria and decide whether they think you measure up; and I’ve had a tendency to view any feelings I might have for other people as unwelcome weaknesses.
I was, and still am, very proud of my independence, and used to get annoyed when people would occasionally mention it like it was a bad thing; but it took me a long time to realise that I was also hiding behind it. I was hiding because the thought of caring about anybody, getting close to anybody, needing anybody – used to terrify me.
I wasn’t willing to entertain the possibility that any degree of emotional vulnerability could ever be a desirable thing.
Vulnerability meant giving up some control – control over the relationship, control over how the other person saw me, control over my own feelings and the risk of getting hurt – and I needed to be in control.
I’ve had to learn very slowly and very painfully that creating healthier relationships is the only way to heal.
That letting someone see how broken I am and having them try to help me rather than reject me has been the only way to lessen the feeling that there’s an invisible barrier between me and the rest of the human race.
Ironically, softening that steely self-reliance and trusting other people has helped me to regain some stability and a sense of security. For the first time – possibly, (probably?), more because of myself than other people – I feel like somebody has my back, which makes life feel a little bit easier.
Although I still won’t be going on any rollercoasters any time soon.