Building Self-Esteem: One Woman’s Journey

I am always shocked to see the effect that self-esteem has on a person. While it is by far not exclusively a female problem, I notice a drastic change when I compare conversations that I have with men to those that I have with women. It isn’t just that we have low self-esteem. It is perpetuated and fed on by so many different influences in our lives (even among our family and good friends) that we fail to see how overwhelming it is. While we talk about the damage it can cause, I think that sometimes we fail to see the complete picture. Women in particular spend most of their time tearing themselves and other people down. Men do it too, but they don’t seem to take it as seriously as women do. At least…not on the outside.

To me, it seems that women in particular are exploited for this vulnerability. Every form of media that we see, hear, or read tells us how inferior we are and compares us in a harsh light to everyone around us. I’m starting to see it become more prevalent among men as more products are available to ‘help’ men with their issues. It’s a very easy pattern to see. Create a product, then create a need for that product. What more powerful driving force is there than low self-esteem?

Self-esteem is all about that inner voice. That annoying little inner voice that is dying to be accepted and points out all of your faults. You can’t get away from it. It’s with you 24 hours a day. Even when no one is around and you’re doing something that makes you feel good, that voice is eating away at your self-esteem.

Low self-esteem makes you reckless. You feel the need to do whatever it takes to get that voice to stop. I’ve seen women enter bad relationships, have children, go on shopping binges, have an affair, get into drugs both illegal and by prescription, gain weight, lose weight, put their mental and physical health at risk, and even get drastic cosmetic surgery because of their low self-esteem.

Low self-esteem is the trigger for the phenomenon known as male mid-life crisis. As I said, low self-esteem is not a problem for women alone. I’ve seen men also get into the same situations that women have because of a self-esteem problem. I’ve also seen it manifest in other ways. Men are more likely to buy expensive toys to combat a self-esteem issue.

When I was about 25 years old, I realized that I had low self-esteem. I kind of knew about it before, but I had laughed it off. I figured that it was one of those things that I just had to deal with and work around. I figured that most people had low self-esteem. My mother did, my friends did. Almost everyone I talked to had low self-esteem.

At some point, I realized what I was doing to myself because of it. I was on medication to help me cope. I was tipping the scales at 300 lbs. I was miserable and rarely wanted to socialize with people because it would just make me feel bad. I was isolating myself from the world because I didn’t feel worthy of being a part of it. As much as I wanted it all to stop, my self-esteem problems made me feel like I wasn’t capable of stopping it. I was just a passenger along for the ride.

The rules were clear to me. In order to have self-esteem, I had to be liked. In order to be liked, I had to be what other people wanted me to be. Since I had no concrete view of who I was, I couldn’t even like myself, but that was okay because I was good at pretending to be what other people wanted.

I wasn’t happy, and I was destroying myself. No matter how much I tried to say that my self-esteem wasn’t a problem, or was too big to handle, it was obvious that it needed to be dealt with. It needed to be dealt with immediately.

My first step was to get really introspective. I had to pinpoint the reasons why I had self-esteem problems. They were many and varied, and I’m sure that a lot of you can relate.

I didn’t have an easy childhood. Ridiculed by my family, my peers, even my friends, it seemed like I could never do anything good enough. Whenever I tried to discuss how I felt, the advice was always the same. I wasn’t measuring up. I had to do what other people wanted so that I could make them happy. Once they were happy, I would get my kudos. That would boost my self-esteem.

That obviously wasn’t working for me. I wore myself ragged trying to make everyone else happy, and I was destroying myself. I wasn’t happy, I was miserable. Everyone around me just kept giving me the same answers. Lose some weight, do something with your hair, you should smile more, make your husband happy, do something with yourself…you don’t measure up.

It became abundantly clear that my problem was that I couldn’t make people happy because everyone wanted something different. Making everyone happy, I realized, isn’t even a reasonable goal. I’d put my self-esteem on the chopping block so that people would like me…but they didn’t give me what I needed.

I began to see the flaw in this logic. I make everyone else happy so that they will in turn make me happy. Once I’m finally happy, I’ll have self-esteem. The problem was, I spent all my time trying to make everyone else happy and I didn’t spend hardly any time on myself.

At 25 years old, I was utterly miserable. Convinced that nothing would get any better, that I’d already ruined everything, that I had always lacked the ability to measure up to anyone’s standards. I was a failure. My self-esteem was eating a hole in me and I was trying to fill it with food, medication, and a fake smile.

Was this really what I wanted for myself? Was this as good as it gets? It wasn’t like I could afford all the plastic surgery I would need to make me feel better. Nothing else I was doing was helping any. Every year I felt further away from where I wanted to be. I knew this in spite of the fact that I had no idea where I wanted to be.

I had an epiphany. Relying on others to supply your self-esteem is pointless. No one else can be everything that you would need them to be. While I was wearing myself to an emotional nub, no one was really trying to take the load off of me because they were busy trying to help themselves. Expecting someone else to give me self-esteem wasn’t working. I had to care about myself first. I had to make my own self-esteem.

I had to get selfish.

I know, I know. The word selfish brings up quite a few negative emotions, but it was an act of desperation. I was drowning here, and everyone else was sitting on the deck of the boat laughing and comparing life preservers.

I had to do this on my own, with no real guidebook. I had to take a desperate situation and somehow turn it around.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into by trying to get out of that mess, but at this point, I was determined.

I set my first goal, which was to just stop. It sounds ineffective, but when you’re actively destroying yourself, this is a really good place to start. I had to stop. Stop turning to food when I was upset. Stop trying to make everyone else happy. Stop wishing I could be something that I wasn’t. Stop drifting through my life waiting for everyone else to tell me what to do or how to act.

It would have been much easier if I didn’t start with rock bottom self-esteem. That inner voice berated me, trying to cut me off as I began. Oh the things it said. No one can say things that will cut you to the bone like you can. That had to stop too. Once I realized that that voice was just me, I realized I could be mean right back. You have no idea how many times I told myself to shut up. I had to vary it so I wouldn’t get bored. Once I realized that voice has no feelings and can’t have self-esteem issues, I could get as mean as I needed to. What was it going to do? Cry? It never said anything nice. It needed to shut up.

Slowly but surely, I started to make progress. I started keeping a journal every day. I lost 25 pounds. I cut off 3 feet of my hair because I looked like a dork, and I dyed it candy apple red. It was big changes like that that shocked me. It was a continual reminder of what I was trying to do, and it worked.

As I started making progress, I thought that the voice would start getting weaker, but instead it got desperate. It started ridiculing all of my efforts, eating away at my self-esteem even harder. I couldn’t let it do that to me any more. I ignored it when I could, and when I couldn’t I told it exactly what I thought of it.

I paid attention to every minor detail that could show me signs of progress. I clung to them, pinned all of my fragile hopes on them. I think I attached every hope I had to my cheekbones for 6 months. Once I lost 25 pounds, I found them. That was progress, and in spite of my low self-esteem, I saw that progress every time I saw my reflection.

My journal really opened up all of the things that had been hiding inside. I was able to get out all of my negative opinions so that I no longer carried them around. I was able to identify my fears and they didn’t seem so big. As those burdens decreased, I had more time to start formulating a new plan for my self and my future.

I started to set reasonable goals and then I started achieving them. That voice was still rearing its ugly head, but achieving goals that I had set for myself was building my self-esteem. Suddenly that voice wasn’t so loud any more.

Once I’d lost about 75 pounds, I hit a crossroad that I’d never anticipated. While my friends had been supportive, now they were starting to voice complaints. My own husband, who had watched me struggle so hard, almost derailed me when I hit his goal weight. If he’d just started losing weight when I did, he could be at his goal weight now. I felt guilty and sad. That low self-esteem was creeping in around the edges again.

I was fortunate to have my journal to help me work through how I was feeling. Why were my friends disappointed in me all of a sudden? Why had my husband stopped supporting me? I felt alone again and that voice got louder.

I wasn’t going to let it. I’d worked too hard for almost a year to turn back now. I’d been down that miserable road before and I wasn’t going to throw away all of my work and go down it again to make everyone else happy. Why on earth couldn’t they be happy for me?

I realized that I wasn’t the only one suffering from low self-esteem. When I started setting goals for myself and achieving them, I triggered the voices in everyone else. Everyone who I had thought had good self-esteem was now struggling with their own feelings of self-worth and negative self-image.

It had nothing to do with me. I’d worked very hard to stop putting everyone else first and it had worked because people were openly supportive. The instant I challenged their self-esteem, the support stopped. I certainly hadn’t intended to, I was just working on my self-esteem.

I had to do some serious thought. My journal from that time reflects a lot of conflicted emotions. I didn’t want to make my friends miserable, but common sense told me that they shouldn’t feel miserable just because I’m happy. I wasn’t hurting them. I wasn’t turning around and telling them the things that they had told me. I was just becoming a healthier, happier person. It wasn’t me that was threatening their happiness. It was my actions, and my actions weren’t centered around them.

I was finally able to get through that challenge, but it was a big one. I think facing it head-on helped me realize that I don’t have to please everyone else. It helped me make a habit of asking if I should be making them happy at my own expense. I stopped another negative behavior that had been destroying my self-esteem.

The realization that I couldn’t please everyone, and in fact I didn’t have to please everyone, was a big turning point. Once I was able to focus on myself without constantly worrying about how I was making everyone around me feel, I was able to complete even larger goals. My self-esteem continued to grow. At this point, that little voice inside was so quiet I could barely hear it.

So what was the end result? Did working on my self-esteem change me for the better? Well…

I lost the rest of that weight and while I won’t be anything below the national average, I feel great and I look great. I’m satisfied and I don’t care if there are women wandering around in a size 0. I don’t rely on medication to numb me out so that I don’t feel so bad any more. Feeling bad is a good indication that something is wrong. I still have my worry lines, but now I’m getting laugh lines. I like those too. I smile a lot. I laugh often. I’m not afraid to sing karaoke and make an utter fool of myself on occasion. I look for the bright side and don’t feel guilty about doing it. I enjoy my friends and all the good that they have in their lives without feeling jealous or inferior. When my friends are troubled, I can be there for them without giving them advice. I can just listen.

As for my friends? Well…for the most part I had to go out and make new ones. That’s okay too. Those people had been in my life for years and I think at some point you grow away from some of your friends. It’s inevitable, as painful as it can be. Oddly, I have more friends now than I ever did. I think it’s because I’m finally comfortable in my own skin.

I have more time to explore and learn, and I spend less time thinking I can’t or shouldn’t do something. The decisions that I make in life tend to have less negative consequences. I’m no longer an emotional eater and I’ve kept the weight off, even through multiple pregnancies, for several years. I know who I am, who I want to be, and where I’m going. Sometimes I don’t know, and that’s okay too. At least I’m headed in the right direction.

As for that nagging inner voice? Oh, she’s still here. When I walk past a mirror she tells me that I look 30, that my butt is too big, and finds tons of other things wrong with me if I let her. I don’t. I just smile and think ‘You can shut up now.’

You know what? She does.

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