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Posts Tagged ‘self esteem’

Before this last weekend, I hadn’t attended a convention in a year. And the last convention I attended was somewhat memorable.

Before I left for ConFusion last week, I told myself I had to take it easy. I had been sick for much of the three or four weeks preceding the con, and in addition to that, I’ve been a bit burned out, which seems to mostly mean I’m more tired than usual and have less social energy. I’ve been forcing myself to go out some, but wow, am I much more of an introvert than I usually am.

The perfect time to go to a con!

(Cue maniacal laughter.)

I’ve found it difficult to explain the experience of attending a con as a early-career writer to people who have never been to a con and are not writers, but I will try now. It is incredibly intense. It is both one of the best times ever and an enormous amount of work. It sounds like a big party, and it kind of is, but you never forget you’re there because of writing, which is one of the most important things in your life, and therefore everything that happens at a con has the tendency to take on an overinflated importance. It is difficult to avoid some feelings of being judged, and this doesn’t seem to go away even for many seasoned pros.

The entire con experience is laced through with an undercurrent of PRESSURE. Pressure to make good use of the time because you spent a bunch of money to be there. Pressure to sound intelligent and not say anything incredibly stupid or offensive. Especially on a panel or when talking to a writer you particularly admire. Pressure to smooth over social awkwardness. Pressure to find someone to talk to at the bar. Pressure to prove yourself. Pressure to find an interesting topic to discuss or be on Twitter more or make sure your opinions have some actual thought behind them. Whatever your particular pressure poison is.

Lest you begin to get the wrong idea, the con experience is also jam-packed with amazing moments, fun excursions, and stimulating conversations you’re still thinking about long afterwards. It’s a pressure cooker of mostly awesome.

I had a wonderful and tiring time this weekend. Everyone was very kind to me. There was no running off to cry in public bathrooms (always a plus). Three of the four panels I was on went extremely well, and the fourth one wasn’t a train wreck or anything, I just thought it was kind of boring. I got to spend lots of time with Ferrett, along with many other friends and acquaintances, and I met several new people who I liked a lot. While I heard stories from other writers about stuff that went down at this con, I personally had a very positive experience.

Yay!

Yay!

But I did notice a difference.

I took a lot more time alone in my hotel room. I’d reach a lull in my schedule or have no companions at the bar, and instead of pushing myself to seek out THE BEST USE OF MY TIME, I’d go back up to my room and play Splendor on my iPad and relax. However, this self-permission turned out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having some quiet time was really nice. On the other hand, I definitely felt like I was using more willpower than I normally do because eventually I’d have to force myself back out into the thick of things, and the expenditure of that extra willpower took away some of the gains of taking the quiet time in the first place. So that was one unexpected thing that happened.

The other thing I noticed was that I cared less overall about what other people thought. The main result of this seemed to be that I circulated less. I pushed myself less to be a flitting social butterfly moving from group to group. I moved some, but not as much as usual, and I had pretty much zero concern about thinking about whether I should be mingling more or considering with whom I should be talking more. I’d see a group of people I kind of knew and think about joining them, and if that seemed like it might cost me a lot of work or energy or awkwardness, I didn’t care enough to do it. Because I realized it didn’t really matter; I already can’t remember the specific cases when this happened. Instead I spent my time more organically; I didn’t work to engage people but talked with people with whom the engagement came naturally.

Interestingly, I met plenty of new people this way (although it’s hard to say if this was less or more than previously), and the general quality of conversation seemed to go up. Usually at cons I spend a lot of time having almost the exact same conversation fifty times or more. This time there was a lot less of that, and the increased variety of topic was something I deeply enjoyed. At various times I had really quality conversations about music, dance, various books, social justice, female friendships, transmedia, psychology, relationships, cooking and food, story ideas, theater and musical theater, television, the film industry, economics, several panel topics, and more. Of course, good conversation is a hallmark of most cons, but this time there was simply MORE of it, which is an unalloyed positive as far as I’m concerned.

Even so, the pressure was still present. I simply wasn’t allowing it to shape as much of my time or determine as many of my actions. Even in the face of pressure, there is often a choice: what do I value the most here? And in my case, it was allowing room for moments of significance and connection, and also, perhaps the biggest change, allowing myself room to do what was good for me.

Photo by Al Bogdan

Photo by Al Bogdan, 2016

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I know a lot of people who don’t have much self-esteem.

I used to be one of them, in fact.

Having low self-esteem can be a self-perpetuating cycle. You feel bad about yourself, and so you look outside of yourself to feel better. You look for validation from other people. You care a lot about what other people think. You are more easily suggestible. You worry that people don’t like you, and of course you’re worried because you haven’t learned to like yourself! In extreme cases, you let someone new in your life (a significant other, a boss, a close friend), and your identity changes radically because of that relationship.

(Note: I’m not talking about small changes and compromises. Those are normal. New people encourage us to try new things, to learn new things, to think about things differently, and that’s great. But have you ever known someone who got into a new relationship and then it was almost like they were a different person? That’s what I’m talking about.)

The problem is, getting external validation from other people is never enough. It never lasts. It’s like putting a band-aid over a large gaping wound that needs stitches. Maybe it stops the blood flow, maybe it keeps you from dying, but it’s not going to heal right. It’s probably not going to heal at all. And so then you just always have this inflamed wound, causing you constant pain, ripping open again at the most inconvenient times.

But it’s not so obvious with self-esteem. I’ve seen people who want more money, more advancement in their career, more friends, more compliments, more awards. And it’s not that wanting any of these things is inherently bad. The problem occurs because all of these things, if you achieve them, do make you feel really good for a short period of time. So it feels like they work, and you stay caught in the cycle.

Meanwhile, if you don’t achieve these things that you want, if you fail (because failure is, after all, a part of most successes) or even if it simply takes you a bit longer than planned, it can damage your already vulnerable self-esteem even more. Which also keeps you caught in the cycle.

Plus the genuine way OUT of the cycle feels…well, it feels corny. Corny and fake and maybe even a little bit embarrassing. It’s not something our culture teaches us is important. It’s something that’s easy to pay lip service to but a lot more difficult to internalize.

So what is the way out? It is in cultivating a relationship with yourself. A loving, kind, respectful relationship. A relationship in which you get to know who you are, and you take a look at all those wounds, and you learn how to love yourself anyway, in spite of whatever flaws you find, in spite of whatever has happened in the past, in spite of failure or disappointments or trauma or mistakes. Maybe even BECAUSE of those things, if you’re feeling especially ambitious.

Myself with myself!

Myself with myself!

This can be a difficult thing to do. Your jerkbrain has been getting a lot of practice saying mean things about you. So you have to institute habits to get practice saying loving things instead. You have to practice listening to yourself and learning who you are. You have to practice looking at your shortcomings and then being gentle about them. Meditation, affirmations, mindfulness practice, journaling, stopping and thinking before making decisions, catching negative self-talk and re-casting it, giving kind pep talks, taking care of yourself so you feel better: all these things can help.

And eventually the idea that it doesn’t matter what other people think is not just a thing you know you’re supposed to think. You actually believe it. Not that other people aren’t important, that’s not it, but that you are also important, and you are, after all, the main character of your own life, so you are perfectly entitled to be in the driver’s seat. Other people’s opinions still matter, and listening to the people you are close to is still important, but ultimately you will make up your own mind.

Your feeling of self-worth is no longer strongly tied to anything or anyone but yourself. It is yours and yours alone.

And just as you would do for a relationship with your significant other or a close friend, you keep working on your relationship with yourself. You keep giving it attention and love. Sometimes you might slip a bit, you might get busy and caught up in other things, but then you’ll come back and you’ll remember and you’ll do the relationship maintenance that will keep it strong and growing.

Self-esteem comes from yourself (hence the word SELF-esteem). No one else can give it to you. And in times of hardship, you will reach for that relationship, that core of who you are, and instead of bringing you down further, it will give you solace and strength.

My relationship with myself is the most important relationship I’ve ever had.

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I feel very protective of my close friends.

I forget this is true until one of them tells me a story of some awful thing someone else has done to them. And I don’t even have to think about it. I want to tell them how amazing they are and how much they don’t deserve that kind of behavior, and I want to listen to them vent if they think that will make them feel better, and I want to validate the hell out of them.

And I’m angry on their behalf. Much angrier than I would be if the same thing happened to me. And none of the weird delayed reaction anger either. I’m pretty much angry right away. Angry and sometimes indignant.

One time a close friend of mine called me up on the phone with this story of some really bizarre and inappropriate behavior of a mutual acquaintance of ours. And I realized this mutual acquaintance could, no doubt, use his access to me to make things even worse for my friend. And I knew the mutual acquaintance would have no qualms in doing so.

I decided then and there to let that mutual acquaintance go. It was one of the easiest interpersonal decisions ever. If there had been inappropriate behavior directed towards myself, I would have agonized over it, and wondered if I was being reasonable, and wondered if I needed to give some more benefits of the doubt, and worried about possible repercussions and burned bridges, and worried about what people would think, and wondered if it was somehow all my fault. But because it was about my friend, doing the right thing was easy. To this day, I think about the boundary I set with satisfaction and zero doubt.

This, then, is what it means to become your own best friend. It can be a powerful thought experiment. It is advocating for yourself the way you would advocate for your actual best friends. It is wanting for yourself the kind of respect and appropriateness you would want for your actual best friends. It is stopping and telling yourself the story of what’s going on right now as if the story was happening to your best friend instead of to you, and then noticing the difference in reaction and allowing that to guide you accordingly.

And it is also about learning to see and appreciate yourself the way your best friends see and appreciate you. I think my best friends are fabulous. I am blown away on a regular basis by all their good qualities, and I feel so lucky to know them and have them in my life. I love hearing about what they’re doing, their successes and their failures, their joys and their sorrows. I want them to be happy, of course, but when they are having a hard time, I see how courageous they are. I see how hard they’re trying. I see the risks they are taking. I see how deeply they feel and care. And I admire them so hard.

To be my own best friend, I need to admire myself that hard. To be my own best friend, I need to be blown away by my strengths, not only be bogged down by considering my weaknesses. To be my own best friend, I need to remember that my hard times don’t automatically reflect poorly on me.

To be my own best friend, I need to embrace the idea of being as protective of myself as I am of the other people I love.

One of my amazing besties!

One of my amazing besties!

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I care very deeply about documenting the process of change.

Whenever I think about change, I think about the montage scene. Actually, I think of one specific montage scene: the one in Dirty Dancing when Jennifer Grey learns, through much trial and error, how to ballroom dance well enough to fill in for a professional. That is my quintessential montage scene.

But as useful as the montage scene is, it fails on some fundamental level to reflect the reality of change: that it is slow, and it is hard, and it is filled with doubt and confusion and setbacks, and it hurts. If you’re learning how to dance, it really hurts. Your thighs hurt, and your calves hurt, and your low back hurts because your posture kind of sucks, and your weak ankle aches, and the morning after your first time dancing, you can barely crawl out of bed, it hurts so bad.

The montage scene doesn’t really show the pain, and it doesn’t really show the duration, either. Change takes so much time. Even once you get it, or at least think you do, you often have to realize it all over again a month later, or six months later, or two years later. And each time, there’s this “Aha” moment, and each time it feels important, and each time you move forward, and each time there is still further forward that you could go.

Which is to say, I feel incredibly proud of the personal change I’ve been able to accomplish, symbolized by the tweet Ferrett made back in February. I am proud of it the way I’m proud I started a business. I’m proud of it the way I imagine I’ll be proud when my first novel hits the shelves someday. It is a major accomplishment for me.

And yet. There is still further forward for me to go. I am not magically finished, not suddenly foolproof at the art of not giving a fuck. No, what has happened is that I’ve made visible progress, and that is awesome. Meanwhile the work continues.

Last week I talked about feeling tired in dating. And a lot of that fatigue is tied up, for me, in the act of presentation. Which is all tied in to me still being invested in things of which I’d rather let go. I’ve got this act down. I am tactful, I am diplomatic, I can listen to a subject for half an hour without expressing an actual opinion. If I sense any discomfort in the other person, I act instantly to defuse it. I smooth, I smile, I charm, and I would certainly never admit to what I’m saying in this paragraph right now. Except maybe as a little joke that would probably fly under the radar.

Here’s the thing, you guys. I have taught myself over this last three years to rein this set of skills back when I’m with my trusted friends. I am so much more likely now to tell my friends how I really feel, what I really think. But when I am nervous or uncomfortable or, I don’t know, dating, it is so easy to turn it all back on without even thinking about it.

It feels easier. It isn’t though. Over time, it becomes exhausting. It feels heavy. It keeps me awake at night.

It doesn’t work.

20150708_193540

And it’s not even real. That’s not how I feel anymore. I don’t want a relationship that begins in such a lopsided way. I don’t feel like I need to apologize for who I am or what I like or what has happened in the past. I don’t even feel bad about the boundaries I’ve needed to set. If people don’t want to like me for those things, that’s their prerogative. I don’t need to convince them otherwise. I just want to be me.

And I can. How beautiful is that?

So I was on the phone with this guy who was asking me on a date. And we were chatting because we hardly know each other. And I chose not to flip that stupid switch. And at one point he said, “It’s funny that I called to ask you on a date and now here we are chatting about our divorces.”

And I said, “Well, you know, I’m trying something new. I’ve decided to do my best to be straightforward and open about things. How do you think it’s going so far?”

It was a good conversation. And you know what? I wasn’t exhausted at the end.

This here is another piece of change, clicking into place.

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I used to never say “Enough.”

I’d bend over backwards to avoid saying “Enough.” I didn’t know what would happen if I ever did, and I was afraid to find out. Coming from a background in which I was harshly punished for ever expressing inconvenient needs, the idea of saying “Enough” was nigh unthinkable.

Saying “Enough” would mean acknowledging something bad was happening. Something hurtful enough that such a response was warranted.

The first time I really said “Enough” started out small. It was almost accidental. I felt so hurt and so awful I could no longer pretend everything was okay. I gave a tiny weak “Enough.” I hoped it would give me a few weeks of breathing room and recovery time before I had to go back to pretending.

That’s not what ended up happening though. My tiny weak “Enough” got push-back, and I needed that recovery time so desperately, I actually held the line. No one was more surprised about this than me. And every time my “Enough” got pushed on, it got a little bigger. And a little bigger. And it was all so stressful I broke my tooth from clenching my jaw so hard.

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

The hardest part of saying “Enough” is that it forces things into the light. The light is revealing. And you might learn that things aren’t going to change, and yet the light shows that things are intolerable. And you see that all the effort you’ve put in, all the years of swallowing your feelings and smoothing things over and bucking up and keeping a stiff upper lip and hoping for the best and thinking this time things will be different, all of this is the mental equivalent of a dog chasing its tail.

Saying “Enough” is also saying “Please stop hurting me,” and sometimes the answer you will receive is “No.” And with the bullshit stripped away, you then have to respond to this situation.

I wish I could tell you that this first experience with “Enough” taught me how to do it again, but it didn’t. It was just a beginning.

But it did teach me that “Enough” was a possibility.

Anyway, I faffed around for a couple of years, still not able to say “Enough” even when it needed to be said, which was unfortunate on many levels. And little by little I improved, and little by little my courage for speaking up for myself grew. And at the same time I did my best to change my life so I wouldn’t have to say “Enough” so often in the first place.

Last month I had to say “Enough” twice. What I’ve learned is, while it is important to be able to say “Enough” when you need to, if you reach that point, things have already gone a little bit off the rails. So twice in one month is not ideal. For one thing, it is pretty exhausting. For another, it means I was making some less-than-ideal choices, which is never fun to have to acknowledge.

But I can also tell that my choices overall have improved, because one person responded to my “Enough” with a genuine and heartfelt apology and respect for the boundaries I’d requested. This hardly ever happens, in my experience at least, and it is the best possible outcome to a not-so-great situation.

I used to never say “Enough.” But I’m really glad I learned how.

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Last year at this time, I was feeling uncomfortable about my age.

Am I 5 or 50? Hmm....

Am I 5 or 50? Hmm….

One reason I was feeling uncomfortable about my age was that I was dating someone who was some years younger than me. Six, to be precise. I had my moment of discomfort, and then I caught myself and said, “No, this is not going to be what I’m doing. I am fine with myself at exactly the age I am.”

But after this, he managed to bring up my age several more times in the short time we were dating. This sucked. I felt uncomfortable. And then I felt frustrated with myself about feeling uncomfortable about something over which I had precisely zero control. We can’t pick how old we are. We can’t pick when we were born.

My birthday is on Saturday, and this year I’m feeling fine with the age I’m turning. Occasionally I feel the ghost of this age discomfort. But if someone has a problem with my age, there is absolutely zero I can do about it. So I’ve mostly stopped caring.

No, this year I’ve been feeling uncomfortable about different things.

But what I’ve realized is that this discomfort doesn’t stem from where I thought it did. I’m okay with who I am. In fact, I’m happy about it. I’m okay with where I’ve come from. I’m okay with my emotions. I’m okay with me. All this discomfort is actually coming from one place. True to my empathetic, people pleaser roots, I am still worrying about what other people will think of me. I am still worrying about smoothing things over. I’m still worrying about keeping things from becoming awkward.

Just as I felt uncomfortable about my age even though I’m actually perfectly happy being the age I am, and always have been.

That’s it. That’s all it is.

Of course, now that I’ve recognized this, I have a choice. I can remain bogged down in the discomfort, and instead of accidentally giving “people” this power over me, I can continue to give it to them consciously. Or….

Instead I can say, “Actually, this is very silly.” This is where I come from. This is how I feel. This is what I want. This is what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable about some of these things, and that is just another part of how I’m feeling.

I can remember that I don’t really care what people think of my past, or what I’m doing with my life, or how I feel. That what they think doesn’t change anything, doesn’t steal away any validity or value or inherent truth.

I can think about how vulnerability is not about the response I receive. It’s about accepting who I am and where I am, and about sharing these things when I choose. It’s about having a choice in the first place.

Well then.

Actually, this is very silly.

How’s that for a birthday epiphany?

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There are so many words I have not said.

There is a graveyard of words I store somewhere in the space that encompasses me, buried several corpses deep. Words I couldn’t say. Words I should have said but didn’t. Words that risk and words that respect and words that choke in a throat habituated to silence.

Photo Credit: macieklew via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: macieklew via Compfight cc

I think these words I do not say. Sometimes I think them over and over again. I think about their vulnerability. I think about what they’re in response to. I think, “Is this person insensitive? Am I too sensitive? We’re acting like everything is fine and normal. Are this other person’s words and actions actually fine and normal? Would most people not have the reaction I’m having?”

It’s so easy to forget that at a certain point, those questions lose their significance. This is not about labels. This is not about unwinding the precise reasons, the why’s and the chain of events and the correct place to lay the blame.

Blame doesn’t repair anything.

No, this is about hurt. It is about swallowing it down and hoping I can hide it in a dark enough place it will almost be as if it never existed. It is about refusing to shatter the peaceful object that can be the two of us. It’s the fear of leaving the painful limbo for something worse. Maybe even someplace where you and I no longer exist as you and I.

It keeps you a few football fields at least from where I stand. Maybe with you way over there I’ll feel better. Maybe if I don’t tell you about the hurt, I can prevent it from growing if you ignore what I have to say.

It doesn’t work.

And so I think about transformation. What is the alchemy of turning the hurt into something like self-love? Let me test and tinker, let me write down a precise script of process and ingredients, let me join the ranks of the masters who have already perfected this art.

The question becomes not “Why am I like this?” or “How can I not be like this?” but rather “I am like this, so knowing that is true, how can I best be happy and cared for?”

The response becomes not “Swallow it down, and pretend it never happened” but rather “Let’s talk about this hurt and see how you and I can communicate.”

And if that communication is unfortunate and the hurt is not acknowledged? Especially if this is a pattern of interaction or a newer connection? The response becomes not “What’s wrong with me?” but rather “Perhaps I don’t want to spend much time with this person in future.”

Which, of course, can sometimes hurt like hell, but it’s the pain of the Band-Aid being ripped off. The wound was already there.

Meanwhile, I don’t want you to know who I am. My words reveal me. They let you know I am not a statue of joy and granite but a human of flesh and bone, tears and sweat, idiosyncrasies and flaws.

The whisper inside becomes not “I will never be perfect” but rather “I am enough.”

I believe it is better for the words to be spoken. It is only then we can learn each other.

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