I can’t pinpoint the exact point when I started to put myself down, but at the time I couldn’t have imagined the consequences. It was sometime in high school, between all of the tough assignments. That wasn’t good enough, I would think to myself after handing in an assignment. I didn’t work hard enough. At first it was a way to motivate myself, and to make sure I did better on the next assignment. I didn’t realize how corrosive it was, and how the worst parts of the mantras that you tell yourself over and over can stick.
[bctt tweet=”The worst parts of the mantras that you tell yourself over and over can stick.” username=”wearethetempest”]
By the end of high school it was definitely a full blown self-esteem problem. At my senior year awards ceremony I swept in academic awards in all categories, even subjects like science, which I didn’t think I was good at. But somehow I couldn’t appreciate them, and couldn’t feel like I deserved them.
[bctt tweet=”So I can’t say this has been absolutely world changing for me. ” username=”wearethetempest”]
I was very self-aware about this problem. I knew I was having trouble with my self-esteem, and knew that I needed to find a way to rebuild it. But I couldn’t figure out how. I would talk with friends and mentors who would try to help me with compliments or by pointing out so-called “amazing” achievements. I would treasure their words, because I respected them. But I couldn’t fully believe them. Yes, maybe I’m hard-working or a good writer, I’d think, but I could be better.
[bctt tweet=”Yes, maybe I’m hard-working or a good writer, I’d think, but I could be better. ” username=”wearethetempest”]
Being at Wellesley certainly didn’t help. When I first arrived, the women around me were amazingly human, and able to acknowledge their insecurities along with their incredible accomplishments. But while many people there had been amazing in recognizing the imposter syndrome, and educating students about it, it’s still a place full of high achievers, with value placed on getting things done, and it was difficult to break free of my issues there.
So it’s been a puzzle I had been working on for years, and it seemed like an unsolvable one. But then, a few weeks ago I came across an interview with psychologist and researcher Kristin Neff in The Atlantic. After years of research she advocates something called self-compassion, instead of a search for self-esteem.
Here’s why. Self-esteem, she said, is too often based on comparison with others. In order to feel validated you have to feel as if you’re better than others. This sucks you into a competitive cycle, where being average is not validating, and is a failure.
This made so much sense to me, because I had recognized and lamented the degree to which my self-esteem problems were wrapped up with productivity. From the very beginning of this mess it had been about making myself do more. What I hadn’t figured out was how to break this cycle of productivity without sacrificing my ambition.
[bctt tweet=”From the very beginning of this mess it had been about making myself do more.” username=”wearethetempest”]
Self-compassion and recognizing your own humanity seemed like the best solution. Treat yourself as you would treat your close friends and loved ones when they mess up, Neff advised. Well, I knew I was good at listening to other people, and emphasizing with them. I was always quick to reassure my friends that “you’re only human, so this is only natural” when they expressed guilt or frustration (even if my advice was often accompanied by a self-doubting “I’m not sure if this helps”). Why not try it with myself?
[bctt tweet=”Treat yourself as you would treat your close friends and loved ones when they mess up” username=”wearethetempest”]
It’s only been a few weeks since I found Neff’s point of view. Solving these issues, as I know well, takes time. So I can’t say this has been absolutely world changing for me. But I am optimistic that this can do nothing but help.