Reader Christine sent me this question via e-mail, and although it’s not strictly style or body-image related, it hit so close to home for me, I felt I should share our correspondence:
What if someone feels bad about him/herself, not because of body/appearance insecurities, but rather accomplishment/intellectuality insecurities? What would you suggest to help that person back on a path to self love? For example, the university student who can’t forgive herself for her terrible GPA, and since she valued herself based on her intellectuality, now feels as though she has no worth? Or the career woman who has worked incredibly hard to get to where she is and was passed up for that promotion (or worse, demoted) and now feels as though she has no value?
I’d been feeling very down and worthless with my falling GPA, and at my college campus a production of The Vagina Monologues was going to be held. For advertising they had put signs up on women bathroom mirrors saying things like “You are not defined by a number. Stop letting the scale define your worth!” Well that’s a sentiment I can get behind! But then I realized how hypocritical I was being because I’ve been letting my GPA define my worth and all my feelings about myself. And then of course I got to thinking, and I realized that when I thought about female confidence/lack thereof I always think of appearance issues. However, people, and more specifically women, hate themselves and are insecure for so many reasons beyond appearance/body issues, and I’d love to know your thoughts on this particular type of insecurity/self-hate.
Although I’ve come a long way over the years, I spent all of my youth obsessing over GPA, individual grades, accomplishments, achievements, and quantifiable praise. Being a smart person in a graded school system can be a mixed blessing. You are rewarded for good work and creativity, but may become dependent on that feedback system to feel worthy and accomplished. And depending on how you’re wired, you may end up feeling a strong thread of competition, either against yourself or against your peers. That can be incredibly damaging. If you have a tough semester and your GPA ends up in the toilet, or if you graduate and can no longer rely on grades as a tangible measure of your value, your self-esteem may plummet.
As Christine points out, though, many people eventually transfer this type of personal achievement record-keeping over to career. Failing to procure jobs or freelance gigs, getting passed over for promotions, even receiving scant praise from superiors can impact your confidence. Without hard evidence of accomplishments and worth, it can be hard to feel secure. Hell, it can even become a vicious circle that decreases motivation to continue setting high and worthwhile goals. If there’s no reward at the end, why bother?
Here are some things to consider if you feel like you’re really struggling to separate self-worth from sanctioned achievements:
Look at the big picture
Did something happen recently that may have impacted your performance? Were you sick? Did your dog die? Did you take a class that was WAY harder than expected, or outside your realm of expertise? Was there a change in management or a shakeup among employees? Is the economy failing? People who become dependent on praise are often pretty self-focused: If someone in our circle of friends is upset, we IMMEDIATELY assume it’s because we’ve done something wrong. And, likewise, if there’s a shift in our achievement trajectory, we IMMEDIATELY assume it’s because we suddenly suck at life. And sometimes we’ve slacked off, or bitten off more than we can chew, but sometimes the world has thrown us a curve ball. Take a step back and see what factors are influencing recent life events.
Are you happy?
Sometimes your grades suck because you’ve fallen in love and are so busy making out with your new flame that you skip a few too many classes. Sometimes you get reprimanded at work because you’ve been daydreaming a little too much about your upcoming trip to Paris. And even if your performance isn’t suffering due to non-school, non-work happy-factors, consider your overall state of mind. If you have great friends, a supportive family, rewarding hobbies, loving pets, a rich intellectual life, access to great food or great artwork, the drive to explore your surroundings, athletic prowess, virtually anything in your life that brings you happiness, you’re ahead of the game. Grades and work may seem like the ultimate measure of worth, but they aren’t. In my opinion, happiness is. Are you happy? Can you work on focusing on things that make you happy outside the school/job realm?
Do you beat yourself up for getting an A- when one of your peers got an A? Do you question your entire career path when you apply for and are denied a promotion, and a competitor is rewarded? Or do you look at your college GPA and pull your hair out because it’s so much lower than your high school GPA? Comparison is hard-wired into the human brain, and we do it without thinking. But just as comparing your figure to the figures of your peers is both irrelevant and harmful, holding yourself to the achievement standards of your peers is often both irrelevant and harmful. I realize that relying on competition is a time-tested motivator for all manner of achievements – athletic, scientific, intellectual, and more. And for those who thrive under those conditions, it can be a very effective system. But for those for whom comparison triggers self-doubt, misery, and acute anxiety, it’s a behavior best avoided. How do you avoid comparing yourself? No easy answer for that one, I’m afraid, since we’re all wired differently and the instinct is so strong. But for starters, just be aware when you’re doing it. Try to halt the thought pattern and switch to another topic entirely. Or try out a mantra like, “I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got,” and/or “I’ve got plenty of time to do great things myself.”
Do things for yourself
Grades and promotions are easy measures of worth because they come from external sources. If someone else says you’re awesome, it MUST be true, right? But that mentality can trap you into needing others to stamp you as approved before you can believe you’re doing well. So start cultivating activities you enjoy that are harder to quantify. Take up biking, hiking, kite flying, roller skating, or some other physical pursuit that doesn’t necessarily lead to direct or self-competition. Make travel a priority, start exploring your area, state, region, country, or hemisphere a little at a time. Work hard on your friendships and romantic relationships; Throw parties, hone your gift-giving skills, learn to really listen and respond. The world is full of rewards, and some of the best ones won’t be found in a classroom or office.
I hope these suggestions are helpful to anyone struggling with these issues. I’ve been there myself and have used these techniques to help shift my thinking, but also know how hard it can be to uproot those thought patterns. Be gentle with yourself, and patient, as you begin the process of re-routing praise-based responses.
Image via Parenting Ain’t Easy.