Reader Parsley P left a comment a while back that seemed a bit too broad in scope for a comment-back response. So I asked her to drop me an e-mail, which she kindly did. Here’s what she wrote:
A lot of times when people talk about self-love, they mean bodily self-love. I agree that’s important, but it’s also important to like yourself in a more intangible sense. The best word I could come up with to describe that was “personality.” I think I overstated myself in my comment this morning (too little sleep) because I don’t mean to say I hate my personality or who I am. That isn’t true on a day-to-day basis. But sometimes I am overwhelmed by these moments where I feel like everyone is kinder, braver, more confident, and more socially adept than I am. I’m sure this isn’t true and I know logically that it can’t be. I’m also sure this isn’t a problem unique to me. Since I think of personality as easier to change than body image, sometimes I feel pressure to become perfect in a non-physical way. I really want to become secure in myself, but wanting that so badly makes me MORE insecure on the outside. Does that make sense?
Part of the problem is that our culture conditions women to think they’re not good enough. But I don’t ever want to think I’m not good enough! I guess another way to put it would be, I want tips on how to toughen up and be SUPER confident!
Just to clarify, I don’t want to give the impression that I am deeply unhappy with myself or that I am in a really bad spot. I consider myself a happy and outgoing person. But I thought by throwing this question out there I could see if other women ever felt the same way.
Although I generally try to limit my advice to matters of style and body image, I felt like this question hit right at the heart of self-image. And I know a little bit about that, too. I’m going to post here what I sent to Parsley, mostly unedited.
OK, so. On first read, I thought that you and I were opposites. I have always hated my exterior, but worshiped my brain, strength, sense of humor, talent, personality. I wanted to just be a brain in a jar for YEARS before I started exploring personal style, and that finally provided me a link between mind and body. So the blog focuses on feeling better about your body by learning to love and respect it, flatter and pamper it.
But as I read more carefully through your explanation, I realize that we are actually quite alike. At least, I think we are based on my interpretation.
It sounds like a lot of what you’re feeling is based not on how you feel about your essential self, but how you feel when you compare yourself to other people. And although those comparisons are generally more hurtful than helpful, they’re also quite natural and very hard to avoid. So don’t beat yourself up about that.
Additionally, it’s well nigh impossible to compare your achievements to the achievements of others and NOT feel like you’re lagging behind … unless you’re Marissa Mayer and already on top of the world. When you see people whose kindness, humor, and bravery you admire and wish to emulate, you’ll feel like you’re falling short there, too. And if you’re at a party and everyone else seems like they’re casually floating from conversation to conversation while you cling to the appetizer table for dear life, you’ll naturally feel like you’re simply not up to snuff.
However, bear in mind that everyone – including those you admire – has shortcomings, faults, and things they absolutely suck at. Your kind and generous coworker might be scatterbrained, a terrible cook, or completely tone-deaf. Your incredibly successful former roommate might be lonely, keep crashing her car, or have chronic bad breath. Your socially-adept cousin might be stuck in a dead-end job, covered in body hair from neck to toe and miserable about it, allergic to foods she used to love, or unreasonably afraid of heights. No one is perfect. That phrase became a cliché because it’s absolutely true. And there are undoubtedly areas in which YOU excel and THEY lag behind. Bearing this in mind may help their talents and skills seem less overwhelming to you. If you’re going to compare, compare both ways … and be as holistic as possible. I’m not advising you to intentionally find fault in people that you respect! Just remember that they are flawed and human, and that is a good thing.
Also, what you’re focusing on is what these folks are best at. People that you admire for particular traits or abilities or achievements earn your admiration by being utterly awesome at that one thing. And, in fact, they deserve your admiration for their awesomeness, and there’s nothing wrong with yearning to be more like them in that one respect. The question you should ask yourself is this: If you aren’t like them naturally, should you try to make yourself more like them against your organic personality?
If you feel strongly enough about shifting yourself toward a certain action, trait, or goal, do some writing about it. Start with these questions:
- Why do you want to be this way?
- What do you see this other person doing – concrete actions, phrases, achievements – that lead you to believe she excels at it?
- Why don’t those things come NATURALLY to you?
- Do you think you could train yourself to do them?
- Is it worth it to do so? Why?
- At what point will you feel like you’ve achieved your goal, and changed yourself? (Important! Give yourself an end point.)
It sounds pretty nebulous, but it will work if you create a plan that suits your personality and stick to it. Human beings have an almost infinite capacity to adapt and change, especially when we truly want to.
As for toughening up and tips on being super confident … well, I don’t have any. There’s no cheat-sheet for this one, unfortunately. Confidence is as personal as style, and everyone must find her own path to it.
Finally, you need to cut yourself some slack, doll. I have had friends, family members, my husband, and several therapists drill that into me about my own self-evaluation, and I still struggle with it … but it might be my most important life lesson. You are an amazing human being. I have never met you and know virtually nothing about you, but I can tell you that with TOTAL CONFIDENCE because growing up in this world, forming an identity in the face of modern life, being self-aware enough to even contemplate this question, and being curious enough to throw it outside of yourself … those things alone make you amazing. And that’s just the generalities. You’ll know the specifics of your own amazingness.
Each person’s path is different, and each person has different needs, goals, and capacities. If you ask me, the only thing in life that really matters is happiness. And what makes you happy will not make me happy, or make my friend Barbara happy, or make my boss happy, or make my mom happy. And that’s just fine. You don’t have to be the CEO of something, or a Church volunteer, or a social butterfly to be happy. In fact, those things might make you miserable! Focus on your essential self – the things that you consider to be your talents, skills, achievements, pleasures, and goals. Define yourself by those things.
Focus on what you possess instead of what you lack. I cannot dance to save my life. I absolutely FREAK OUT at parties, and get equally weird on the phone with strangers. I can’t hide my emotions at all, and it has gotten me into trouble time and time again. I can’t watch the news because it depresses the fuck out of me, and am therefore a dolt when it comes to current affairs. And I suck at giving gifts. But I don’t really care because I am an incredible writer, an amazing singer, a fantastic friend, a beloved wife, and a valuable coworker. I can befriend virtually any animal, including the feral. I can read Tarot cards. I can ride my one-speed bike for at least 30 miles before I start to get tired. I can get A’s in Faulkner and animal physiology … in the same semester, if necessary. I can teach myself how to do animations in PowerPoint, how to make addictive guacamole, and how to apply mascara. I am funny and strong and smart and brave and talented and passionate. And it is THESE things upon which I define myself, and base my self-worth.
Yes, it’s a little white-light-touchy-feely … but you can choose to see yourself through the lens of your strengths. And when you do, those doubts should begin to fall away. Slowly but surely.