Self-esteem is one of those concepts that has gained a mixed reputation in recent years. To some extent, that reputation is well-earned. We’ve all dealt with people with an inflated ego. Being around them for extended periods can range from frustrating to intolerable. Some have even called the glut of self-esteem and its narcissistic byproducts an epidemic.
Personally, I think that claim is overly hyperbolic. However, I understand the popular sentiment. I was a kid around the time the cracks in the the self-esteem movement really started to show. I sat through many of those classes that espoused the value of self-esteem. I saw all those PSA’s after popular kids shows encouraging kids to believe in themselves no matter what. Even by kid standards, I thought they were cheesy.
At the same time, I was dealing with a lot of personal issues and my self-esteem was often a big part of those issues. I went through periods of my young life when I thought I could do anything. I went through other periods where I thought was a worthless waste of flesh. Going through the rigors of puberty, enduring high school, and dealing with some less-than-ideal health situations certainly didn’t help.
In short, I had a lot of self-esteem as a kid. I really believed in myself and I fought hard to affirm that belief. Then, as I became a teenager, I lost my self-esteem. I became a miserable, self-loathing hunk of living misery. I don’t know how I could’ve felt worse about myself. Then, as an adult, I got my self-esteem back and I haven’t let go over it since.
It was a roller coaster ride, to say the least. It wasn’t always a smooth ride and I found many ways to make it harder for myself. The older I get, the more I realize how misguided I was and how much of it was my own doing. I like to think I’ve learned form it. I also think the experience is worth sharing. Hopefully, others can relate. Perhaps, those who struggled like I did can glean lessons I wish I’d learned earlier.
Before I get into the details of this story, I want to make one thing clear. I don’t blame the self-esteem movement that has become so popular to bash.
I don’t blame the schools, either. I grew up in an area where the schools were great, for the most part. By almost any measure, I was lucky. I got an education that many kids in America would envy.
I sure as hell won’t blame my parents and family. In fact, they’re the heroes of this story. They put up with me at times when I was downright insufferable. My mother, my father, and my siblings did all the right things for a kid like me. I’m lucky they were there because things could’ve turned out way worse for me and I have nobody to blame but myself.
To understand where my self-esteem issues began, it’s necessary to understand the kind of kid I was growing up. For the most part, I was pretty normal. However, if there was one trait that set me apart from the other kids, it was how uptight I was.
By that, I don’t just mean I was stressed out by tests and homework. I was the kind of kid who would get anxious and upset if a school bus was late. I always had to be on time. I always had to get things done early. I didn’t procrastinate on anything. That may sound like a useful trait, but the way I went about it made it a liability.
Between being so uptight with timing, I was just as uptight when it came to grades. Anything less than a perfect score was disappointing. I had this mentality where there were only A’s and F’s and nothing in between. Again, this is not something my parents, teachers, or counselors imposed on me. This is something I did to myself.
I held myself to a high standard. I bought into the idea that just believing in yourself was enough to achieve anything. I’d read it in superhero comics. I’d seen it in cartoons. I genuinely believed I was smart and capable at a level that grossly exceeded my actual abilities. Call it inflated self-esteem, if you want. The end result was the same. When you set impossible standards, you set yourself up for inevitable failure.
My parents warned me, as did my siblings and friends. Everybody warned me that I was being too hard on myself. In hindsight, I should’ve listened. I really wish I had because it set me up for some very difficult teen years.
On top of that, this is around the same time I developed a terrible acne problem that plagued me into my 20s. I also developed asthma that made basic exercise or just a typical gym class feel like prolonged torture so on top of having an acne-ridden face, I was also out of shape. It made me extremely self-conscious of my looks and when you’re ready uptight, that’s a bad combination.
Altogether, this hit my self-esteem the same way a flame-thrower hit a wounded fly. I didn’t just lose my confidence. For a while, my sense of self-worth was hanging by the thinnest of threads. It got to a point where I just started randomly insulting myself. It wasn’t a funny kind of self-deprecation, either. My parents and siblings got downright angry with me whenever I did it, but that rarely dissuaded me.
It got bad. For a while, I had a hard time believing it would get much better. I honestly thought my self-esteem was gone and I was destined to be a walking ball of misery. Then, something remarkable happened.
It wasn’t some incredible epiphany, either. As soon as I graduated high school and entered the adult world, I found a new kind of confidence. It didn’t happen overnight, but there was definitely a transition. It started in college, but it only blossomed as I got older and gained more life experience.
I think the catalyst for that change came when I got my first taste of independence. In college, my life wasn’t so micromanaged. I could actually set my own schedule, plan my own day, and make my own choices. Granted, it wasn’t total freedom. I was going to college on my parents’ dollar. However, compared to high school, it was like getting paroled.
In this environment, I learned something critical that I hadn’t learned in high school or from cheesy after school specials. To have self-esteem, it’s not enough to just believe in yourself. You have to work for it. You have to earn that feeling of accomplishment. It’s not easy, but it’s worth doing and by achieving it, you’re going to feel better about yourself, by default.
It also helped that I became much less uptight in college. To some extent, I do blame some of the messages I got in high school. I had been under the impression that if I didn’t get perfect grades in high school, then I would never go to college and I would die poor and lonely. Even if that impression was misguided, it was such a relief to find out my failures in high school did not define me.
That Spanish test I failed in my sophomore year did not ruin my future.
That assignment I botched in my physics class during my Junior year did not decide my fate.
That may not sound like a big deal to most people, but for someone who was as uptight as me, it was eye-opening. It caused me to re-evaluate my approach to personal standards, real achievement, and how I graded myself.
Suddenly, my personal world didn’t seem so dire. There was some room for error. I could make mistakes, learn from them, and be better for it. To my younger self, that concept might as well have been an alien language. I didn’t care about the process. I cared only for the result. I had to learn that appreciating the process helped me work towards those results.
This didn’t just extend to college. It also helped with my personal life and my health. In college, I got my first girlfriend. I actually developed a social life where I made friends, went to parties, and hung out with people. I was still socially awkward. To this day, I’m still behind the curve in that respect. However, I’m light-years ahead of where I was in my youth.
Things really picked up when I started taking care of myself. Instead of just laying around, feeling sorry for myself, I started exercising. I got serious about treating my acne. I sank most of my savings into fixing my eyesight so that I didn’t have to wear thick glasses anymore. In short, I invested in myself. Like any good investment, it didn’t pay off immediately. Over time, though, the results compounded.
Bit by bit, my self-esteem returned. I had to work for it. Whether it was developing better study skills or getting into shape, I actually had to get up in the morning and make a concerted effort. I know it sounds like common sense, but to my younger self, it seemed so hopeless. If I couldn’t achieve everything all at once, then why bother? It was a terrible mindset and one that held me back.
Today, I have the confidence and self-esteem to share this story. I can even look back on those difficult times and laugh at how I acted. Some close family members will even laugh with me, even though I did not make things easy for them. They definitely did their part. They helped keep me from falling too deep into despair. It just took me a while to do my part, as well.
It would be easy for me to make excuses for my struggles. I could’ve blamed the self-esteem movement, misguided teachers, and after school specials that aired in between my favorite cartoon. In the end, they would still be empty. I still made the choices that made me miserable.
I set myself for disappointment and frustration. Nobody was going to come along and fix everything for me. Nothing was going to resolve itself, just by hoping for the best. In the end, my self-esteem was like any other skill or challenge. I had to apply myself. I had to work hard to earn the results I sought. They were hard lessons to learn, but they were worth learning.
I just wished I’d learned them sooner.