After a recent conversation, I’ve been mulling the concepts of confidence and self-esteem over in my head. One of the constant criticisms women get when we talk about having confidence or good self-esteem is that we’re vain, we have tickets on ourselves, we’re narcissistic or arrogant. Since I’m thinking more about how we feel about ourselves, our bodies and our worth, I’m going to stick to just using the term self-esteem for now, but confidence is something that comes as part of good self-esteem.
For example, recently I had a day where I was feeling really great. I had an outfit on I loved, my hair was doing what I wanted it to do (and has been really soft lately), and I just felt awesome. I said something about feeling really cute today. Well, the open hostility and ridicule that I got in response from acquaintances was a bit of a shock to the system. One woman rolled her eyes. Another spat under her breath “Talk about tickets on yourself!” Once I would have got upset at their negative reactions and let it ruin my day, but I just responded in a cheeky tone that my cuteness was completely wasted on them, they don’t appreciate how adorable I am. It didn’t go down well, but it made me feel better. It wasn’t about other people judging me as cute, it was about me FEELING cute. However a little later a business acquaintance popped in to visit and he mentioned that he thought I was “looking particularly sunshiney today” – so my feeling cute was clearly showing in my demeanor.
Part of that is sheer sexism, women aren’t allowed to feel positive about ourselves – our culture is designed to keep us in our place by making us feel insecure, unworthy and doubting ourselves. But I think part of it is misunderstanding about what good self-esteem actually is. I think a lot of people see it as some kind of black and white territory, where people either have good self-esteem, or they have bad self-esteem. I also think that people see good self-esteem as someone feeling perfect, or invincible.
Which is not really what I believe it’s about.
Self-esteem is about seeing your own value. Good self-esteem isn’t about believing you are perfect, that you never make mistakes or don’t have flaws, or that you are invincible. Good self-esteem doesn’t mean that you are never vulnerable, or unhappy, or feel bad about yourself.
I think so often when we think about good self-esteem in ourselves, we see it as this massive mountain that we have to climb, and once we’ve reached the top, then we’re there and we never have negative self thoughts ever again. Which makes good self-esteem seem totally unattainable to so many of us. We can’t see ourselves ever feeling perfect or invincible, which is a completely normal and healthy way to think, so we think that we can never have good self-esteem.
Good self-esteem not a mountain to climb. It’s a road we travel. With twists and turns and bumps and dips. Sometimes we run out of fuel and have to top up the tank. Sometimes we’re running like a dream and travelling smoothly. Sometimes we get a bit out of control and crash. But if we learn to value and take care of the vehicle (ourselves – physically, mentally, emotionally) and navigate with attention and care, then we mitigate the risks on the road.
The other thing I think holds us back from good self-esteem is the rhetoric around “loving” yourself. While I think it’s a good thing for people to learn to love themselves, not everyone can do it nor should they be expected to do it. When you’ve been taught your whole life that your fat body makes you dirty, diseased, faulty, disgusting, it’s not just a matter of deciding to love yourself and wahey-hey, off you go, everything fixed. Particularly when those messages are constantly re-enforced every single day, every single time you engage with any form of media, and often, by the people in your life.
What has worked better for me, has been learning to value myself for who I am, flaws and all. There are things I do love about myself, but other things I’m not ready or able to love yet. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t. But learning to value myself and see my worth in general has been instrumental in improving my self-esteem. Mostly it’s about learning to cut yourself some slack. Not one of us can be Wonder Woman or Superman. We are always going to make mistakes, or the wrong decision or get hurt. That doesn’t diminish our value – in fact I think it increases it, because despite our human frailty we still contribute so much to the world around us.
It doesn’t matter what area of life you look at, if we are constantly expecting ourselves to be the absolute pinnacle of human possibility at all times, with no failure, no mistakes, no vulnerability, then of course we’re doomed to fail. Why do we expect ourselves to be the next Bill Gates in the workplace, the next Mother Theresa in volunteer work, the next Beyoncé in well… everything… and so on, when only those people can be those people. The only person we need to be is ourselves.
That doesn’t mean we don’t strive to do bigger and better things, and be a better person. It just means that in the process, we cut ourselves some slack and realise that life takes practice, and that there are always going to be times when things don’t go the way we want them to. There will be times that we will be hurt, worried, nervous. Confidence is not about being fearless and invincible, it’s about telling yourself “Ok, I can have a go at this, and give it my best shot.” It’s about dealing with our mistakes and continuing on with the business of life.
Striving to do better and be better is good for you. But writing yourself off as worthless because you don’t reach the absolute pinnacle, or measuring your success against other people is going to do you more harm than good.
Another important thing to remember is that other people don’t get to measure your worth, or your success. You do. It’s nice to have our worth and success recognised, but that’s like the icing on the cake. Not to mention that we don’t all measure worth and success the same way. Only a complete jerk would expect their values and standards to apply to everyone. We see that one a lot in appearance – ie my aforementioned tale of finding myself cute. A lot of people believe that if they don’t find someone attractive, no-one else will, nor have they ever. Which is a load of bollocks – everyone’s taste and values are different. What I find attractive in a person is not universal to everyone. Imagine how boring it would be if everyone found the same type of person attractive? I can’t think of anything worse than if every woman on the planet was attracted to tall skinny white boys like I am! Though I think an awful lot of us are attracted to Tom Hiddleston (you knew I had to work him in there somewhere!)
What I guess I’m trying to get at in a long and winding way, is that good self-esteem isn’t about being flawless, it’s about valuing who you are, flaws and all.
Because you are a worthy human being. YOU are.