“Jennifer”, my therapist once declared, “you don’t have bad self-esteem…you have no self-esteem.” It was a monumental observation. The kind that changes the course of therapy. My therapist had previously been listening for the source of thoughts that were leading to the negative things I said about myself. What she realized, somehow, is they weren’t my thoughts. They were someone else’s. What she helped me see from that point on, was that I had never developed a core sense of self. I got my esteem from whomever I was around. When I was with positive people, I was positive. When I was with negative people, I turned dark. Are you a party person? Me too! More of a quiet nerd? Wow, I share those qualities!
We’re all influenced by those around us to a certain extent. It’s a natural thing to be lifted up by some, pulled out of your shell by others. It’s another to be a complete chameleon. It has its advantages. It creates a persona of willingness. It makes others around you feel good. It reduces tension and conflict. But it takes its toll too.
Realizing that I had no sense of self started me on a path of discovery. I’m still working on it. I have to remind myself all the time when faced with a decision that I need to take a breath and ask myself what I think, how I feel, what’s important to me about it. I have learned to recognize that when I’m feeling tense and torn in life, whether at work, at home or with friends, it’s usually because two people I care about are in disagreement with each other and I haven’t taken time to ask myself what my opinion is.
The seeds of my lack of self were sewn in my upbringing, in a culture that devalued the opinions of women and children, but it was solidified when I was sexually abused as a teenager. The teenage years are when youth transitions to adult and the self is formed. As a person experiences more of life, she learns more about herself. I’m good at music, I’m average at athletics, I’m a great friend. During those years, I was instead, completely focused on appearing to be whatever I needed to be and keeping people from learning the secret of who I really was. Abusers use this redirection in their victims to keep from getting caught. They continually direct the focus of their victims to themselves. At 15, I was so focused on pleasing the minister who was molesting me, that I considered it my “real life” and everything else was just a front. So, even though I was experiencing all the things other teens do, and developing skills, none of it was getting logged into my sense of self.
The good news is, that even though my self-esteem was still undeveloped as I sat with my therapist at age 45, all the building blocks were there. The day my therapist said to me, “Jennifer, “you don’t have bad self-esteem…you have no self-esteem,” I started building it. I still struggle to take my own opinion into account, to listen to my own preferences, but it’s work in progress and the self-discovery is amazing. There is hope 🙂