Being There for Yourself
Marcy was laid off from work. After a month of fruitless job-hunting, she feels like a nothing and a nobody.
Nancy's three children are late getting off to school, despite her waking them on time, continually urging them to hurry, and finally yelling at them. After they leave she sits with her head in her hands, feeling like a nag, a screaming meanie, and an inadequate mother.
Linda gets up her courage and phones the man she met at last week's singles party. He says he is too busy preparing a case for trial to make any plans at this time. She hangs up and feels embarrassed, ashamed, unattractive, undesirable, and unlovable.
Karen, a vice president for marketing, writes a report that includes her recommendations for increasing sales. Her boss decides to go with Charlie's recommendations instead. Karen spends the next week in a funk, questioning whether she's fit for her job.
Sally has struggled with her weight all her life. She diets down almost to her goal, then gradually puts the weight back on, plus a few more pounds. When her weight reaches what she considers panic proportion, she frantically starts dieting again. Whenever she is more than five pounds above her optimal weight, she feels fat, ugly, unattractive, and undeserving.
Elaine is driving to work when her car sputters, stalls out, and won't start up again. She turns to her husband beside her and berates him for not taking better care of the car, though he knows no more about cars than she does.
Marcy, Nancy, Linda, Karen, Sally, and Elaine are all competent, likable women; yet they all have fragile self-esteem. However others may view them, inside they feel deficient and inadequate. Whenever something goes wrong, they are sure they're to blame. Even Elaine, who seems to react by blaming her husband and not herself, does so to ward off feelings of inadequacy. Her sense of self-worth is so shaky that she can't bear thinking herself responsible for one more difficulty, so whenever anything goes wrong, she looks for someone else to blame. These women are like many of us.
When we react to disappointment with self-blame or by blaming others, it is because we do not have an ample inner reservoir of self-liking and self-appreciation to weather whatever storm we're in. We are not grounded enough in our sense of self-worth to be able to take responsibility for what we contributed to our troubles without condemning ourselves totally. Nor are we secure enough in ourselves to recognize the role that people and events beyond our control have played in our difficulties, rather than blaming ourselves for not having been able to control the uncontrollable. Instead, when things don't go the way we want them to, rather than being there for ourselves, most of us blame ourselves, dredging up all the things we think are wrong with us.
We may blame ourselves for a few "glaring" faults, or we might have a long mental list of our failings, such as: socially awkward, timid, unassertive, fat, clumsy, ugly, dull, boring, dumb, lazy, overemotional, aimless, fearful, selfish, unambitious, disorganized, unworthy, and unlovable. Some of us have gone through our entire lives feeling not good enough, or no good at all, often without a clear idea of what's really wrong. There's just this feeling that, deep down, there is something terribly wrong with us, some nameless thing that is defective or missing.
We long to feel better about ourselves. We know that the more we like ourselves, the better we will feel, and the more others will like us. It is common knowledge that people with high self-esteem have an aura about them that makes them attractive and desirable. Yet, to many of us, realizing our worth seems a goal beyond our reach. Despite our discouragement, however, most of us don't give up. We keep thinking that, if only we could correct what's wrong with us or our lives, then we would approve of ourselves.
As a teenager I was overweight, young-looking, and awkward. I longed to be sophisticated and sought-after, and thought that, if only I were older and thin and had the right clothes, then I would be glamorous and popular. By the time I hit thirty, I realized that no matter how old, thin, or smartly dressed I might become, I would never be sophisticated. My personality is more warm and forthright than it is charming and coolly contained. I decided I needed to learn to feel good about myself as I was, rather than continuing to long for the elusive sophistication that I had believed would make me desirable.
Many women erroneously believe, like I did, that they don't appreciate themselves at present because they haven't accomplished enough to merit feeling good about who they are. They think that, in order to value themselves, they first have to do more: lose weight, get married, earn more money, get a promotion, obtain a degree, have children, be a better mother, acquire poise, or produce something wonderful. However, in many cases even reaching these goals doesn't provide the desired results.
Many high achievers remain on a treadmill where, no matter how much they achieve, they feel it's not enough. They just keep needing to do more and more to fill their inner sense of inadequacy. Often, despite receiving the respect and admiration of others, inside they feel like imposters, and live in terror of failing the next time, thereby exposing their deficiency. They look at each achievement as something that only increases others' expectations of them, setting them up for a harder fall when their unworthiness is revealed. They long to feel content and pleased with themselves, but self-contentment is the one thing they cannot achieve.
Self-esteem can come only from the inside,from inner acceptance and approval. If this self-approval is not there, then the effects of outside commendation and rewards last only as long as the kudos keep rolling in. When they cease, the achievement junkie suffers a dramatic drop in self-esteem, and often becomes depressed. To be truly anchored in feelings of self-worth, we need to approve of ourselves for who we are.
Women are especially vulnerable to feeling inadequate and depending on the approval of others for our sense of self-worth. Society, rather than valuing us as full human beings and empowering us, socializes us to focus on attracting, giving to ,and pleasing others. We are "good girls" if we do as we're told, keep our voices down, willingly help out, and mind our manners. Advertisements and the media constantly barrage us with the message that we are to be beautiful and desirable, that our purpose in life is to snare and keep a man, and that failure to do so or the choice of other options means we are deficient and inadequate. Co-dependency, a problem that has received a lot of attention in recent years, involves getting your sense of self-worth from the approval of others, rather than generating it from within yourself -- but this is precisely what women are taught to do. It is therefore not surprising that so many of us have limited or fragile self-esteem. We need to challenge our upbringing and culture in order to learn to value ourselves for who we truly are.
If you've ever rehashed your day in your mind, thinking about all the things you should have done better and telling yourself how inadequate you are, then you know how this self-recrimination drains time and energy from your life. If you've ever procrastinated before doing a task, and then spent the day (or week or month) feeling guilty, then you know how guilt can sap your strength, and sour your free time. It is quite common for women from all walks of life and with varying degrees of accomplishment to waste their time and energy making themselves feel deficient and therefore miserable.
Usually, though, a woman is not aware that she is actively undermining herself and eroding her self-esteem. Instead, she may think she has a "poor self-image," or a "guilt complex" that is beyond her control. The good news is that nothing could be further from the truth. You are not the helpless victim of unmanageable internal forces. If you don't value yourself, it is because you are actively treating yourself in a critical and belittling manner. Let me explain:
A helpful way to understand what happens when you feel bad about yourself is to consider yourself as having an inner-caretaker and an inner-child. Your inner-child contains your feelings, wishes, desires, and needs. Your inner-caretaker's job is to care for you as a parent would: to see that you eat right, get enough sleep, show up on time, act ethically and morally, and fulfill your responsibilities. When your inner-caretaker sees you stumbling, she tries to get you to straighten up and fly right. However, she can do this in very different ways.
Some of us, the lucky ones, have an inner-caretaker who gives constructive criticism and advice while being understanding, accepting , compassionate, encouraging, supportive, and approving. Others of us, the less fortunate, carry within ourselves an inner-caretaker who is really an inner-critic, who tries to help us by being disparaging and demeaning.
Our inner-critic is the part of us that is always telling us what we might have done, and could have done, and should have done...telling us how other people are better and luckier than we are, and how we are inferior...telling us that no matter how hard we try, we'll never succeed because we just don't have what it takes, and success is for other people, not for us.
Can you recall hearing the voice of your inner-caretaker? Think of a time when you were under pressure...feeling stressed...had things to do, decisions to make...were unsure of what to do and how to handle things. Perhaps your caretaker soothed you...told you to calm down and take a break...told you that your decisions are usually sound, but also that it's all right to make mistakes...told you that you are a valuable, likable person and will remain so, no matter how things turn out. If your inner guardian talked to you this way, you won't have any trouble remembering how helped and supported you felt.
However, maybe your inner voice addressed you differently...told you that you always get overexcited, that you can't handle pressure like others can...that you can't make good decisions because you really don't know what you should know...told you that you'd better not make a mistake because then everyone will know how incompetent you really are...told you that you really are no good or unlikable and don't have what it takes, and now everyone will know it. If your inner-critic talked to you this way, you will remember how this added to the pressure you were under, and how much harder it was to operate effectively.
We all have our vulnerable spots, areas in which we feel particularly unsure of or bad about ourselves. These are the areas where our inner-critics continually criticize us. In my case, I'm vulnerable to feeling "fat" (I've struggled and see-sawed with my weight all my life), pushy (it's sometimes hard for me to find the dividing line between being assertive and overinsistent), selfish (it's not easy to balance my needs with those of others), impatient (I don't like waiting), and rejectable (based on some childhood experiences). My inner-critic, when left unchecked, is ever ready to push my buttons in these areas by interpreting events as proof that I'm too fat, pushy, selfish, impatient, and rejectable -- in short, that I'm just not worthy.
If you dislike yourself, it is because you, like so many of us, have an inner-critic constantly telling you that you're inadequate and unworthy, that you should have done it better, acted better, felt better, or looked better; telling you that other people are much more capable than you and that whatever you accomplish isn't enough, that doom is just around the corner and that, if you make one wrong move, you'll slip into the abyss of rejection and abandonment.
Self-esteem can develop only if you turn this inner-censor into a loving, nurturing guardian. The ten steps described in part 2 will show you how to do just that. You will discover how to recognize and appreciate your good points, and how to be supportive and understanding towards yourself when you are having difficulty. You will learn how to give yourself credit and praise for the things you do, rather than criticize yourself for what you don't do; how to encourage yourself as you take steps to attain your goals, and not berate yourself if you stumble on the way. Most importantly, you will learn to give yourself the appreciation and respect that you are longing for. When you nurture yourself, you give yourself what you need to feel confident and capable, and create for yourself the conditions under which you will thrive. Then you will value yourself for who you are, not for what you accomplish.
Paradoxically, you will also be able to accomplish more and to feel better about the things that you do. This is the magic of self-esteem -- the better you feel about yourself, the less you need to prove your worth to others and to yourself, so the more energy you have available for accomplishing things, having fun, and -- as you come full circle -- feeling good about yourself.
This is not a quick and easy process -- a few exercises and your sense of self will be radically and permanently changed. We all know that life doesn't work this way. Change always takes time and repeated effort. You didn't learn to dislike yourself in a week, and you won't unlearn it in a week either. But you can do it! The steps in this book, synthesized from nearly twenty-five years' experience in helping women come to terms with and feel positive about themselves, are designed to give you the tools you need to treat yourself with the compassion and understanding that foster self-approval, growth, and success, which I define as:
Success is being happy first with yourself, and secondly with your life.
I firmly believe that what we really want and need, once our basic requirements of food and shelter are adequately satisfied, is a life where we feel good about ourselves, about what we are doing, and about the people around us. However, we cannot feel good if we are not happy within. Without inner assurance, no accomplishment ever seems enough -- and it is hard to be close to others if we feel unworthy and are in inner conflict.
I know this is different from the common way success is defined and measured. After all, I am putting wealth, fame, status, achievements, or accomplishments in, at best, a secondary role. This is because there is no point in "having it all" if it doesn't make you happy, and if you are not happy with yourself, then all the accomplishments in the world are not going to make you so. There are many people who are rich and famous, the envy of others, but who never feel successful within. (A tragic example would be Christina Onassis, heir to the vast fortune amassed by her Greek shipping tycoon father Aristotle; she had four failed marriages and died at age thirty-seven. Her huge fortune and jet-set life-style could not enable her to find a fulfilling relationship or give her the inner contentment that she so needed).
Money, fame, and achievements are only of value when integrated into a positive sense of self. Otherwise the outwardly "successful" person remains discontent and unfulfilled. No amount of money, no degree of fame, no long list of achievements ever fills the hollow inner space.
When you learn to nurture yourself, you learn how to feel good about yourself as you are, freeing your energy to go after what you want. You will live not primarily in the future ("I'll be happy once I...make a lot of money, or advance in my career, or find the right person to share my life with"), but in the present, enjoying yourself and feeling good about yourself even as you strive for more.
This will put you in what I call the Success Cycle, where nurturing yourself leads to increased self-esteem and hope, which leads to positive efforts for which you take credit and feel good and successful, which leads to more self-nurturing.
This may seem simple and self-evident; however, it is often difficult to put into practice. Many intelligent, wise, sensitive, knowledgeable women don't give themselves the nurturing they need to feel good about themselves and to take positive steps, but attack themselves instead. They criticize and berate themselves, believing harshness to be the best way to motivate themselves to change. They try to prod themselves into achievements by constantly focusing on their deficiencies, and fear that if they stop harping on their shortcomings, they will give up on improving themselves and do nothing.
Perhaps you feel this way, too. Do you use your energy to put yourself down, rather than using it to cope and grow? Do you seek the support and approval of others, without recognizing that it is you yourself from whom you most need encouragement and acceptance? Do you resent others or the world for not rewarding you, but ultimately blame yourself for not doing more and being so unworthy? Do you command yourself, "Do something impressive, then I'll approve of you?" Then you know that such behavior works about as effectively as telling a plant, "First grow, and then I'll water you."
Of course, you wouldn't treat a friend the way you treat yourself. If a friend were upset, you would respond with warmth, comfort, and support, rather than by putting her down. You know that what a person who's disturbed or frustrated needs is encouragement and hope. The last thing you would say to a depressed friend is, "You're just a hopeless failure." So why do you treat yourself that way?!
Many women cannot self-nurture because we have been brought up to think that we should be givers and not takers. Society teaches women that giving is good, and that taking is selfish. At dinner we dish out the food and serve ourselves last. In life, too, we feel that we need to first take care of everyone else and fulfill all our responsibilities before we're allowed to give to ourselves. And we never seem to have done enough to merit approving of ourselves and taking. Instead, we strive to live up to society's expectation that we be all-giving and all-capable (women are supposed to be able to do everything as long as we stay out of men's domain and don't step on their toes in ours), and we inevitably come up short. This starts the self-critical cycle where we try to help ourselves by picking on ourselves and reciting our litany of faults.
When this self-punishment doesn't work, and in fact backfires -- lowers our self-esteem and makes us feel hopeless and helpless -- the only solution we often see is to criticize ourselves more, thinking that the fault lies not with the technique, but with the too-gentle application of it. Thus, even as we desperately want to break out of our misery, we dig ourselves into a deeper hole. This is the Failure Cycle, a self-perpetuating circle where self-perceived failure leads to self-belittlement, which decreases self-esteem. Low self-esteem produces feelings of hopelessness and despondency, which sap the energy and faith needed to strive and achieve, thus producing more failure.
Does this sound familiar to you? Are you supportive to others, but berate yourself? Do you think that whatever you do is just not good enough, or no good at all? When you make a mistake, do you tell yourself, "What a jerk I am," rather than supporting yourself? Do your good points seem ordinary and your failings all-important? Do you measure yourself and your accomplishments with an ever-expanding ruler that always manages to be at least a foot taller than you are?
Since birth all of us have been surrounded by people evaluating us and pronouncing judgments about every aspect of our beings and our performances. Parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, clergy, bosses, peers -- there is no end to the number of people ready, and over-willing, to let us know how we do, and especially how we don't, measure up. Society puts out additional messages via its institutions and media. What are we to do with all this input? How can we tell how we measure up? Which opinions of us should we accept and which reject? How are we to tell which criticisms are sincere, well-meant, and accurate, from those which are sincere and well-meant but misguided? Which evoked by jealousy and competition? Which sparked by the desire to keep us submissive? The possibilities are endless. How are we to develop an accurate self-appraisal out of all this input?
Women in the failure cycle, women who habitually feel disappointed in themselves and their accomplishments, have made order out of this confusion by developing a simple set of failure guidelines:
1. If other people criticize me, they're absolutely correct in their assessment. They have delved into my heart and soul (even if they've just met me) and have accurately seen through to my inferiority.
2. If people praise me, it's because they've been taken in by my "surface" virtues (hard work, talent, pleasant manner, looks, etc.). When they get to know me better, they will change their opinion.
3. Whatever I accomplish doesn't matter. What matters is what I have not accomplished.
4. My accomplishments are due to luck, my failures to incompetence and inadequacy.
5. If I am not a total success, then I am a failure. There is no middle ground, no so-so, no becoming, no points for effort.
Accompanying these guidelines is an important assumption: If I do not live up to my expectations, then I am worthless and deserve nothing, and certainly don't deserve to be nurtured.
These guidelines can be reduced down to their lowest common denominator, which is: "If I did it, it can't be worth much." Thus many women trap themselves in a vicious cycle -- they desperately long to prove to themselves and others that they can be and are successful, then use rules for evaluating the results of their efforts that are totally stacked against them, and leave them no option other than to see themselves as failures when they fall short of attaining superhuman accomplishments.
"But," I can hear you object (as I've heard so many women in my practice object), "I'm not asking for superhuman accomplishments. I just want the things that seem to come so easily to other people: a fulfilling career, or a good relationship, or the ability to deal effectively with my children, or to be at ease with people, or not to be anxious or depressed. Everybody else can do this. Why not me? It must be because there is something wrong with me."
These objections, however, miss the point. The aims in themselves are not superhuman. What's unrealistic is the expectation that you will be able to realize your goals without support from yourself. When you measure each step you take with harsh, perfectionist criteria, you are holding yourself back from success. The way to grow and change so that you can get what you want out of life is not by criticizing yourself, but by helping yourself to feel good about the person you are.
Let's see the failure cycle in action by examining some typical self-critical attitudes:
"Everybody else can always handle things, but I'm always messing them up."
"Everybody else is moving forward, and I'm the only one standing still."
"I should have done better."
"I'm not good enough."
"I shouldn't have made this mistake."
"I'll never be able to learn this."
"I'm a terrible mother/child/lover/wife/worker."
"I hate the way I look."
"I don't deserve to get this good thing."
"I don't deserve to live."
"The problem with me is that I'm always feeling sorry for myself."
"I should have accomplished more with my life by now."
"What a failure I am!"
Obviously these thoughts are far from being good motivators. In fact, they lead to a dead end. If you think that you're always messing up, you're bound to feel that trying anything is pointless, since you're sure you'll mess that up too. If you believe that everyone else has been surging ahead and you alone have been standing still, then how can you feel there is any hope of trying to catch up at this "late" date? If you feel you're not good enough, or undeserving, then how are you going to summon up the courage to try to forge ahead? If you believe that you cannot learn, then you will want to avoid further anticipated failure by not attempting to master anything new. Most immobilizing of all is believing you're a failure. In this society where such stress is placed on competition and achievements, personal as well as professional, what shame you heap on yourself when you label yourself a failure! Holding yourself in such low regard, all you can feel is dejected, depressed, and hopeless -- dead-end emotions that make positive action impossible.
If you doubt the validity of this, verify it yourself: Read the above quotes again, slowly, as though you were talking about yourself -- pretend that this is truly how you regard yourself -- and see how you feel.
How does attacking yourself this way make you feel? Are you depressed? Discouraged? Despondent? Let yourself experience that this is the inevitable result of attacking yourself. No one reacts to being put down and berated by feeling buoyed up, confident, and ready to go out there and meet the world.
To change, to stretch, to grow, we need to have hope, positive energy, and faith in ourselves. Imagine approaching yourself with warmth and support. Try telling yourself:
"This may be difficult, but with persistence I'm sure I can get it."
"While all is not as I would like it, I have been making efforts, and those efforts are important."
"I made a mistake, but everyone does. It's part of learning and growing."
"I've been having a hard time learning this because I'm so nervous about it. Let me just calm down some, and then I'll be able to grasp it."
"There are things I want to improve about being a mother/child/lover/spouse/worker, but there are also parts of these roles that I'm very good at."
"While I'm not as gorgeous as I would like to be, I have great eyes, good skin, and a winning smile. I really like the way I look."
"I'm a good person and deserve to be happy."
"I've been having a tough time and can use some tender loving care."
Sense how different these statements make you feel: Experience the energy generated when you respect and encourage yourself.
In order to become self-valuing successful adults, children need to be nurtured. Growing children need compassion for their feelings, acceptance of their individuality, respect for their worth, encouragement to strive, loving support, and physical and emotional stroking. These nurturing acts and attitudes are the growth conditions under which people flourish:
Read down the left side of the list with me; the mnemonic acronym for happiness and self-esteem is: CARESS.
To be happy in life, you have to be able to CARESS yourself.
Take, for example, Diane, who learned to leave the failure cycle and enter the success cycle by nurturing herself.
When she first consulted me, Diane was struggling to be "someone," to fit in, to be liked, to be important, to be secure, to have a career and a family. At twenty-eight, she wondered why all these goals had eluded her. She came from a working-class family in Chicago, had gone on scholarship to a small college in Illinois, and then came to New York to make her way in the world. Despite being intelligent, attractive, personable, college-educated, and ambitious, she kept finding herself stuck in dead-end jobs where she felt different from her coworkers, neither liked nor appreciated. She was also unhappy with being single, but her experience with her father -- who was alcoholic, self-involved, distant, condescending and rejecting -- had left her mistrusting and fearful of men. She had had very little dating experience and despaired of ever being able to establish the family she desired.
In trying to cope with her problems, Diane alternated between blaming the world -- for giving her such a bad start, for not rewarding her, for giving all the goodies to others -- and blaming herself. Deep down she felt that there must be something terribly wrong with her that drove people away, and left her so alone and unfulfilled. She was constantly trying to figure out what this nameless thing was; at the same time she was terrified of finding out, believing that it was something that would be too dreadful to live with. So she picked at the things that she could grasp: too reticent, not assertive enough, sarcastic, self-centered, shy, clumsy, lacking in social grace. The list went on and on, with each added item making her feel worse about herself, more hopeless, more depressed. Though sometimes she felt sorry for herself, at no time did she have any real compassion for herself, nor did she give herself credit for trying to improve her life.
Diane kept beating herself up this way because she did not know how else to motivate herself to make changes. She thought the logical way to approach improving her life was to figure out what was wrong with her so she could set it right. In our work together Diane came to realize that, by tearing herself down, she was actually keeping herself stuck. She learned that people, like plants, need to be "watered" in order to grow and flourish; and that the water we need is the milk of human kindness: Compassion. Acceptance, Respect, Encouragement, Support, and Stroking. With time and effort she learned how to give herself this nurturance, this CARESS. She now feels good about the person she is, has a rewarding professional job, and a satisfying marriage. (You will find more specifics about the process she went through in learning to value herself in part 2.)
You too, can raise your self-esteem and move toward attaining your goals by learning to nurture yourself. Accepting yourself, having compassion for your inner pain, and regarding yourself as a person of innate worth produce high self-esteem. Encouragement and support help you to persist in the face of obstacles, be they inner or outer hindrances. Stroking, both physical and emotional, enhances your sense of yourself as worthy, capable, appealing, and lovable. CARESSing yourself equips you to find happiness and success in life. When you start to CARESS yourself, by following the ten steps in part 2, you give yourself the helping hand you need to get what you want. But first, let's examine the concept of CARESS in more detail.
Copyright © 1992 by Carolynn Hillman