I remember the day well. It was a glorious summer’s afternoon in the Western Cape. I’d been invited for a scenic drive along the Cape peninsula by friends of mine and we’d stopped along the way to take in the some of the magnificent scenery.
But sadly, all of that majestic beauty was wasted on me that day. For while the sky was clear and the sea was tranquil, the same could not be said about my state of mind…
On this particular day I was in the company of some older, more experienced friends – and was lamenting the demise of a short-lived but passionate romance. I had recently been dumped you see – and was being very vocal about my displeasure! Although to be fair, at the age of 20, I was still quite new to the fascinatingly complex world of personal relationships – and was looking for answers (and perhaps some words of comfort) from the present company. But, after listening to me prattle on about my unrequited affections for nearly half an hour, one of my friends exasperatedly blurted out…
“Look, the other person isn’t the problem, it’s you! You’re basically insecure. So why don’t you just get over it?”
It was a brutally honest assessment.
At first I felt winded, hurt and humiliated. But then I became intrigued. Initially, by my friend’s unsparing candour – and later by the theory that I was largely to blame for my feelings of rejection and subsequent spurned indignation. I had to consider the possibility that my decision to pursue what was clearly a doomed romance spoke more of my yearning for affection, affirmation and approval than my want for a meaningful relationship.
I think that there are many of us who view the realization of romantic love as either a conquest or the ultimate form of flattery. How many of our teenage crushes or adult infatuations have ever been realistic, sensible or grounded in something valid? It’s as if we covet the ideal. The grand prize, if you will.
And the more attractive, more popular, more elusive and ungetatable the object of our single minded adoration is, the greater the presumed reward. Some of us obsess over hooking up with the prettiest girl or the hottest guy. And why? Because we think that winning their affections will make us feel better about ourselves. Boost the ego. Add appreciably to our sense of self-worth. And best of all, invite the approval and admiration of others.
And what happens when they reject or leave us? Well, they don’t call them ‘crushes’ without good reason! We’re devastated! And it’s not only the kind of disappointment that’s born out of a sense of loss of what was and what could have been, but also the self-fulfilling fear that we were never good enough to begin with.
As I stared off into the azure blue distance that day – my friend’s words still ringing in my ears – that was the fear that stared back at me…
My travel companion wasn’t just forthright, he was right. I was insecure…
Okay, so now I knew what to “get over”. But, unfortunately, what my friend neglected to add to his blinding bit of insight was the how.
How exactly do you overcome your feelings of insecurity? How do you grow self-esteem?
I wish there were simple answers to these.
I’ll say this much – It’s a gradual internal process that requires your whole-hearted participation!
Here’s what worked for me. Perhaps it will be of benefit to you…
Declare it :
It’s an exhausted phrase I know, but I truly believe that recognizing the problem is the first (significant) step towards addressing it…
So you’ve acknowledged that you have a compromised sense of self-worth.
Now try saying it to yourself out loud.
Go on, try it.
I know. It sucks.
Doesn’t exactly flow naturally off the tongue either, does it?
It’s okay. Again, that’s your ego protecting itself.
We’re so afraid to admit to things like this. It makes us feel embarrassed, vulnerable and exposed to judgment or censure.
Just remember, you’re in a safe place. There’s no-one to judge you. Your confession stays with you. It’s between you and yourself.
Then why declare it? Why even go there?
Because by saying it you invalidate it. Admitting it to yourself will disempower the crippling thoughts that come with self-doubt and allow you to claim your insecurity as your own. And the more you say it to yourself, the easier it will become to let go of the accompanying embarrassment and shame.
After a while, it will start to flow.
“Okay, so I’m insecure. There!”
And then you can get more specific and identify where your insecurities lie. What exactly are you insecure about? Again, answer the question out loud.
Having this conversation with self can be profoundly liberating.
I never fully appreciated the phrase until I owned up to my own shortcomings, but the truth can indeed set you free.
Self-honesty and constructive self-criticism can empower you too. It’s like an internal suit of armour. Going forward, if someone else points out your failings, it will sting less. I promise you of that. Eventually there will be nothing anyone can tell you that you haven’t already told yourself (in a gentler, kinder way). The words of others (even the barbed ones) will have little or no hurtful impact. It is important, however, to not arrogantly or indifferently dismiss external criticisms without first evaluating them for their validity.
Healthy self-confidence brings with it that facility, by the way. It will enable you to unashamedly say, “Yes, I’m aware. And I’m working on it. Thanks.”
But do make sure you are working on it…
Try forgiving yourself.
Also not exactly an easy one, is it? We’re so hard on ourselves, aren’t we? It’s as if we think we need somebody else’s permission to forgive ourselves. We don’t.
How about exercising a little self-compassion? Be kind to yourself.
Have a dialogue with your inner child. We all have one. That fragile, innocent (and sometimes frightened) little boy or girl that resides at the heart of the more sophisticated and hardened adult you. You know who I’m talking about. In your mind’s eye extend to him or her your hand – as well as the love, tenderness and patience you would offer to any other vulnerable spirit.
It may seem silly or schmaltzy, but just try it.
Forgiveness becomes more tenable when you remind yourself that you are the product (but not the victim) of your upbringing and circumstances – the outcome of external influences and factors that were largely out of your control.
And then you can move on…
Get to the source :
Identifying the root of your insecure behaviour can be a powerful breakthrough. Cast your mind back. Unpack some of your earliest childhood memories and teenage experiences…
When you were growing up did you feel safe, heard, loved?
Did you enjoy the support and approval of your parents or caregivers? Were they actively involved in your academic, sporting or creative pursuits?
Did you feel invested in, emotionally?
Were you praised or rewarded for your talents, achievements or efforts?
Did you enjoy acceptance from your peers and validation from your educators?
Did you feel like you were a valued member of your family, household and community?
If you answered ‘no’ or ‘not really’ to any (or all) of these questions – and can identify events or circumstances that immediately trigger an emotional response or memory – then chances are you’ve stumbled upon the source of your disquiet.
Tread carefully as you delve deeper.
Be especially careful not to assign blame to any individual/s from your past. Pointing the finger is counter-productive and time-wasting. Of course it’s important that you identify and acknowledge the people or happenings that have shaped and had an impact on you, both positively and negatively – but if it’s healing and solutions you seek then you need to be forward-looking and constructive.
You alone are accountable for your feelings from now onwards. Imagine yourself as being in charge of your own destiny. Let that thought empower and guide you.
An important note : If you trace the source of your insecure behaviour to a history that involves trauma or abuse of any kind, then please consider psychotherapy or trauma-counselling. Seriously, hear me out on this one. I am recommending that you seek professional help because once you unearth those memories and the truth starts to emerge and unravel you’re going to need someone trained in such matters to help guide you safely through the process. Far too many chronically insecure victims of abuse that I’ve encountered over the years take the stoic stance of thinking that they can ‘fix’ themselves without outside assistance or intervention. Others take the ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ approach – as if not talking about it will somehow make it all miraculously disappear or go away. It doesn’t. Some people prefer to get their ‘therapy’ from their family or friends – that’s a great start, but I’m not convinced that that exchange really benefits the individual in the long run. And it strikes me as being rather convenient. People who care for you are less likely to appraise the situation objectively and critically. And honestly, aren’t you likely to edit out the unpleasant bits? The thought of talking about it, especially to a stranger, is scary I know. Then why do I think you should put yourself through the process? Because – at the risk of sounding ominous and overly-dramatic – until you exorcise those personal demons, they will continue to shadow you for the rest of your life. This isn’t just academic. I’m basing this on considerable personal experience. You’ll be amazed at how many victims of abuse there are in fact out there. If they’re invisible to you, it’s only because nobody wants to talk about it. Unless you actually can’t afford professional therapy of any kind, you really cannot afford not to consider it.
Do the work :
I realize that the mere mention of the word “work” conjures up associations with exertion, tedium and drudgery – but consider this…
Every day I observe people expending an enormous amount of time, energy and money – ostensibly in an effort to improve or better themselves. And yet, most (and in some cases, all) of the energy is concentrated on outward appearance and enhancement. We pride ourselves on the car we drive, the clothes we wear and how we present ourselves to the world. We spend hours in a gym trying to lose weight or build a buff bod; we go for regular hair appointments. Some women (and even men) spend several hours a week getting facials, manicures and pedicures. Extensions. Highlights. Tints. Tans. Waxes. Botox. It’s exhausting just thinking about it! Extreme grooming, primping and preening isn’t just the practice of the affluent or female either. Every time I see a teenage boy from an impoverished community sporting one of those elaborately coiffed hairdos, I wonder just how much of time and energy (not to mention unnecessarily costly product) goes into that posturing every day.
Notwithstanding the inane superficiality of some of it, there’s nothing really wrong with any of this of course. But it sure seems like a lot of ‘work’, doesn’t it?
And yet, proportionately, how much of time, money and energy do we invest in our mental health? On tending to the all-important internal work? To the improvement of the inner-self?
What’s the point of a flawless facade if it masks a less-than-optimum interior?
So, what does doing the work entail?
Paradoxically, I think doing the ‘work’ initially requires that you consciously make an effort to not do certain things…
Don’t compare yourself to others. It breeds competitiveness, rivalry, envy and even jealousy. Easier said than done, especially since we’re programmed to do so from a very early age. But, if it irks you to witness someone else’s success, then I would recommend that you examine this very closely to get to the root. Bottom line? There’s always going to be someone smarter, prettier, handsomer, better built, more successful, more talented, better connected or more popular. This is a reality for everyone. Everyone. You are you. This is the gift you’ve been given. Work with it.
Don’t allow what random people think of you to directly influence the way you feel about yourself. Whether people offer you praise or criticism, take it under advisement but not to heart. Thank them for the input – but choose to get your real feedback from more informed and trusted sources. On a related note, limit contact with (or avoid altogether) people who constantly criticize you or put you down undeservedly.
Don’t listen to the wrong kind of voices in your head. You know, the dissenting ones that usually speak to you in the negative. Learn to hone your intuition to be able to differentiate between your own inner voice and the ones that were put there by others. The wrong ones make you fearful, anxious and depressed. The right ones give you wonderful goosebumps!
Don’t beat yourself up too much. Try to view your past failures and mistakes as important lessons and invaluable experiences. It’s easier when you see life as being less about absolute rights and wrongs – and more about choices. It’s this philosophical approach that has allowed me to reflect on my past lapses in judgement (and there have been some spectacularly bad ones) as part of an (ongoing) learning process. I say to myself (out loud) “Not one of your finer moments Imraan.” And then I forgive myself and endeavour to do better. After all, were it not for these experiences, I would be unfit and unqualified to author this blog.
And here are some Do’s (always more constructive I find)…
Do talk about it. Open up to someone you trust. When we internalize our thoughts and emotions, they fester and grow. They take a hold of us in oppressive and destructive ways. They cause us to hurt ourselves and others. Talking about the problem releases us from its power and invalidates it. It always feels better to get things off your chest, doesn’t it? It may be uncomfortable at first, but there’s relief at the end of it all. A healthy unburdening of self.
Do consider seeing a professional (counsellor or therapist). Frustratingly, so many people I broach this subject with are completely closed or resistant to the idea of pursuing the therapy route. They cite many reasons to try and justify not even giving it a try (a few valid, most just silly). For what it’s worth, therapy has helped me. Enormously. And I was one of those people who believed that I had already done the work and figured it all out. But then I discovered many more layers and complexities – and even experienced a couple of “a-ha!” moments of revelation – and eventually came to
enjoy love it! This is worthy of note though : In my experience, not all therapists are created equal! Some are simply a better ‘fit’ than others I find. So do ask/shop around.
Accentuate the positive. Play to your strengths. Everybody is good at something. Some people are good with their hands; others are good at sports; some may make a great omelette; while others have a keen dress sense. Ask yourself what you’re good at, however trivial. You needn’t be a master at it either. Just being good is good enough. No matter how commonplace or inconsequential your talents may seem to you, look upon the things you do well as adding to your value as a person. Having an aptitude for something and actually putting it into regular practice builds confidence and makes us feel good about ourselves. So use your gift. And don’t be afraid to congratulate yourself for being competent at it. More importantly, if others acknowledge your abilities, then allow their praise or compliments to filter through to your consciousness instead of deflecting them with counterintuitive disbelief or self-doubt.
And in that spirit…
Pay it forward. You may find this hard to believe, but giving credit where it’s due can be wonderfully self-affirming. When I encounter somebody (a complete stranger) who does their job well, or extends a small kindness to their fellow human being or even carries off a brave ensemble with aplomb, I acknowledge and compliment them for it. Their faces literally light up. One or two people have actually burst into tears of gratitude. And my heart feels warm for knowing that I’ve added to their day in a positive, albeit small way. So you see, when we affirm others, we also affirm ourselves. Try it.
Remind yourself that you’re not alone. We all have hang-ups, insecurities and fears (even seemingly flawless supermodels, mega movie stars, heads of state and the super wealthy, by the way). You’re not the only person pondering the question of your own worth. We all (and I mean every one of us) strive to find our place and realize our value in this world. This I know for certain.
What’s also certain is that life is finite. It’s a beautifully complex gift with an expiration date.
Who knows how long your life will last. It may be a brief sojourn. It may last for many, many decades. I wish you the latter.
Either way, your life’s value will be measured quantitatively and qualitatively.
This is your life. Your journey.
And think about it…
If you’re fortunate enough for it to be a really long ride – you might as well get comfortable, don’t you think?