By Caroline Knight
Like most people I know, I was not born oozing confidence and society, being the generally detrimental construct that it is, squashed any natural instincts I might have had toward self-expression and experience; instead it steered me in the direction of trivial mainstream values and ideals.
As is often the case, it took me a long time and a lot of painful lessons before I was to appreciate myself for what I am. I am sharing this piece with the aim of giving hope and some support to those out there struggling with self-esteem and self-worth issues. It can be a long journey but it helps to know we are not the only one making it.
Self-love can be a confusing and ambiguous concept. It is often misunderstood and judged harshly as narcissism or ‘selfishness’. Yet there are important differences. Narcissism stems mainly from ego; it requests praise or confirmation from others and may focus entirely on physical appearance or status.
Due to the shallow nature of media-cultivated values, narcissism does not bring lasting satisfaction and tends to perpetuate until awareness is heightened and the cycle can be broken. It is often a trait developed in childhood when the child is not given nurturing attention and feedback from parents, or when environmental influences teach it that praise comes mainly for appearances and talents.
It usually looks something like this: unless we were blessed with very conscious parents who had effectively worked through their own issues, we learned as children that less desirable behaviours like sulking, crying, fits of anger, overexcitement or asking too many questions would be at best ignored; at worst punished.
Thus we came to realise that in order to receive the attentive love and affection we naturally craved, we would have to alter our behaviours. As we frequently practiced this with successful results, it quickly became unconscious habit.
Selfish vs sensible
Self-love is still a relatively new concept. Until fairly recently, the idea that selflessness is best has reigned supreme. Many carry around a vague notion of unworthiness (sometimes unconsciously) and we attempt to prove our worthiness to ourselves and others through altruistic pursuits.
Putting others first is considered noble, while pleasing oneself is often seen as inconsiderate, indulgent, narcissistic or thoughtless. The burning shame of hearing the words, “You’re selfish!”, from someone whose opinion we care about is not easily forgotten. I have heard these mortifying words in the past, and I was left bewildered, wondering how someone that I held in such high esteem could not recognise the consideration I had for them. Was I not showing it correctly? Should I have done things differently? Paid more attention to their expectations?
It took a long time for it to dawn on me that actually, I wasn’t really that selfish at all. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so after many years of reflection on certain relationships I realised that the motivation for those comments had actually been projection or fear. Of course, all circumstances vary and only we can decide whether we were fair or not.
No doubt I was at times thoughtless or inconsiderate, but my intention was not selfishness – I simply was, and still am, a ‘free spirit’. What I wasn’t aware of then was that selfishness was not wrong – it was precisely what was required to make me happy. Without that, I was ill-equipped to make anybody else happy; something which is ultimately their own responsibility.
Misguided pursuits in altruism
It only became obvious to me much later in life how profoundly I was affected by such accusations, and the general idea that selfishness was a particularly unattractive trait. The magnitude of the unconscious weight I was carrying around with me for all those years led me into an altruistic mission.
That is another story in itself, but suffice to say I genuinely did want to help people – I was just unaware that this was intrinsically linked to my need to prove that I was unselfish. I mistakenly believed that if I helped others enough, I could feel good about myself. This did work, to some degree. I certainly felt happy to know I had assisted in improving somebody else’s life, and this is still a great motivator for me to date.
The difference is that these days my self-esteem does not depend on it. Previously, I had believed other people’s various versions of who I was. I wasn’t sure who I really was; I had learned to suppress the ‘undesirable’ facets of my personality to such an extent (and for such a long time) that they seemed alien and ugly if they ever emerged. If somebody else noticed or challenged them, I would be left in a spin, questioning my own judgment and even sanity at times. This led to a painful and turbulent existence.
Cut yourself some slack
Quite frankly, I didn’t love myself. On some level I knew this – I mean, I was my own worst critic, as are many other people I have known. We can see others’ brilliance and praise them without the slightest effort, and we mean it; yet we rarely afford ourselves the same benefit. We look in the mirror, picking holes in our appearances. We analyse our relationships and conclude that we are unworthy, or unlovable; we live in fear that someone will suddenly realise that we are not the wonderful being that they appear to think we are, and our world will fall apart.
However unrealistic this perspective is, we can become so crippled by insecurity that we start to act mainly from fear, hence unconsciously attracting the very things we were afraid of. This in turn validates the original fears and we can tell ourselves that it all happened because we were unworthy and unlovable after all. Self-loathing in place of self love… what a sorry existence. We find it so very difficult to love ourselves because we have no idea who we are.
Although the idea of loving ourselves has gradually became more commonly embraced, it still doesn’t appear to be integrated in any real way by many. This is of course a generalisation – I know people that do genuinely and openly love themselves, but they do not make up the majority. For me it was a long, weary battle, with much wavering and many backwards steps.
I started by asserting personal boundaries. I came to feel that allowing people to do what they thought best for me, or treat me negatively for any reason, was making me unhappy. So the first step was saying no. I also started to make wiser choices about who I gave my time to and whose advice I accepted. I started to look at myself through the eyes of caring friends and strangers. I heard their kind words in my mind and I considered that I hadn’t consciously done much to convince anybody. Maybe they were seeing something I wasn’t.
Assert yourself and do as you please
I reflected more on past relationships and put myself in the position of observer rather than participant. When I relived the scenes, I felt compassion for my younger self. I didn’t eradicate myself from all blame of course, but I accepted that all of this was just a learning curve, lessons in understanding myself better. There was no longer a reason to criticise myself.
Forgiveness brought relief. I also began to please myself a bit more. I stopped feeling guilty for ‘wasting’ money on something which might make me happy but wasn’t a necessary purchase. I didn’t go to a party I was expected to go to just because I felt I ‘should’. I indulged in more beneficial hobbies and made more effort to pursue passions.
With this, my confidence grew. I noticed how well received my efforts in work were, and I accepted the praise without doubt or suspicion and with genuine gratitude. The more I focused on treating myself well, it became so much easier not to let others treat me inappropriately. Asserting myself fully, withdrawing from unhealthy situations and trusting my gut instincts became so much more natural.
Soon I felt liberated, and best of all, I saw that I hadn’t forced it this time. I didn’t have to try to feel love for myself. I genuinely did... and when I looked in the mirror I started to consistently see what others saw. Not perfection, of course, but appreciation for the ‘nicer’ things. No hyper-critical moments leading to a downward spiral in mood. I didn’t even feel guilt for having done that to myself previously – again, just compassion and forgiveness - and I no longer cared too much about what others thought of me.
You can’t give what you don’t have
It was around this time that I truly comprehended the message that we cannot love another until we know how to love ourselves. Letting somebody abuse you or succumbing to expectations and pressure does not equate to loving them any more than it equates to loving yourself. It often leads to resentment and teaches someone that you do not respect yourself; that it's OK to continue mistreating you.
If we don’t recognise our essence, our unique inner beauty and our connection to everything – the oneness - we will always view ourselves as separate and can never be fully at ease. The truth is that unless we can give ourselves that which we desire – unconditional love, trust and compassion – we will continue to look for it outside of ourselves. Our expectations of others will be unrealistic and lead to cyclical disappointments. We must work on feeling complete alone if we are to attract what we want – another complete, conscious, giving and compassionate person.
The best bit is that once we give this love to ourselves, we lose the attachment to the idea of finding it elsewhere, and our peace and ease makes us so much more attractive to that kind of person. That means practicing self-honesty about our motivations and acceptance and acknowledgement of the conditioning we wish to release in order to recognise our innate self-worth.
It also means dropping the comparisons – we are both unique and equal to others, rather than unworthy or inferior; we deserve to have the best life imaginable and although this often means tough self-work, we are more than capable of creating it... if we can just remain present and free ourselves from negativity.
I think that there is a certain strength in admitting to vulnerability and imperfection, which is pretty hard to hide anyway. Besides, if you can't love yourself the way you are, then you will never believe in another person's love for you; similarly, as people tend to believe what you believe about yourself, it is surely better to get reacquainted with our divine nature. Remember that the universe doesn't make mistakes - and that includes you.