A thought has been returning to me lately, picking at my brain with this kernel of an idea, some deeper, hidden mystery I have yet to crack. Those are the best kind, really, since I’m one who likes to dig and probe and get past the bullshit to the underlying issue, especially when it comes to outdated ideas that make no logical sense to me. I like to challenge the status quo, especially when I see it does more harm than good. Because self-esteem is a huge obstacle I constantly find myself battling, this one simple question has continued to flummox me:
Why are we discouraged from loving ourselves?
We’re told in one breath we’re beautiful, awesome, unique, important… an original who has never been before nor will ever been again. But God forbid we actually *embrace* any of that without someone else’s permission. For some reason, if *we* are the ones saying how awesome we are, we immediately invalidate our innate awesomeness. That one little thing, believing that you’re beautiful, awesome, unique and important, owning it and expressing it, tips the scales from polite humility to outrageous vanity simply if it comes from within rather from an outside source.
I had this inked onto my brain from childhood. I was brought up in a devout Christian household where true virtue rejected any hint of vanity. Sure, I was good enough for Jesus to die for my sins, but I wasn’t allowed to simply state how amazing God had created me to be. Instead I was taught that I was lucky Jesus was so awesome and had decided, out of the pure goodness of his heart, to save me because I’d be a complete and total wreck on my own.
I don’t think people understand what this kind of doublespeak does to children. Let me be perfectly clear here: it ain’t good.
I grew up thinking that I wasn’t allowed to own ANY of my value. In the space of graduating from Sunday school to Big Church, I went from a beloved, albeit weak, child in “Jesus Loves Me” to complete wretch in “Amazing Grace.” (Actually, given the lyrics of “Jesus Loves Me,” I guess the transition shouldn’t have been THAT much of a shock. It never says that Jesus loved me because I was created to be amazing, simply because “the Bible told me so.” If we’re so sinful and so weak and so wretched, why does God love us so much, I wonder? And what would happen to humanity if ever loved ourselves just as much?)
Since I already had lived through the trauma and shame that follows a sexual assault, it wasn’t hard for me to believe that I was undeserving of any love that followed. I suspected I was inherently unlovable because I went from being virtuous to being corrupted, dirty… cursed. And yes, that’s what I thought of myself, because being “virtuous” was so lauded in my home. I had that decision taken away from me, but I was no less tainted. Every time the preacher spoke about sin, I knew I had already stacked up my share. I got “saved” when I was eight years old. And again when I was 12. And again when I was 15. And again when I was 25… it just never felt like the love I was searching for was enough to wash it all away. And you know what? It never will be. Because the source has to come from within. I keep expecting everyone else to fill my cup, rather than just embrace I have everything I need to fill it myself.
This has been the root of my problem since I was four years old.
Though I was encouraged to keep mindful of all my many faults in order to avoid “getting a big head,” there was always this thought tapping at my brain suggesting that I wasn’t unlovable at all… that I was truly special, truly unique, truly – well – gifted with something amazing. In sixth grade, when I found the gift of writing, I latched onto that with the hope that nagging thought was right. It exalted me, where everything in my “normal” life constantly sought to put me in my place. I always had things I had to improve to be truly accepted. I wasn’t thin enough, pretty enough, “virtuous” or disciplined enough to accomplish anything great. It was foolish of me to own anything about myself that didn’t fit into that humble viewpoint. How could I be so special when there was so much wrong with me?
It made me believe, for decades, that I could never truly be special until I fixed all that was wrong. I kept putting off all the stuff I was doing, the stuff that gave me that sense of value, that sense of being wonderfully different and wholly original, till the Great Until. I never believed anyone else could love me because I wasn’t truly allowed to love myself, at least until I changed and adapted myself to the standards of others. Self-acceptance was kept out on a stick in front of me, to keep me in line, to get me to “do the right thing,” or suffer the consequences.
Would I have known that being overweight was a deal-breaker had others not told me so? In a word: NO. When my dad was alive, he made me believe I was perfect just the way I was. I knew I was fat, but it never occurred to me that this was some huge flaw. Only after his voice was silenced did I hear the negative words of others, often disguised as “helpful advice” to help me change more into what they thought I needed to be.
To put it in perspective, THIS was what I looked like when the negative voices began to infiltrate and shape my own feelings of self-worth:
Imagine what would have happened if that girl had been allowed to *love* herself rather than start picking herself apart at the tender age of 12?
Not sure if this is solely a gender issue, but it seems to me that women in particular are burdened by this warped logic. Not too long ago I read an article regarding a woman who started agreeing to any compliments sent by anonymous men on the Internet as a way to “break the ice” with her. And her comments weren’t bitchy, necessarily; at least I didn’t read them that way. But regardless of how she responded, just including that ownership of her attractiveness usually brought out negative, even abusive responses in the men who felt it incumbent upon themselves to take her down a peg or two.
It went something like this:
Guy: Hey, you’re hot!
Girl: Thanks, I know! You’re cute too!
Guy: You’re not all that, bitch!
So here’s a woman who is obviously physically attractive enough to get these compliments, but dare she agree with something that is fairly obvious, immediately she is vain and “full of herself.”
Here’s my radical thought: Why shouldn’t she be full of herself? If someone is conventionally attractive, odds are they know it. Why do we force them to lie and feign modesty so that they can be more socially acceptable?
Why is dishonesty/duplicity any more virtuous a trait than “conceit”? (I used to have a male friend whose go-to saying was, “I’m not conceited. I’m convinced.” Apparently this is something you can say as a dude.)
Let’s face it. When we feel like we look good, we stand a little taller, smile a little easier and walk with a lil bit of a strut. You think that hot girl on the Internet, whose photo was chosen because she thinks she looks pretty hot in it, is *surprised* when you tell her she’s beautiful? Do you really think some drive-by praise by someone she doesn’t know, which echoes dozens of other guys who aren’t original enough to come up with something different to say than default to her looks, is supposed to make her feel more special or more valuable than she is allowed to feel about herself? “Well, I’m gonna make her day and tell her how beautiful she is because hot gals worth having really don’t know for a fact how hot they really are.”
Is she supposed to be grateful you pointed out the obvious?
Seems to me that women bear the responsibility of humility a lot more than men. Is there ONE song on the radio where a woman croons affirmations to her lover, who wouldn’t believe he was attractive and desirable otherwise if she didn’t tell him?
But I bet you can name five songs by men who do that very thing.
The rules of humility don’t necessarily translate to men, who are expected to be confident go-getters in order to be successful.
If a guy is full of himself, who believes in who he is and what he can do, we call that “swagger.” Some women are even fairly turned on by it, as evidenced by the popularity of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise. My hand to God, there’s a passage in the book where Ana asks Christian what she will get out of signing The Contract to submit herself to him. His answer? “You get me.”
Panties fell off all over the place because we as women are socially conditioned to accept that as the ideal. He’s in control and we’re lucky to have him. He’s the alpha, dontchaknow, and alphas by their very definition don’t need you to tell them who they are. They’re the ones telling us, and we generally agree. That’s why alpha males are exceedingly attractive to a lot of women.
An alpha male demonstrates his superiority, whether hard-won or not, and oozes self-confidence that serves him well both in his career and relationships. He knows how to get what he wants and – the clincher – he knows he deserves to get it. He’s not waiting for permission. He’s issuing a demand.
If a man does that, it’s hawt. If a woman does it, it’s unseemly and impolite.
In many ways, winning the attention/love or even lust of an alpha male elevates the female to that virtuous status she’s not allowed to claim for herself. He says how beautiful, special, unique and amazing she is, just by choosing her. And, since we already know he’s Da Shit (mostly because he believes it to be so,) this pathway to awesomeness is one of the more socially acceptable ones.
But what of the alpha female? What of the woman who knows who SHE is and what SHE has to offer all on her very own? If you take the traits of an alpha male and apply them to women, how accepted would she be? How exalted would she be? Or would she be vilified as a vain bitch who needs to be put in her place?
If a woman has a banging body that demands hours at the gym and rigorous training, and you tell her that she looks amazing, why can’t she say, “Thanks, my body is pretty freaking incredible.” She put in the work every bit as much as some musclehead dude who posts endless shirtless selfies on the Internet to delight and amaze hordes of screaming groupies.
Why does her owning her hard-won awesomeness have to take anything away from anyone else?
Why can’t she celebrate her appearance every bit as much as she’d “brag” about getting a promotion at the job, raising decent kids or, say, just for argument’s sake, writing a popular book?
“Well, Ginger… the problem is saying ‘I know,’ when she just should have said thank you.”
What’s the difference between the two? Isn’t the acceptance of a compliment virtually an agreement anyway? Many folks can’t even TAKE a compliment because of this. They’ll quickly reject it, shake their head, even argue if they don’t/can’t believe it. Women in particular are conditioned to do this as part of being “virtuous.” (*For the record, I can’t even type/think that word without an involuntary gag reflex.)
We’ve been sold this bill of goods that humility denies that which makes us special, because simply owning it would make us vain.
Here’s the literal definition to “humility”:
a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.
On the other end of that spectrum is “vanity”:
excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements.
This makes humility – having a “low” view of one’s worth – the polar opposite of vanity, which shows “excessive” pride. But it’s still an extreme. Honestly, I really don’t see how it’s any better or any more “virtuous.” (GAK.)
I don’t like to brag. There is no ‘but’ there. I really don’t like to brag. At all. It was beaten out of me by the church. This might be fine if I was trying to be a know-it-all jerk, which, truth be told, I can often be. For everything else I have to do, it’s a pretty big roadblock because – thanks to the extremes of “humility” and “vanity,” – I honestly don’t know where the line of acceptability is. This sucks, because it often diminishes the amazing things I do, shading it with this fucked up idea that it really couldn’t be THAT amazing simply because *I* did it. Remember? Low view of one’s worth? That’s the sin of humility… it makes the incredible unremarkable unless a third party acknowledges it. (And even then you can’t simply say, “I know.”)
(Embarrassing confession alert: I was so browbeaten by this humility vs. vanity bullshit that I truly believed from an early age bragging about things would result in the loss of those things. In other words, if I say I have pretty eyes, if I believe I have pretty eyes, eventually God will tire of my uppity attitude and take them away. Scary shit when you’re eight years old, lemme tell ya, and that fear is deep-seated. When I hit some success last year with the books, I was petrified to acknowledge it for fear it would go away. I considered it “luck,” something fleeting and unpredictable… and – truth be told – I still do. This is how far the neurosis goes. Hence why I’m here now, sorting it all out, untangling it and taking a good, hard look at it so that I don’t keep tripping over it.)
I was telling a friend of mine, one I respect a great deal, that I have a hard time tooting my own horn when it comes to the things I’ve done. He said that it’s not vanity to own one’s own accomplishments. If I worked hard for it, I have earned the right to take pride in it.
Instead I was waiting all this time for ever increasing degrees of validation in order to prove what I had done was, indeed, pretty remarkable. I felt it, mind you. I wanted to own it. But I didn’t feel as though I should. I needed permission first. I was searching, in vain as it turns out, for that sweet, vague line of acceptability.
The other day I was on the phone with my incredible/amazing/supportive/encouraging manager. Just having someone with her experience in my corner should be validation enough, but I still struggle to make everything as perfect as I know how to make it, just so I can impress the mighty folks she has in her back pocket to read my work. And I always, always, ALWAYS feel like every new thing I do will be the one thing that proves, without a doubt, how big of a “fraud” I really am. Remember that carrot on the stick? How can I be a great writing success when there’s still so many things wrong with me?
In fact I had toiled over a project that was *quite* the emotional drain on me, certain that it was going to miss the mark in a hundred different ways. It was outside my genre (sort of,) and it wasn’t my story, so I often had to fight my instincts to go to dark places I wouldn’t have willingly gone to on my own. I was in completely new territory and unsure of what she might say when she read it. Much to my amazement, she instantly loved it within the first few pages. When she called me, because an email wouldn’t do, she told me how great of a writer I was. I dissolved into tears because it ultimately gave me permission to believe that I *do* have what it takes to make this my career.
Believe it or not, even after 21 books released, and inching up into the coveted 20% of writers who can make any money at all doing this, I still worry that I’m a big fat fraud who is deluding herself. I haven’t yet hit those markers that determine my greatest worth in what I do, markers, oddly, that keep moving up the ladder as I take incremental steps towards where I want to be. “I’ll believe it when I make money on what I write.” Okay, you’ve made money on what you write. “Well, maybe I’ll believe it when I have a popular book.” Okay, you’ve got a popular book. “Okay, okay. FINE. I’ll believe it when the success lasts more than a release day event.” Okay, you’ve had the success last more than a release day event. “Okay but what about…?”
The carrot always stays three steps ahead. Always, always, always.
I can’t blame this entirely on the fact I was not trained to love myself or appreciate my own special contributions to the world… I think a lot of writers struggle with this fear of inadequacy and failure. All artists do. All people do.
But I can’t help but wonder how much further we’d all get if we’d just allow ourselves the liberty of loving who we are and being in awe of what we can do. Obviously we believe we have something special. It takes a lot of gumption to produce a hefty novel and present it to the world, certain that what you have said deserves to be heard… especially if you’re charging for it.
But to believe we’re “great” – or even “good” – takes some chutzpah most of us lack. Hell, it’s hard to get a writer to even admit he or she is a writer, because they’re waiting on that day someone ELSE tells them so. (Usually in the form of success, however they’ve chosen to define it.)
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say I’m a great writer. Just writing it there flies in the face of all I’ve been taught over my entire life. I think I’m a pretty good writer, and I’d like to say it is only because I have extraordinarily high standards for my work and hit my own objectives more often than not. Truth be told, though, I’m still relying on everyone else to validate that core belief. Some days are better than other days, usually depending on my daily income. I fluctuate between a healthy self-esteem, one that recognizes the progress I’ve made and the things I’ve accomplished, and a bottomed-out self-esteem, where I think I’ll never reach that next rung on the ladder because I sucksucksucketysuck.
Again, it may have more to do with the artist mentality… but I really feel I need to find a way to reconcile these two conflicting beliefs. Humility vs. vanity represents two extremes, and neither one of them truly represents the reality of where we are in our lives. It’s all skewed perception. The only real difference is that one is socially accepted and the other is not.
Social acceptance, however, is bollocks. We should never outsource our self-worth to other people. Who else could be as qualified as we are ourselves in determining our own personal value? And it’s vitally important that we do value ourselves. Our success and our relationships depend on it. If you low-ball yourself, if you make it a habit of “marking yourself down” so that other people feel comfortable with you, then you’re not truly loving yourself. You can’t love yourself if you diminish yourself.
You’re also cheating everyone else because you’re not being fully honest. I’ve often said I’d rather deal with an honest asshole than a sweet-as-pie liar.
So today, I think we all need to come back to center and remind ourselves that we are beautiful, awesome, unique and important. (And yeah… the fat chick put the word beautiful out there. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I get to behold myself whichever way I want to, thank you VERY much.)
Actually that last little bit was a total bluff. I don’t believe I’m beautiful – yet – but I’m working on it. And by “working on it” I don’t mean trying to lose weight. I could pick my appearance apart from the top of my head to my Flintstone feet and still find a dozen other flaws. I could lose all the weight in the world and still be “unattractive” by society’s standards. (To which I say… fuck society.)
We women do this all the time, constantly berating ourselves for all those little imperfections that negatively affect how we view ourselves. If that wasn’t bad enough, we’re encouraged to keep doing it by this bullshit mentality that loving oneself is the mark of vanity – which, aside from being a slut maybe – is about the worst thing a woman can be. Not great news for all us fat slutty bitches who think suspect we’re pretty damned awesome when you get right down to it.
No, I’m claiming my beauty BECAUSE of my imperfections. My battle scars are my beauty marks because they show how fucking strong I’ve been to overcome the things I’ve been through. It is because of that long, painful, broken road that I get to decide whether I’m worthwhile for myself rather than allowing every Tom, Dick or Harry (whether they are qualified to judge me or not,) having the final say on something so inherently subjective anyway.
If you truly believe it, who is anyone else to tell you differently?
Toward that end, I’m going to start a new project called “DURING.” I’m not where I want to be yet, and I don’t think I ever will be. I’m one of those annoying people who always wants to reach that next level, who obsesses over the next hurdle to jump, rather than celebrating the progress I’ve already made. (A product, I think, of this whole humility vs. vanity bullshit.) Instead I keep waiting to cross that ever-changing finish line to declare those victories, feeling in some way that’s how I’ve earn the right to love myself. I’m waiting for that “AFTER” photo that justifies the “BEFORE” photo, which totally undervalues everything I’m trying to do with this transformational year. I say it’s not about weight loss, but it feels like a lie when I stop just short of taking photos, or publicizing anything but the “wins.”
Step One to truly loving myself means I have to recognize I have value now. I have importance now. And from now on, I need to act like it regardless of what others may think.
(That includes posting this blog, which I have been sitting on and tweaking and fiddling with for five whole days to get the courage to post it. This truly is a work in progress.)
It’s time to claim our own worth, regardless what polite society has to say about it. That line of acceptability? I think I finally figured out where it is.
It is where WE decide to put it.