“It’s not your job to like me. It’s mine.” ~Byron Katie
I’m short. I’m stumpy. My nose looks like a pig’s. My inner thighs touch when I walk. My gums show too much when I talk. I have to change the way I look. Maybe then you’ll like me.
I obsess. I overanalyze. I get caught up in my head. I dwell on things I should let go. I can never simply go with the flow. I have to learn to be laid back. Maybe then you’ll like me.
I’m shy. I’m anxious. I’m dependent on reassurance. I ask for advice way too much. I look for validation as a crutch. I have to be more confident. Maybe then you’ll like me.
Day in, day out, plotting away—that’s how I spent my life. I didn’t like who I was, so I hoped you’d do it for me.
If only you’d tell me I was okay. If only you’d confirm that I didn’t have to change. If only you’d give me permission to be myself. Maybe then I’d like me.
It’s what led to more than a decade of self-torture.
I’d cut myself to feel relief and create a physical representation of the pain I feared no one else could see.
I’d stuff myself with food to the point of bursting, then hide myself away to purge it, up to thirteen times day.
I’d curl up in my bed and cry for hours, hoping maybe my tears would wash away the most offensive parts of me.
I remember once, when I was in a residential treatment center for bulimia, an art therapist asked me to draw a self-portrait.
I drew a bag of vomit with me curled up inside. That was how I saw myself.
I know why I grew into this needy, insecure person. I can trace the moments that, bit by bit, eroded my self-esteem and caused me to question my worth.
But it doesn’t really matter why I learned to feel so small and insignificant. What matters is how I learned to tame the fears that once imprisoned me.
Notice I wrote tame, not destroy. For some of us, the fearful thinking never fully goes away.
I have never seen myself as a before and after picture, because it’s never felt black and white to me.
There wasn’t a distinct turning point when my life went from painfully dark to light.
It’s been a slow but steady process of cleaning layers of grime from the lens through which I view myself—and sometimes, just after chipping away a massive piece of dirt, I catch a splash of mud in the spot that was briefly pristine.
I live, day in and day out, in a messy mind that, despite my best efforts, has never been fully polished.
But it’s far clearer now than it once was, and I have the tools to clean it a little every day—and to accept the times when I simply must embrace that it’s still dirty.
Perhaps you can relate to the lost, lonely younger me, desperately seeking approval. Or perhaps you’ve come a long way, but you still struggle with confidence every now and then.
Maybe you sometimes feel like a fraud because you’re human and imperfect.
Maybe you still want to fit in and belong—who doesn’t? We’re social creatures, and wired to seek community.
But there’s a difference between looking for connection and looking for permission to be.
There’s a difference between depending on people for support and depending on them for self-esteem.
Here’s what’s helped me shift from seeking praise and approval to knowing I deserve love and support.
Become aware of the layers of grime on your lens.
You may see yourself as someone else once saw you, years ago when you were too young and impressionable to realize they weren’t viewing you clearly.
Or perhaps your grime built up later in life, when people close to you projected their own issues onto you and convinced you that you were somehow lacking.
Most likely, a combination of both led you to form a harsh, critical view of yourself, backed up by caked on beliefs, reinforced through consistent self-critical thoughts.
Understand that, much like those other people, you are not seeing yourself clearly—or fairly.
You may see small mistakes as evidence that you’re unworthy. You may interpret your challenges as proof that you’re incompetent. Neither of these things is true, and you don’t have to believe them.
Learn how to clean your lens daily.
While I wish I could say I know how to power wash that lens, I’ve yet to discover such a process. But I can tell you how I’ve slowly chipped away at the mud:
Change your beliefs.
Once you identify a limiting belief—such as I’m not lovable—you can start to change it by looking for evidence to support the opposite belief.
Once upon a time I believed I was ugly. I truly believed my face was offensive when not covered in makeup, because I have light features.
I know where this belief came from—when I was a kid, someone told me light-skinned blonds are homely. And because this person valued physical appearance, and I desperately wanted them to accept me, I started caking on layers of paint.
Over the years I’ve met people with varied looks who I found to be incredibly beautiful, and it had nothing to do with the color of their skin, eyebrows, or eyes.
It had to do with the light in their eyes and the joy behind their smile.
I, too, possess the capacity to shine from within and exude joy. More importantly, I feel good about myself when I access my inner spark, and how I feel about myself matters far more than what I look like.
Challenge your thoughts.
While you can identify evidence to support a new belief, it’s likely you’ll get stuck in engrained thought patterns from time to time. It’s a process, not a one-time choice.
My mind will occasionally formulate reasons I am not good enough.
You aren’t where you should be professionally.
You didn’t respond to that conflict wisely.
You reacted too emotionally.
As often as I can, I catch these thoughts and challenge them with compassion:
There’s nowhere you should be professionally—and you’ve done a lot more than you give yourself credit for.
You could have responded better to that conflict, but that’s okay; this is an opportunity for growth.
You reacted emotionally, but that’s okay too—you’re not a robot. And at least you’re self-aware enough to recognize when there’s room for improvement.
You may not catch every self-critical thought, but over time you’ll catch more and more, and tiny bits of progress add up.
Slow your thoughts.
It’s all well and good to challenge thoughts, but if they’re coming at you like baseballs from a pitching machine, you’ll probably end up feeling too overwhelmed to be effective.
I’ve come up with a list of mindfulness practices that help me find relief from my loud, persistent inner monologue. These are the ones I’ve found most effective:
- Five minutes of traditional meditation or deep breathing
- A five to ten minute walk, focusing on my senses and the experience of being in nature
- A yoga class or five to ten minutes of deep stretching, synced with my breath
- Listening to music (on YouTube) with subliminal messages for confidence
- A repetitive creative outlet, like crocheting
- Anything that gets me into a state of flow, like dancing
Take a little time every day to clear your thoughts, and it will be a lot easier to tame the fear-based voice that makes you feel bad about yourself.
Change for the right reasons.
With all this talk about accepting yourself and taming the voice that makes you feel unworthy and dependent on approval, you may assume you should never again strive to change.
When I considered that possibility, I came up against a lot of internal resistance. But it wasn’t because I felt I needed to become someone else to be lovable. It was because I realized growth provides me with a sense of possibility and purpose.
In much the same way I wouldn’t berate my child, if I had one, for having more to learn, I didn’t have to motivate change from a place of self-disgust; instead, I could encourage myself to continually grow into a stronger, wiser version of myself.
I could regularly identify areas for improvement without concluding I needed to change because I was intrinsically flawed.
If you’re not sure how to tell the difference between change rooted in shame and change rooted in self-love, ask yourself: Do I want to make this change because I know I deserve the results, or because I fear I’m not good enough unless I do this?
Take power back from others.
I still want you to like me. I do. I want you to think I’m witty, and funny, and wise, and interesting, and worthy of your attention.
But these days I focus a little more on you and a little less on your approval. I think back to times when you were witty, and funny, and wise, and interesting, and I’m grateful that I get to give you my attention.
And if you don’t feel the same about me, well, it can hurt. On days when I’m at my strongest, I’ll acknowledge the pain and let it run through me.
Then I’ll remind myself that I can like me even if you don’t. Because that’s what happens when you learn to view yourself through a clearer, more compassionate lens: You start seeing how lovable and wonderful you really are.
I am imperfect in so many ways. I’ve made more mistakes than I can remember or count. I have struggles that I sometimes think I should have completely overcome.
But I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been beaten down. And I’ve risen up every time. I’ve kept playing my hand when it would have been easier to fold. I’ve learned and grown when it would have been easier to stagnate.
I am no longer ashamed of where I’ve been; I’m proud of the journey through it.
I am no longer ashamed of being imperfect; I’m proud that I’m brave enough to own it, and humble enough to continually grow.
That shift in perception has helped me accept that you may or may not accept me.
I’m going to show you who I am, in every moment when I find the strength and courage to be authentic. Maybe then you’ll like me. And if you don’t, it might hurt, but that’s okay. Because I’m going to love myself through it.