“Forgive yourself for not knowing better at the time. Forgive yourself for giving away your power. Forgive yourself for past behaviors. Forgive yourself for the survival patterns and traits you picked up while enduring trauma. Forgive yourself for being who you needed to be.” ~Audrey Kitching
You can try it all—exercise, a bubble bath, a relationship, a promotion, and everything else that you think will make you happy. I have come to learn those things will not give you the kind of happiness you desire until they coincide with you knowing your worth.
At my unhappiest times, my eyes were wide shut to the truth—I had low self-esteem. I never considered that the lingering feeling of being stuck was coming from a lack of self-worth. Instead, I thought if I could control what was going on outside, it would fix the inside. Believe me, I gave it my best shot.
I spent my latter twenties with a certain level of awareness that my needs were neither valued nor met. I was doing what I could to be as happy as possible, and yet I was haunted by the thought “this can’t be it.”
I was in a long-term relationship and would often find myself daydreaming about our breakup. The dream would come to a sudden halt, as I was clouded by the fear of being alone and never being loved again.
I spent that relationship feeling second best, putting his happiness above my own, longing for him to want me, and wondering if we ever fell in love. Ultimately, I buried the doubt and decided I was lucky. After all, as I knew all too well, it could be worse.
My relationships had always been full of drama. Pre and post said relationship, if a guy liked me, I would run away; I would come away from a date and complain that the smallest thing was wrong.
Then you have the guys that didn’t see me. As soon as I got wind that one was unavailable, he would become the whole meaning of my existence and I would be convinced he was the one, I loved him, he just couldn’t see how perfect we could be together. So I’d do every single cringey thing in the book to make him see that we were born for each other. This felt normal to me, and totally romantic.
When I did date someone I liked, it was all about fitting my life around them, and when it didn’t work out, I would find a way to blame myself and spend weeks considering what I woulda, shoulda, coulda done.
When it came to friends, if you could break down my wall, you were in. But I was (and sometimes still am) a bit on edge, convinced you will see through me. Convinced you don’t really like me, or I’ve said something to upset you. You probably wouldn’t know, because as far as you’re concerned, I’m strong and direct. I think that you think I’m stupid, inferior, or selfish.
I believed that in order to keep my friends, I had to be the best friend, convinced they wouldn’t stick around otherwise. Friends were allowed to be unreliable and make mistakes, but I didn’t allow myself that kind of flexibility. This way of living worked—my friends are actually good people, so it managed to go under my radar. Besides, I thought I was lucky they even liked me, given where I’ve come from.
If you’re not in my circle, it’s a bit tougher; it can be tough to get close. I’ve been told from first impression, it’s hard to know if I like you. I’m suspicious, closed, cold. One minute I can forgive easily, and the next I won’t. If you frighten me or challenge me, I can come at you with a sting.
The thing about dormant low self-esteem is you have become the master. As I walked through life, I was ‘okay.’ I had a pretty low bar when it came to happiness. Playing small, outstaying relationships, chasing people’s approval, wondering if people liked me, not taking risks; they all felt ordinary, and they all protected me from confirming my biggest fear: No one wants me.
My coping skills were doing the job, they kept me firmly in my comfort zone where I was safe.
You know what happens when you never leave your comfort zone? Life becomes mundane and sad, and leaving it becomes scarier and scarier. Yet the longing becomes stronger. You become stuck.
So how do you become unstuck?
Today, I wholeheartedly believe I am as worthy as my friends, family, and any man I ever have or will date. I make decisions, I share my opinion, I walk away, I let go, I take risks, I let people in, and I experience a level of happiness I didn’t even know was possible.
So how did the girl who ignored her inner turmoil transform her whole world?
I should confess, I didn’t suddenly wake up and realize my worth. Several years ago, my boyfriend ended our relationship and suddenly I was exposed to feelings the relationship had been covering up.
As life and luck would have it, around the same time, I was asked to deliver a workshop on self-esteem at work. That was to be my biggest eye opener of all. There I was, teaching people about self-esteem, and each session would set alarm bells off for me as it dawned on me: I did not know my worth.
It became obvious to me that up until this point, the happiness techniques (gratitude journals, fun plans, and exercise) I had tried so hard to implement were not enough with my own self-acceptance.
I started with relationships; that was where most of the anxiety and overthinking seemed to be coming from. I went for it—self-help, therapy, coaching, and any TED talk I could come across to help me understand why I was pulled toward people I knew I did not want or deserve.
I learned a lot about my why; when you grow up and the people around you are consistently inconsistent, you develop the same pattern in your own life. I didn’t experience secure attachments as a child. I experienced things not even fit for adults to experience; I was exposed to violence, drugs, and chaos. I adopted coping strategies to stay safe. Outside of the home, I pretended life was fine, and that was to become my greatest skill.
As I became more inquisitive and adopted more self-compassion, I was able to reflect on my life and identify the patterns that had been draining me and standing in the way of me being me.
I know now that shining a light on those patterns helped me during my hardest times. I understood that I was not alone, and that insight gave me the most powerful knowledge of all: I was not stuck, and I had the power to change.
To help you experience the same level of transformation, I am going to share common patterns of low self-esteem:
You are too afraid to take risks.
You play small, remaining firmly in your comfort zone. Perhaps when you consider making a change or trying something new, you are crippled by the fear of failing or what other people would think. You hardly consider you will be okay if other people judged you.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you often daydream about the change, but you don’t go much further than that. It’s a no to a new job, no to a new gym class, and forget going on your dream holiday alone. A lack of self-belief gives you an overwhelming feeling of not being able to cope and over-valuing the opinion of others.
You say yes too much and care more about other people’s needs than your own. Behaviors will include going out of your way to avoid conflict and doing things you don’t want to do in a bid to make other people happy.
When you have a fear of not being good enough, you will go above and beyond to make sure you are liked, often at the expense of your own well-being. Being kind is great, but that includes kindness toward you.
You see yourself as lucky or that you should be grateful.
You may well be settling for less than you deserve in life, love, and work. Niggly thoughts or feelings tell you that you deserve more, but you decide what you have is good enough. You might feel a constant longing for more—more love, more fun, more understanding… more.
Perhaps you keep yourself busy and pretend you only feel this way because you’re tired, or you find yourself with a lack of motivation and decide this will pass when you feel yourself again. When you don’t value yourself, you believe you don’t deserve more and could never have more.
You allow others to treat you poorly.
People say things and do things that leave you feeling worthless and unheard. Sometimes you might attempt to stand up for yourself and other times you pretend you don’t notice. You make excuses for their behavior, or you accept their excuses for how they treat you. You do know deep down something is off.
A significant sign here is that you spend time wishing people would show you more respect—yet you allow them to drop you and pick you up, cheat on you, put you second, dismiss your ideas and the rest. Other people treat you how you allow them; when you treat yourself poorly, others likely will too.
You get needy.
You have unhealthy patterns when it comes to trying to maintain certain areas of your life. You may know it’s not helping, but it feels out of your control.
Perhaps you want to look a certain way, you want work to stay the same, you prefer your friend to stay single, or you don’t want this person to leave you. It’s likely in these situations that anxiety is overpowering, and you become irrational at times—sulking, over-texting, ignoring, pushing and pulling, you try anything. Often in this situation, you take things personally and see change as a form of rejection, and you under-estimate your ability to be okay.
You do things you don’t want to do.
You behave in ways that are not aligned with your values and who you really are. You sleep with them too soon, you go places you don’t enjoy, you hide your real interests, you may even lie about what you want.
In some cases, you will know you’re doing these things, and sometimes you won’t name it, but you will come away from situations feeling like you have had all your joy sucked out of you. When you don’t appreciate yourself, you don’t consider that people will like you even when you have different interests.
You worry and overthink things you have said and done.
You spend large chunks of time worrying about what you’ve said and questioning if you’ve offended anyone. This may interrupt tasks that need to be done and steal happiness from your current moment.
At this point you might seek reassurance or misinterpret other people’s words and actions to mean they are upset with you. Convinced your friends no longer like you, or something you said puts people off you, you become obsessive about it. When you don’t love yourself, you find it hard to believe anyone else does and you hold onto a fear they will leave you.
You block people out easily.
You avoid letting people get too close. You might see the worst in people, judge them, or assume they will leave soon anyway. Maybe you cut ties if they say one thing you don’t like, or you list all the things you don’t like about them and decide the two of you do not fit.
You might say out loud you don’t care about not being liked or what other people think of you. Typically, you might avoid social get togethers, meeting new people, and second dates and find yourself jealous of your friends having other friends. If you don’t value yourself, you assume others will not value you, and so rather than risk being hurt, you just don’t let them in.
Looking back, the above patterns were some of the most prominent in my life. At the time, I didn’t give them the attention they deserved. Nobody pointed them out and they were a natural part of my day-to-day life.
As I came to realize my true worth, many positive shifts occurred unintentionally. The more you do things that make you feel good, the more attuned you become to the things that don’t. One small change can feel hugely powerful and have a beautiful ripple effect across your life.
If you are serious about having healthy, happy relationships then the first thing you can do is look at yourself. While relationship difficulties are inevitable, if you have healthy self-esteem, you’ll be able to face them feeling secure, knowing that no one person is more important than the other and for the most part, both of your needs deserve to be met.
The most important thing I’ve done is work on my relationship with myself. I’ve learned to love myself, accept myself, and get to know myself, and let me tell you, it has been a bumpy road with many trips and falls along the way. That’s the way it works.
If you have had enough of not feeling enough, it’s time to take notice. You don’t have to wait to hit rock bottom, you don’t have to wait another ten years. Start now, you deserve it.