All families have favorite stories they like to recount, over and over. Mine is no exception. This one is about the time my sister went to Wendy’s and ordered a cheeseburger. When she unwrapped it, she found that it all the expected fixings – cheese, tomato, onion, ketchup, and mayo. The only thing missing was the actual hamburger patty. My sister sat there, looking at her burger-less burger, and seriously considered eating it as-is. “I guess it's not really that big of a deal,” she thought. Her friend finally convinced her to go up and get a new cheeseburger with the burger included.
We giggle at the story now, but it often leads to more serious conversations. I asked my sister why she wouldn’t just go up and ask for a burger. She said, “I didn’t want to be a bother, and it made me really nervous to tell them.” I understood exactly how she felt.
Growing up in a large family (16 of us!), it was easy to get lost in the shuffle. My dad left our house early in the morning to get to his job, so he was exhausted when he returned home early afternoon. We knew not to disturb him when he napped before dinner. My mom’s work was never done - prepping food, folding laundry, mending clothing, or cleaning the house. Lots of children meant lots of work.
You could almost feel the sigh of burden if you brought your grievance to one of them. You know the normal childhood things: She’s teasing me! He took my toy! I don’t know how to do my homework!
One night, when I was around seven years old, I became sick in the middle of the night. I remember my mom coming out of her room bleary-eyed to take care of me. Even at that young age, I sensed how tired she was as she gave me water and held me in her lap. It was rare to have her attention focused solely on me, so I relished every minute of it. When she tried to coax me back to bed, I wasn’t quite ready to stop this precious time together, so I asked her for a glass of orange juice. And there it was, that sigh, as she trudged to the kitchen to grant my request.
Over time, this mentality took root in my subconscious: sit back, be quiet, be good, and for Pete’s sake, don’t be a burden. Without even realizing it, I carried it well into adulthood. Like my sister, I also didn’t speak up when my order was wrong. When a hasty customer service clerk brushed me along without addressing my concerns, I didn’t push back. When someone hurt my feelings, I never told them they did. I avoided conflict and difficult conversations at all costs. I worried what other people thought of me and constantly compared myself to others. Criticism cut me to the core. I turned to alcohol to ease the symptoms of social anxiety. I knew I had gifts and talents but lacked the self-confidence to pursue them.
I had low self-esteem.
It’s been a long gradual road, but thankfully this is no longer the case. As I look back and consider what factored into rebuilding my self-esteem, I think it comes down to one thing: knowing who I am.
As I learned about myself, I became more confident in my abilities. I used my strengths to compensate for my weakness. I compared myself to others less and less. I truly believe that once you are aligned with who you really are, it will heal you of many ills, not just self-esteem issues.
Even today, negative thoughts about myself pop into my mind from time to time. Sometimes I start to worry about what others think of me. When it happens, I take a deep breath and say: This is who I am. It helps.
I have a lot of good memories from my early twenties, but that period of my life is overshadowed by misery. That might seem like a strong word, but having low self-esteem is a miserable experience. The anxiety can be debilitating. I used to rehash a situation repeatedly in my head and agonize over how I should have done/said things differently. I wasn’t connected to activities or people that helped boost my self-esteem because I didn’t know what those things were. I was insecure and unsure of myself with no direction or purpose.
I’m grateful those days are long gone.
For those of you who also suffer from low self-esteem, my message to you is this: There is freedom from it. You are uniquely and wonderfully made, not quite like anyone else. You have gifts and talents to contribute to this world. If you are unsure what those are, check out some free online personality tests that helped me. Your voice is important and should be heard. You are worthy. Don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise
It takes time to learn to love yourself, so be patient and cut yourself some slack. You will get there, as I have.
Photo courtesy of Hannah Grace via Unsplash