Do you remember being a kid on the playground? How often you would fall off the monkey bars, only to get right back up there and try again until you finally made it? What resilience!
At what point in our lives do we lose this?
When every single failure and flaw chips away at our self-worth...when the people in our lives no longer seem to be in our corner encouraging us...when competition is the name of the game and only the winners get to have the good life...
Our inner resilience flounders and dies. Our self-esteem crumbles. We let the world dictate our worth by its standards instead of our own.
In honor of National Mental Health Awareness Month, I'm going to talk about my own struggles with self-worth, self-esteem, and where I find my inner resilience. *trigger warning for anecdotal musings on depression and suicide*
I think I was probably in 10th grade when it first occurred to me that I could be depressed. I wasn't just sad all the time - I had stopped caring about eating, didn't feel like getting up to go to school or converse with friends, and I had no idea what to do with my life. And sure, periods like this are normal for teenagers who are in the process of dealing with fluctuating hormones and searching for their identity in the world, but this was an enduring struggle.
And I started to wonder if it would just be easier to die than have to face all this stuff I couldn't muster up the energy to care about. I spent a lot of time holed up in my room listening to music, thinking up easy and painless ways to slip out of the mortal coil. I didn't really talk to anyone about it.
To this day, I'm not really sure what triggered my slide into that icky grey mire of nothingness. I was always a shy and quiet kind of kid - I would later learn that I'm an introvert (INFJ for those interested!) - but I was never unhappy with that and nobody really discouraged me from being that way. At least, not until later in life...
Mental illness runs in my family - on both sides. There were also a couple of tragic events that took place around that time as well - and that may have affected just when and how my depression really manifested.
I was too much of a coward to kill myself, and I knew that, so I resolved to spend as much time as possible outside of the awful place that was my head. That naturally lead to a lot of bad choices and less than legal and safe pastimes. I spent time doing things I knew weren't good for me. I behaved recklessly with people I had no business even talking to. I let myself get drawn into one abusive romantic relationship after another. And I didn't care because I had no self-worth.
The first time I ever really tried to get a handle on my mental health instead of ignoring it was when I was in university and my low energy levels and anxiety were really getting to me. So I saw a doctor and started taking SSRI's - which worked for a bit but I plateaued too quickly and stopped taking them. Not recommended by the way - the up and down of the medications really increased my anxiety and I ended up actually have enduring anxiety attacks for much of my last year at school.
I didn't sleep for three days because I couldn't slow my racing heart. It was that bad.
It was hard to hold down a job. It was hard to care about holding down a job - the anxiety would make me sick to my stomach and then my depression would tell me it didn't matter if I was fired - I wasn't going anywhere in life. I tried to silence it all with alcohol and self harm. It didn't work.
My first real breakthrough happened when I started seeing a therapist. She and I didn't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but her response after I had laid-bare my entire life's story (with all the gory details) was one of awe. She expressed her amazement that I had survived so many horrid things and was able to tell it all with a straight face. She called me strong. She called me resilient.
I wasn't sure I agreed with her - I was fully cognizant of the fact that I spent most of my days in a dissociative state. The irony of that is also not lost on me.
But the more I thought about it - the more her awe made sense. I had survived some pretty horrible things. I had made choices that could have had irreparable consequences. And yet, I was still here. And yet, I was still trying to get my sh*t together.
That forced me to really look back on all of my life experiences and see just how far I had actually come out the other side. Was the worst behind me? I couldn't have answered that, but I was able to have a more nuanced understanding of just how much I could survive if things got bad again.
Resilience comes from an internal working model in our minds that is grounded in an inherent belief in our abilities and qualities.
My therapist also taught me some healthy coping mechanisms - ways to ground my mind and my body with breathing exercises, sensory focus, and minimal exposure to the things that caused me the most anxiety to slowly develop an immunity against them.
Did it always stick? Of course not, I'm human. I'm flawed. I struggled, I relapsed, and I hopped back on the train. Because I was beginning to see that I was more than I previously thought I was. That I was smarter than I had given myself credit for. That I was stronger than I had believed. I rooted my inner resilience on empirical evidence. Can't argue with cold hard facts, after all.
The next step was using that evidence to silence all those awful intrusive thoughts that tried to break through and remind me of how worthless I was. It helped to imagine someone that I didn't like - an ex-boyfriend for example - saying those things to me. It made that thought easier to challenge and defend against if it didn't feel like it was my own mind attacking me.
When that didn't work, I made sure my inner voice of comfort and support sounded like someone I did like or a character I was fond of. It's hard not to feel good when your inner dialogue sounds like Captain America giving you a pep talk.
Give it a try sometime!
It is this inner resilience that has helped me to cultivate a better sense of self-worth. Looking at all the facts, there's no way I'm worthless - no matter what my depression insists! Looking at the facts, I know now that if I work hard at something and put my heart into it that my chances of succeeding are pretty good. And even if I don't, I also know that I'm going to survive in the face of that.
But hey! Maybe your low self-esteem comes from a different place. Maybe your self-worth is taking a backseat to the worth you perceive others are placing on you. I've been there, too.
This article from Psychology Today helps to put some things in perspective.
And I'm sure you've heard this a million times, but I think if often bares repeating:
Comparison is the thief of joy!
And I'm no stranger to its body-snatching nature, either. Especially as a blogger, where I'm constantly being exposed to successful entrepreneurs who are rocking the whole #girlboss thing and have hair that always looks nicer than mine.
It's hard not to feel inadequate when I work a 9-to-5 in a non-creative industry and still struggle to make ends meet. It's hard not to feel like I'm less successful or less interesting. But comparison really IS the thief of joy!
Just because my life looks different doesn't mean my blogging contributions are less worthy or less important. If anything, there's probably a whole market of other office employees who could benefit from and relate to my content. And diversity is good - it opens our eyes to the realities and struggles of those different from us and reminds us that we do often share a lot of common core values and ideals.
Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”