In the second grade, I was elected “Valentine Queen” of my class.
I wore a glittery paper crown all day long and dreamed of future ascensions. Miss Pine Bluff. Miss Arkansas. Miss America. I remember the surprising happiness that seeped inside of me, wondering finally (after all of seven long years…) if I was really liked, a la Sally Fields, “You like me, you really like me.”
Years later, I learned that my mother might’ve had something to do with my “election,” a suspicion supported by the fact that I won no other contests where the ballot box couldn’t be stuffed or the teacher’s judgment compromised.
I ran for this, and was nominated for that. Student council. Class president. Homecoming court. I could go on and on. I never won.
You can’t say that I didn’t try. I kept coming up swinging, sure that once again, I’d feel the tremendous surge of joy as I accepted the weighty crown of being liked or popular. But there wasn’t going to be any more external proof. I’d have to figure out for myself what was valuable about me — what I liked about me.
Awards earned in my 20’s: “Miss-Take” and “Miss-Judgment”…
I, like many people, did a lousy job of that.
After high school, and leaving whatever shelter or structured living with my parents had offered, I derailed. The only crowns I wore for well over a decade were “Miss-Take” and “Miss-Judgment,” being attracted to darker, more complex relationships than I had the maturity to handle, while using my sexuality to desperately try to connect.
Some tried to love me well. But I wasn’t having it. I couldn’t absorb it.
I slowly woke up to the realization that no one was going to like me more than I liked myself. As long as I kept hammering myself with criticism, shaming myself at every turn, I would attract people, men mostly, who would try to convince me that I was accurate — I didn’t have much value. I needed them to provide that security.
Sadly, I was quite good at finding those men.
So I worked at changing, but it wasn’t a change that came easily, as I was still in an abusive relationship.
Whether it was synergy, karma, or a “God thing,” I began volunteering at a battered women’s shelter. It was life-changing. I saw much more clearly the damage that can be done to someone’s sense of worth by being belittled, demeaned and manipulated. I watched as some went back for very complicated reasons, and others didn’t. I had to painfully admit that my own life mimicked theirs. It was unnerving. Scary. But I slowly faced my own shame, and decided I had to save myself.
I was worth saving. And I got out.
My attention traveled from getting what I thought I needed from others to how I might be able to make a difference. As flawed and humiliated as I felt, maybe I could help someone. I went back into therapy. I also poured myself into my education, as I was in graduate school by that time.
Finding your own worth…
It was then that I began to like the life I was creating. As a result, I began to like myself in the process. A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to meet a man whose heart was kind — who wanted me to succeed in this journey of liking me.
That was nearly thirty years ago. He’s still around, thank goodness.
Psychological theory has something to say about all this. What comes first? Liking yourself? Or being valued by others? A psychologist named Maslow believed that we tend to initially discover our stability in a sense of belonging to a group, and a true sense of esteem can be created afterward. Think about all the ways you tried to fit in as a teenager, or may still be trying as an adult. You were trying to find that place with others first, way before you actually may have believed in yourself.
Therein may lie the problem.
If you spend too much time searching for love and affection, as well as proof that you’re valued, and don’t spend enough time and effort on discovering what brings purpose to your life, what gives you an internal sense of pride or conviction, then you’ll get stuck.
And stuck doesn’t feel good. Stuck can lead to a lot of chaos.
Been there. Done that.
The best gift to give yourself this Valentines…
This Valentines Day, maybe you can give your own life a look. Write down what you like about the life you’ve created — what you appreciate about your own perspective — what you like about yourself — what’s your own bit of wisdom. That’s not self-adoration, or narcissism. It’s simply taking a little time to recognize your strengths.
I hope you’ll like what you discover. But if you don’t, that realization can lead you to a fresh direction.
Perhaps that’s the best Valentines’ gift of all – making sure you know your worth.
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Originally published on February 10, 2018; updated and republished on February 1, 2020.