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 have 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 that crown on my head. But there wasn’t going to be any more “proof” that I was liked. I’d have to figure out for myself what was valuable about me — not only what others might like, or dislike, but what I actually liked about myself.
I, like many people, did a lousy job of that.
After high school, and leaving whatever shelter or structure 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, using my sexuality to try desperately to connect. Some tried to love me well. But I wasn’t having it. I couldn’t absorb it.
I began slowly waking 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. And I was quite good at finding those men.
But it was a change that didn’t come easily. I was still in an abusive relationship.
Whether it was luck 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. So how could I possibly “like” me? 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 poured myself into learning, as I was in graduate school by that time.
It was then that I began liking the life I was creating. And I began to learn 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 twenty-eight years ago. He’s still around, thank goodness.
Psychological theory has something to say about all this. What comes first? The need for self-esteem, or “liking” yourself? Or being valued by others? A psychologist named Maslow believed that we tend to find our stability first 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 gives your own life purpose, 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.
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 is 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.
And perhaps that is the best Valentines’ gift of all.
Dr. Margaret’s gift book for honoring your relationship is now available on Amazon! “Marriage Is Not For Chickens.”
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