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.”
In my adulthood I learned that my mother had something to do with that win; there was talk of an impressionable and eager-to-please young teacher and behind the scenes ballot box stuffing. Throughout my school years, however, buoyed by a fantasy of accepting a weighty crown that signified being liked or popular, I attempted to replicate my win. Student council. Class president. Homecoming court. I could go on and on. However, I never won anything after the tender age of 7. You certainly couldn’t say that I didn’t try. I kept coming up swinging, sure that once again, I’d feel the joy of being validated by my peers.
Awards won in my 20’s: “Miss-Take” and “Miss-Judgment”…
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, and if my life actually reflected my values. I, like many people, did a lousy job of that for quite some time.
After high school, 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.” I was attracted to darker, more complex relationships than I had the maturity to handle and I used my sexuality in a desperate attempt to connect with men who weren’t emotionally available.
There were some that tried to love me well. But I wasn’t having it; I couldn’t absorb it. I walked away from them.
I kept hammering myself with criticism, shaming myself at every turn, which in turn assured that I would attract people, men mostly, who would echo my own criticism. On some level I needed them to provide that security that I was right; we both found me lacking. Sadly, I was quite good at finding those men.
I slowly woke up to the realization that no one was going to like me more than I liked myself, so I earnestly worked at changing. It wasn’t a change that came easily at first, as I was still in an abusive relationship. Then something life-changing happened; whether it was synergy, karma, or a “God thing,” I found myself drawn to volunteering at a battered women’s shelter.
I saw right in front of me the damage that can be done to someone’s sense of worth by being belittled, demeaned and manipulated. I watched as some went back to their abusers for very complicated reasons, and some 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 shifted from seeking external validation to how I might be able to make a difference in the lives of others. Despite feeling as flawed and humiliated as I did at the time, I thought maybe I could help someone else. I started grad school, pouring myself into my education. I went back into therapy. My world began to change.
Finding your own purpose…
A life I liked emerged. I was beginning to find my purpose. A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to meet a man whose heart was kind, who liked the very essence of me, and 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.
The best gift to give yourself this Valentines…
This Valentines Day, maybe you can give your own life a look. Write down not only what you like about the life you’ve created but what you value. And how your everyday life reflects those values. If it doesn’t, you can work on that. Write your values down. And see the direction you need to go for you to live out that value.
That’s the way you find purpose.
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Originally published on February 10, 2018; updated and republished on February 1, 2020.