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 heady happiness that seeped inside me, wondering finally (after all of seven long years…) if I was really liked.
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 seven. You 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.
“Miss-Take” and “Miss-Judgment”
Yet, finding my own niche? My own value? I, like many people, did a lousy job of that for quite some time.
After high school, leaving the structure my parents had offered, I derailed. The only titles I earned 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 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.
Because I hammered myself with shame, that only assured that I’d attract partners who’d echo my own criticism. On some unconscious level, I needed them to mirror what I believed was right; we both found me lacking. Sadly, I was quite good at finding those men.
Finally, I began waking up to the realization that no one was going to like me more than I liked myself.. It wasn’t a change that came easily, 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 couldn’t NOT see 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, while 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, I hoped 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 loving me.
That was over 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.
The best gift to give yourself this Valentine’s Day…
As this day devoted to love approaches, give your own life a look. Write down not only what you love about the life you’ve created, but also what you value and how those values are currently reflected in the life you’ve built for yourself.
If you find that your everyday life does not reflect those values, remember that you can change that! Consider the direction you need to go and take steps, even little ones, that bring you closer to living out the standards that speak to you. That’s the way you find purpose and the most important validation you can receive… your own.
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Originally published on February 10, 2018; updated and republished on February 11, 2023.