“FAILURE!” my mind screams at me. “You’re a sheer bloody failure as a human being!”
But, but, but…
“No but’s! You’re a failure! Always have been…always will be. A disgrace to the fair name of ‘human.'”
Welcome to my internal world on a “bad” day.*
“Failure!” my brain screams at me like some silent, internal dominatrix.
“C’mon now,” I reply in a wheedling tone, “I just redesigned my whole website. That was important!”
“Bullshit!” comes the snarling response. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. Digital work isn’t real work. Chop-chop girl. Get busy!”
“Alright! What’ve I got to do?”
“ ‘What’ve you got to do?’ ” that snotty, mimicking tone reminds me of Smeagol in Lord of the Rings. “EVERYTHING! Look at that capacious spreadsheet of ‘To Do’s’. Get busy!”
“So it’s not enough that yesterday I planted a whole garden and I’m sore?”
“It’s not enough that I’ve been writing and web-designing for five hours?”
“When will it be enough? When will I have done enough to be worthy? To not bring disgrace to the fair name of ‘human being’?”
“Never,” comes the evil, whispered response. “You’ll never be good enough to relax. You’ve just gotta keep trying…and trying…always snapping at the piece of cheese just out of reach. But you will never feel okay about yourself. I won’t let you.”
I Remember When It All Started…
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I’d been rolling right along, growing up, feeling kinda’ sorta’ okay about myself. BAM! I suddenly started getting blind-sided with shocking criticisms at school…at home. I was fourteen, just before SHTF in my family.
It was right about this time that my dad took me out for one of our father/daughter dates. It was something he’d learned from Dr. Dobson’s books on child-rearing. Unfortunately, he must’ve stopped reading mid-chapter. He never got to the part where Dobson tells the father to treat his daughter like a beautiful princess when they’re on their “date.”
Our father/daughter dates were his chance to act bored with my silly conversation about other people and to criticize me. (To this day, I still love to study other people, in person and through biographies. Such a silly hobby.)
On this particular day, he said I “wasn’t trying hard enough.” No details. No specifics. Just a general, blanket kick-in-the-ass to “try harder”…as if straight As and blind obedience wasn’t good enough. Extending his hand, he demanded I pledge to “try harder” with a nice, firm handshake. But even at that tender age I valued my word, my honor, my “John Hancock.” And I just wasn’t sure I could or would try harder, so I didn’t shake.
It was our last official father/daughter date. Life, and my self-esteem, went downhill from there.
Performance = Value?
More than twenty years later, my self-esteem is still in the tank. Like all children of narcissists, my self-esteem never developed properly. As early as third grade, it was tied to my performance. Back then, my performance equaled my ability to get A’s on my schoolwork.
Strangely enough, I was praised constantly. But that’s not enough. You’ve also got to feel loved when you do things different than your parents do them, hold a divergent opinion, aren’t perfect, or are unique and authentic. It’s called unconditional love. What I felt was conditional love.
In cults it’s called “Love Bombing.” Do something good, they fawn over you. Displease them and you get the silent treatment…or worse.
As an adult, my self-esteem is still tied to my performance. My work…whatever that happens to be at the moment. In my 20s, it was tied to my growing career as a graphic designer turned admin turned franchise coordinator turned IT business analyst…and my skill (or lack thereof) as a fiddle player.
In my 30s, it’s still tied to my success (or lack thereof) as a writer, web designer, social media marketer, wife, caregiver, dog mom, cleaner, dishwasher, cook, baker, interior designer, gardener…and a thousand other roles I can’t remember at the moment. Like a juggler, I’m trying to manage a thousand balls and they’re constantly hitting the floor. Like I said…
The Juggle of Life
If I do some baking, the dishes pile up.
If I wash the dishes, I really should be doing some cooking.
If I clean up the yard, the house seems to suck in all the dust from our dirt road.
If I polish the dusty furniture, the carpet gets crunchy.
If I wash the walls, the curtains beg for cleaning.
If I wash the lace curtains by hand, my nail polish gets all chipped and ratty looking.
If I vacuum the house, the bedroom needs painting.
If I paint the bedroom, the shower turns orange from our iron-rich water.
If I plant the potatoes, the car needs to be washed.
If the car gets washed, the shed needs painting.
If I can the beans, the garden needs weeding.
If I weed the garden, the grass and bushes need trimming.
If I wash the dogs, the bills pile up.
If I pay the bills, I really should be cutting lilacs for bouquets.
If I work on my website, I’m neglecting networking.
If I write for hours, my husband gets lonely.
If the dogs are outside, they beg to come in.
If the dogs are inside, they beg to go out.
I can’t win! FAILURE! Sheer, bloody failure!
Self-approval is something I’m entirely lacking. Maybe I’m afraid to do it because my bubble got popped too many times back when I was 14 years old and made the hideous mistake of thinking I was okay.
There’s no sense of proportion, no sense of normalcy. I almost never say, “Fuck it! I’ve done enough for today. A good day’s work. Now for some much deserved R & R.” No, I just cling to the dishpan, take a deep breath, plaster on a fake smile and keep on a’goin’, trying to guilt myself out of exhaustion.
It doesn’t help that I know people who actually seem to have their shit together 24/7. Their houses, cars and manicures exist in a state of perpetual perfection. Of course, they don’t garden. Or can. Or bake their own bread. Or live on a dirt road. Or have a stove that belches wall-and-curtain staining woodsmoke. They don’t write for their supper. They don’t have dogs…never did. And their husbands are healthy. Still, everything is always perfect in their world…no need to call before you pop over. (But their families are shit. Fractured. Haven’t spoken for almost two decades.)
This “Better Homes & Gardens” viewpoint may have skewed my outlook on life from babyhood. Ya think!?
All I know is, nothing is every perfect in my little iron lung. And as long as there’s stuff that still needs to be done, I’m a failure. (And as all homeowners know, there is always stuff that needs doing.) If I had the energy to work 24/7…I would.
But I don’t. Low energy has always been the bane of my existence. So I run on sheer willpower…and guilt. Not in that order. Sometimes I suspect that I’m actually a grand success..doing as much as I do on as little energy as I have with the amount of stress in my life. But that’s a dangerous thought…another bubble of so-called “pride” just waiting to be painfully pricked.
Unable to Please
From the top of my head to the soles of my feet, I couldn’t please my father. It seems strange to say that because I remember many times he was proud of, well, my performance. Sometimes he expressed approval of my sweetness. There was even a lot of physical affection. But vibes speak louder than words. And criticism always trumps praise.
From my hairstyle to my way of walking, he had choice words to say about all of it. I was never 100% “okay” in his eyes. It was always open season on Lenora. If his lips didn’t say it, his facial expression did. He often had this unusual expression, half smarmy smile, half I-can’t-bear-to-even-hug-you.
After I struggled through the shock of my first year in Junior High (cliques, running stairs to get to classes in time, etc.), he informed me that, “You almost failed 7th grade.” Knowing I was on the A Honor Roll, I innocently inquired if he was going to send me back to 6th grade. He was lost for words.
After I “spelled down” my entire class to win a place in the Geography Bee, but got eliminated in the first round, he informed me that, “It’s not fair to the rest of your class that you go to the Bee but choke. If there are any more Geography Bee’s, I won’t allow you to participate. Give someone else a chance.” Twenty years later, his logic still eludes me…but the pain is still there.
And when I came home with stress migraines from my first graphic design job, was I allowed to rest in peace? Nope! Mom came into to yell at me, desperate that The Project would not fail in her first job. (BTW, I didn’t.)
Do we see a theme here? Fail, failing, almost failure, failure!
Somehow I assimilated the message that you had to earn value as a human being. You had to earn the right to be free by always making the right decisions.
Those who weren’t perfect, those who made poor decisions didn’t deserve to be free. They should be controlled by those who are wiser than they. That unspoken message screamed at me each time I mentioned moving out. I couldn’t be trusted with my own life. I didn’t have the right to make my own decisions.
No Regrets, Baby!
Five years after gaining my freedom, I don’t regret a single decision I’ve made. Not one. If you ask me, I make wise decisions. And I make ’em fast. House, dogs and husband…all snap decisions and all excellent decisions that have made me very happy.
But does that make me feel better about myself?
I do more organic, everything-from-scratch homemaking than my mother or grandmother ever did. But does that make me feel good about myself?
I’m a successful entrepreneur with two blogs, 200k site hits, 500 subscribers and two radio interviews under my belt…in just six months. Does it boost my self-esteem?
Ah, maybe a little.
I had the guts to marry a terminally-ill man and he just came in to kiss me and often tells me how happy I’ve made him. Surely that must make me feel good about myself!
Is Low Self-Esteem a Life Sentence?
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Is living with low or non-existent self-esteem going to be my life sentence? Is there no reprieve? Do I get out early for good behavior? Or will I be stuck fighting my internal dominatrix until the day I croak?
I have a suspicion that life could be better. I could be happier. More peaceful. More normal if I weren’t constantly fighting the hateful voice of my internal Smeagol, my whip-snapping Mrs. Should, my malcontented Archie Bunker.
Maybe, just maybe, therapy will make a difference. It’s my best hope.
* I watched some comedy on YouTube after writing this and felt much better! Just FYI. 🙂
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