One thing I’m startled by again and again, is how many people struggle with issues of self worth and self confidence. Most of us do a pretty good job of presenting a fairly confident demeanor to the world, but every now and then the mask slips and people’s insecurities become achingly apparent.
I’m not saying that I have myself figured out or that I can’t be bumped off my game, but I’ve learned a few truths that ground me, and it’s a lot harder than it used to be to slap me off my own pedestal. It becomes easy to imagine that others share that same kind of self-regard, and so it’s always amazing when stuff leaks out that reveal a very fragile and vulnerable soul hiding behind all that public competence.
Self-confidence and self-esteem emerge in us from a life pattern of both success and acceptance. While most of us more or less get the first part down pat – after all, we are brilliant creatures, all of us – it’s the latter part that tends to be much more contingent.
One of our most unfortunate human realities is that our power of self-acceptance has to come from others. And by that I mean that the ontogeny of it lies in the attitudes of those around us: first by parents and then by peers. The more others accept us, the more we learn of our own intrinsic value. Of course the problem with this is that others can only value you as much as they do themselves, and if they didn’t learn self-value, they cannot value you, at least not properly.
It’s more-or-less random whether you end up surrounded by others that treasure you, and the consequences of that chance can be enormous. As far as I can tell, it’s the most important indicator of the kind of life you will lead, and the happiness that life will contain. Those with very poor self-esteem go from misery to misery, endlessly validating the worthlessness they feel inside.
How and where we get our validation is a complex interplay of self and others, but one result is how we view our flaws. It is the nature of being human that we are all deeply flawed; it is so absolute and universal, perhaps we shouldn’t even frame it as “flaw” at all, but simple vulnerability. Most of us are acutely aware of those places where we fail, where we don’t measure up, where we have weakness, and struggle mightily to keep these unwanted aspects out of the picture. We repress what is undesirable in an attempt to make ourselves more worthwhile in our eyes and other’s opinions.
Certainly there are some facets of the human psychological landscape that is best to keep under wraps, but we are far, far more critical of our own foibles than the world is, and I can promise you that 99% of what most of us consider our worst features would hardly raise an eyebrow in others. This is important. Because we have so many models of the ideal human in the media (masks, all) we are constantly reminded how we don’t measure up. Many do try, and try hard.
Where I’ve noticed this most is around the notion of feminine physical beauty. I can’t begin to count how many “beautiful” faces I’ve seen online, and it’s completely, utterly boring. The wonderful uniqueness of humanity is reduced to a bland, empty iconic type. When I meet individuals who try to portray that stereotype in the non-digital world, I’m ashamed to say that it’s hard not to stare. Not because they are so desirable, but because it’s like seeing a moving statue, something incredible and fantastic and unreal. Something bizarre. And then I feel empathy for the poor individual trapped behind that mask.
It’s not that public masks are bad –we all wear them – but that the mask is so completely defined by culture, the individual lets little of who they really are shine through the paint (or car, or career). It’s like publicly declaiming I am what the world wants me to be.
Lost in all of this construction is one absolute truth: it is our imperfections that so strongly define our uniqueness and when we hide them, we hide ourselves. The hardest thing to do is show others our flaws because in doing so we reveal our greatest vulnerability. To show where we are imperfect is to open ourselves to potential judgment, and unlike our clothes or hair, when people criticize these parts of us they criticize who we are. And that’s incredibly painful.
And yet when we take courage and reveal these aspects, we open the door to true vulnerability. And what’s most often the case, at least with those who really know us, when we share our foibles and weaknesses, they will respond with “Oh, I knew that”.
Many, many times I’ve had an insight about myself and struggled with how to share it to my wife. With hat nervously scrunched in my hand, I approached her to reveal my dirty little secret, after which she smiles and hugs me and tells me she had known that all along and what’s the big deal?
We are far less clever with hiding this stuff than we think – we simply cannot be what we aren’t – but when we are willing to share it, to come out and say what everyone already knows, we are saying: “I trust you enough to be very vulnerable.” And that’s a deep part of love.
One thing important to remember is that while you might think you are revealing something really compromising about you, the other might not share the same value. After years and years (decades) of trying to create a mainstream life for myself, and failing, I eventually came to my wife, tears in my eyes and feeling like an absolute failure, told her that I just couldn’t do it. I had tried and almost destroyed myself in the attempt, but I had to stop. She was free to divorce me if she wished, and I wouldn’t blame her.
But of course everything I said wasn’t new to her at all, and she was incredibly supportive. What I saw as a horrible failing of myself as a man and a human being, she saw as only one small part of a much larger and lovable and fascinating whole, and certainly not worth fussing about. She supported me in being who I was, however that manifested.
I was raised to be independent and self-sufficient, and it took decades to be able to let go of that mask and allow myself to be weak with my wife. There are weak places in me of course, but I had learned to always be powerful and competent, even despising those who demonstrated weakness. But by allowing myself to be weak, to be flawed, I open the door to my true, fragile humanity, and greatly increase the intimacy of our relationship.
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