By A. M Vivian. First published on their site.
I’m just a sucker with low self-esteem
Years ago my counsellor told me I had low self-esteem. That didn’t quite make sense because I could happily give a presentation, teach groups of people and travel the world on my own. Yet her statement made me cry so there must have been something that hit home. Later, I learnt confidence isn’t self-esteem. Self-esteem is about knowing you are worthy of happiness, respecting yourself and believing in your ability to cope with any future events. When it comes to my writing career, my low self-esteem convinces me that I don’t deserve to be successful. Stay small, don’t draw attention to yourself. If you do draw attention, people will realise you’re evil and bad and shitty. This thought’s best friend is Miss if-you-don’t-try-you-can’t-fail.’ They go to all the parties together, drink all the booze and then puke in the potpourri.
I like to understand the why of things; why is my self-esteem so low? Depression and low self-esteem are a chicken and egg situation or maybe a wolf in a fox outfit so trying to figure out that why didn’t help. It had me ruminating over pasts events—a nice way to reinforce my negative opinion on myself and life. Instead, I decided to focus on fixing it. The Blindboy Podcast, the Gabor Mate film The Wisdom of Trauma and his series of lectures, and The Six Pillars of Self-esteem by Nathaniel Branden have been helpful. Here, I want to share what I learnt.
I’m no worse than anyone else
No one is better than me and I’m not better than anyone else is Blindboy’s affirmation. I’ve studied psychology and so I understand the concept of intrinsic value—every human being has worth strictly because they’re a human. I know this. I can intellectualise it but it doesn’t feel right. My brain rebels, tells me ‘a Doctor is more important than you. They save lives. They matter to more people than you do.’ We’ve all done that exercise where only a certain amount of people can get on a lifesaving raft and you have to decide who to leave behind. It’s meant to teach you not to judge people but all it does is show you that you probably wouldn’t be on anyone’s raft.
In CBT therapy we’re encouraged to look at the evidence for our beliefs so we can test their validity. Trouble was I found lots of evidence that said I must be a shitty person. I looked at my married friends with their lovely partners, their dream jobs, and their beautiful children. My brain told me I didn’t have those things because I wasn’t good enough. My friends were perfect and good people. I’d had an abusive relationship, a miscarriage and was unemployed after a nervous breakdown because I was a useless piece of shit that deserved bad things to happen to her. If I’d been better none of those things would have happened.
While researching I read about the Quakers, they believe everyone has good and bad in them. Such a simple and obvious concept but it was a revelation. It permitted me to forgive myself for my mistakes. Other people can be bad and wrong too. It was such a relief. I wasn’t being punished for being bad, not if everyone else makes mistakes and is wrong sometimes. My friends didn’t get to have those things because they were perfect and better people than I am—it’s just, well, shit happens. And I realised, I’m not ready for Blindboy’s statement yet. It’s asking my self-esteem to complete a marathon when it’s been sat on the couch crying over Netflix for years. I’ll use the baby-steps affirmation of ‘I’m no worse than anyone else’
Pause, rewind, replay
I’ll be going along with my day and suddenly I’ll get a jolt of anxiety and back comes a memory of something I did wrong. For some reason, it’s normally when I’m washing the dishes or cleaning my teeth (maybe I should just get a dishwasher and false teeth). The emotions are as strong as the day of the event. Shame. Frustration at not doing the right thing. My most recent one was not standing up for myself when I was told I had to do a test and possibly attend a course for key skills English and Maths because my GCSE’s were too old. Now I knew this was bullshit because I had set up similar back to work courses in the past and had also been a career advisor. Less than a year before this I’d been a classroom assistant in GCSE English and Maths. I also have a degree and two MAs all in English language-related fields. But I didn’t say anything. The next day I had a panic attack on the way to the test—the first in 4 months. So I get angry at myself for not speaking up and for causing my panic attack.
When the memory returned I decided to explore the events in a bit more detail. The first thing that hit me was that it happened in May 2019. Yet, it feels like the event happened yesterday. What bigger sign did I need that I was stuck in that moment? It was like re-watching the same scene over and over, only on some dodgy streaming site where it keeps buffering. Imaging the event and memory as a scene in a film helped. I could watch myself there and un-stick that me by visualising hitting the play button and watching the next part of the film—me leaving that scene and walking home
You got that crazy little lizard brain
I’m pretty sure lizard brain isn’t the technical term but it works for me, mainly because I picture an ex’s leopard gecko bashing and wiggling up against the glass of the vivarium, panicked yet aggressive. The lizard brain is the primitive part of our brain—the bit that only cares about fighting, fucking and feeding. And it might be the biggest bastard of all. It tells me that receiving a badly worded email is the same as a great big lion coming to rip my face off. Its favourite thing is telling me I’m going to piss myself in public, even though I only went for a pee 5 minutes ago. ‘Hey,’ it whispers, ‘everyone will look at you, record you on their phones, crowd around you and pull your soul out of my body.’ And then, bang, panic attack time and I need to pee even more because the lizard brain wants to shed as much weight as possible. Just how heavy does it think pee is?
Back in ye olde cavepeople time, social acceptance was essential for survival because it was too hard to hunt and stay safe alone. Rejection meant death. No wonder I have social anxiety—my lizard brain hasn’t worked out that time moves forward and things change. This knowledge was kinda helpful because I like understanding why my brain is being a bastard and I feel less of a freak because everyone else has a lizard brain, but this nugget of knowledge wasn’t enough by itself.
When the panic starts I picture that lizard in the back of my head, just by my nape. It’s flipping and jumping and wiggling for attention. ‘FUCK, FUCK, FUCK,’ it says because it hasn’t quite developed proper language yet, after all, he is still stuck in cavepeople time. I talk to him and myself. ‘It’s fine. It’s just my lizard brain having a moment. Chill out, little dude.’ Of course, I don’t say this out loud. I don’t want to be socially rejected and left to be eaten alive by a rogue traffic light—seriously, some of those beeps are proper aggressive.
Keep on keeping on
So do I now have a sparkly crown of self-esteem? No. But that’s ok. I’ve accepted it’ll take time to build up my self-esteem. I’m working towards it. Just recognising the problem helps, like realising you’ve got a stone in your shoe might be the first step to walking comfortably. It’s had some positive effects because I’ve started working on a website to showcase myself as a writer and taken steps to grow my Instagram following (@A_M_Vivian if you’re interested). Oh and I also manage to fend off a panic attack in the dentist which is much better than a crown anyway.
A. M. Vivian, 28 Aug, 2021