Posts Tagged ‘self-esteem’

Finding Peace, Not Popularity

Saturday, September 14th, 2013

To one degree or another, trying to be “popular” has been an issue my whole life. I’m sure many can relate to this struggle, which usually begins around the time the honeymoon of childhood morphs into the agonizing self-consciousness of adolescence. I’ll never forget how it felt to panic about who I’d sit with at lunch or on the bus, or if anyone would be my science lab partner. Then there was the humiliation of being a “leftover” after everyone else had paired off. Somehow I had missed the lessons on how to look, how to dress, and most important of all, how to be “cool.” Anyway, how could I be cool when I was too paralyzed with shyness to even speak most of the time? My mind talked plenty, though, constantly reminding me I was a loser and that everyone around me knew it.

I felt alone and trapped in a cruel and miserable pecking order system favoring those unselfconscious enough to talk and laugh with their peers, yet insensitive enough to put down those who couldn’t. Today, the situation has a name: bullying. As far as I’m concerned, even identifying the behavior and the harm it can cause are huge steps forward in social progress.

Does being a sensitive person make one more likely to be teased, or is it the teasing that causes one to become sensitive? However it works, this negative cycle results in those most vulnerable being attacked, which to them is a nightmare of low self-esteem coming true. The obsession to fit in, and the resulting humiliation of perceived failure, is enough to create a permanent shift in a person’s brain, enough to push many over the precipice into some very dark places: suicide, addiction, unhealthy choices in relationships, and a host of other self-defeating coping mechanisms.

And if one survives being unpopular past high school, it’s not as though the damage magically disappears, either. For some victims, the core belief that they are somehow inadequate or not as lovable as others remains deeply buried, but at the same time manifests in just about everything they say and do, including the circumstances and people they attract to their lives.

Beyond the teenage years, the battle to feel worthy wages on, just in different arenas. It can be seen in cutthroat office politics, where not only status, but the ability to support oneself, are at stake. It can be felt within communities, where being “better than” is measured in wealth, education, politics, and ethnicity. The assumption is that if you have more money, power, material possessions, etc., you are somehow superior to, smarter, and more “together” than those with less.

Here in the digital age, the quest for approval is obvious on Facebook and other social networking sites, where the winners are those with the greatest number of “friends,” “followers,” or level of response to their posts. In a computerized society, it’s easier to represent yourself as someone you’re not, and thus increase your perceived status. It’s also easier, however, to hurt another’s feelings when you don’t have to personally witness the pain you cause another human across cyberspace.

In my own case, the abusive and dysfunctional environment of grades four through twelve, coupled with denial and further criticism at home, almost caused me to end my life at a young age. But taking on an overeating addiction basically rescued me, saving me from having to feel those emotions I basically had no ability to face at that time. Addictions do serve a purpose as a survival mechanism…unfortunately, they themselves can kill the very life they seek to protect.

There is hope, however. Even people like me who’ve suffered permanent disability to their self-esteem – be it from bullying or anything else – have a real opportunity to come out of this experience not only intact, but even better, perhaps, than they might have been without the trauma. The journey starts with basic endurance – bearing the discomfort of our own thoughts and feelings just for this day – but with honesty and the willingness to get help and work on our issues, leads to a softer place of healing. In this peaceful place, we love ourselves, our emotions, and our lives exactly as they are, no matter what anyone else thinks about us.

Having lived through the stigma of unpopularity (and barely, I admit), I like to think that my ordeal might help others having similar troubles. Low self-esteem is not exactly rare among humankind, so in my view, anyone with understanding, experience, and hope can be of great use. Focusing on replacing negative attitudes with positive ones has become my life-long challenge…and honestly, it can sometimes be a minute-to-minute battle.

Recent circumstances in my family have forced me to take another up-close look at how approval or disapproval from others affects peoples’ feelings about themselves. Much as I had hoped that the ghosts of middle school were long gone, they have returned now that the same damn thing is acutely affecting people I love. Fortunately, the solid growth I’ve had as a result of confronting myself and my attitudes has made the issue far less intimidating to deal with as it comes up in family members, reminding me to be grateful for the progress I’ve made in replacing those old, sick beliefs.

Here are my new beliefs: we are all worthy, no matter our flaws, deficiencies, or defects, and we will see our intrinsic value if we are willing to look for answers inside, instead of outside us, and grow along a path guided by the forces of goodness and love. Give those forces whatever name you want.

It’s really just as simple as that.

I wish I could say the journey on this path was simple, but I’d be lying. Sometimes it’s agonizing, confusing, and in my own case, fraught with my mistakes and shortcomings. But persistence is powerful…picture a leaf floating on the surface of a stream that is tossed about by eddies, rocks, and powerful currents, but still winds up moving downriver. Never forget that those healing forces guiding us are much stronger than we are, and they will push us along and give us rest when we need it.

The Skin’s the Thing

Friday, July 26th, 2013

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Am I the only person on this planet who has an ongoing, intimate relationship with my complexion? Our daily interaction involves working together, enjoying successes and enduring failures together, playing and sleeping and fighting together. To be honest, though, we struggle, fail, and argue most of the time, so the relationship is basically dysfunctional. I wish it weren’t so, but alas, it’s my skin that’s the thing.

It all started with an enormous, smack-dab-middle-of-the-forehead pimple I got when I was 14 years old. How many people remember one pimple? I do. It was front and center, refusing to heal or be concealed without looking terrible regardless. In my desperation to get rid of the thing, I picked at it, caked it with Clearasil (beige-colored to hide the spot…yeah, right), and obsessed about how ridiculously hideous it was. But as we all know, the more attention you pay to these pimples, the more power they draw from your futile efforts, like energy-sapping body snatchers from the Planet Z (for zit, of course).

Experiencing this major blotch at age 14, when self-consciousness around peers is at its lifetime pinnacle, was traumatic. Any shred of confidence I had was wiped away like the dirt and oil those Stridex pads promised to remove from my face.

My brand of acne was not evident to a casual observer, but to me it was obviously the first thing anyone noticed. I agonized over the “invisible” whiteheads, millions of tiny blackheads, and the occasional face-engulfing whopper of a zit that would become the focus of my world for days on end.  And the very instant one monster blemish would begin lying down, I could feel another gearing up to make its ugly debut. It was hell, but at least I would outgrow it, right? Wrong! The pimple that ate New York City, which lived comfortably on my forehead for months (years if you count the red mark it left), was only the beginning of my ensuing lifelong sentence to “adult acne.”

It wasn’t until I had moved away from home, and was attending graduate school, that it occurred to me to go to a dermatologist. Where I was raised, adolescent skin problems were not important enough to actually warrant medical attention. Acne was just “part of growing up.” So what if it was causing enough personal turmoil that, when added to my other insecurities, made me question whether I wanted to live long enough to reach adulthood anyway? Going to a dermatologist was a big step, therefore, and a positive one. Finally I was reaching out for help with this shame-producing problem.

Unfortunately, though, like any condition affecting the human body, medical treatment results vary and are often not ideal. I know this after literally decades of tetracycline, minocycline, erythromycin, clindamycin, benzyl peroxide, salicylic acid, Retin-A, astringents, hydrogen peroxide, scrubs, peels, and microdermabrasion. The cost involved with all these remedies and procedures would put a chink in the national debt! Not to mention all the time involved…likely years out of my life. But even with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, so to speak, I was far from entirely spared the torture of acne in all its obnoxiousness: painful, swollen, and ugly blemishes; the seemingly endless healing process during which they come to a head, drain, and bleed; the flaking skin from drying out areas around the spot; and the major makeup sessions trying to conceal these suckers. One time, I actually had to go to my doctor and have him lance a humongous cystic pimple that had developed inside my nose! Talk about pain. I don’t know which pain was worse, though…the pain inside my nose or the humiliation of having this happen to me. Of course, then there’s my true favorite, when I worked for probably 20 minutes to conceal one awful spot with makeup because I was meeting a guy I liked. In a magical moment, he kissed me, but his romantic gesture brushed up against and ruined my painstaking cover-up, after which he looked at me and said, “What’s that on your face?” I wished for enough magic to disappear at that point.

In my “journey” with this particular demon, I have learned a lot I’m willing to share. For one thing, don’t let clever marketers convince you that a certain “premium-quality” skin-care line will heal these problems, unless you have a very mild case of acne, because you’re in for a costly let-down if you buy into this. Not to disparage all the wonderful and healthy products available – in fact, I use an excellent Swiss botanical formulation myself – but acne is a foe that goes way deeper than clean, properly-moisturized skin.

Also, dermatologists and estheticians alike will rebuke you if you squeeze your pimples, the basis of their admonitions being the ever-prudent idea that for the lesions to heal without scarring, they must be left alone. However, I’ve tried the “no-touching” rule, and even pimples I’ve white-knuckled to not pick left marks that took months to fade. I contend that skin specialists who dish out this advice with such condescension have never had a significant problem with acne, have never had a throbbing, pus-filled splotch sitting on the end of their nose, looking ready to pop for weeks. Trying to get that thing moving faster in the direction of non-existence is only natural, for heaven’s sake!

The only significant periods in my life I didn’t have to worry about zits taking over my face were during my pregnancies. Something about those pregnancy hormones apparently offends the tiny buggers that cause the problem. However, I wouldn’t suggest being knocked up as an acne remedy, considering the mind-bending expense and contribution to overpopulation.

The curse of acne takes a huge toll. But hey, it’s all part of character development, like dealing with any obstacle to joyous and serene living. It would have been nice if this particular personal growth opportunity had lasted maybe a few months or years instead of a whole freaking lifetime… But my continuing struggle must mean I haven’t learned the ultimate lesson in this hellish experience. Now over 50 years old and still breaking out, I hope I do soon.

The truth is, as much as I’ve grown in loving myself for exactly who I am, I still become manic over my complexion. In fact, I’m so familiar with the pores on my face, they should really have names. Right now I’m thinking of some very creative names for them, all four letters in length. There simply must be a positive take on knowing every square millimeter of my face like the map of a minefield. Perhaps this battleground keeps me away from more destructive types of conflict. Or maybe it keeps me humble about my physical appearance. I don’t know the answer, honestly, but I’m popping my truth about this on any of you who might relate. Carry on, fellow Pimple-warriors. You are not alone!