This is a post I promised last week. It’s going to be another long one I have to warn you about.
There was a time when I made life harder for everyone around me. It creeps itself up very slowly, but it started from something small. Might seem so simple you wouldn’t have thought it could have so much influence on your life beyond the bathroom mirror. But truth is, how you regard yourself determines how you behave and how you respond to others.
It wasn’t that long ago. In fact, I still experience episodes of it from time to time – I was a perfectionist, I had impossible standards, I never accepted myself, I’m only worth as much as I work, and I wanted to be everything to everyone.
I wanted to work well, be well, look well and dress well. If there is one negative opinion about me, I’d think about it all day, sometimes obsess over it for weeks, months, even years. If I only better understand what’s wrong with me, I can correct it, and then I know everything will be right.
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Take Bill. For years I’ve been led to believe that he never saw me as girlfriend material because I’m only pretty #4. So I obsessed about my single eyelids, my snubby nose, and my thin lips. I even considered plastic surgery. So I wear those scotch tape cutouts that make you have double eyelids. I put them on every single day without fail.
It’s only in retrospect that I can now see those Bills weren’t just my luck – they came into my life because I allowed them to, I dare even say encouraged them to.
This first Bill, I was so dreamy-eyed about him that the experience narrowed my idea of attractive men. It’s just down to Bill and other guys like Bill – no Wills, no Chrises, no Bens. What I believed about myself – ugly single eyelids, ugly snubby nose, ugly thin lips – became how I presented myself every day for years.
I believe this is because we’re constantly engineering ourselves to project our fundamental beliefs. So it’s no wonder that I attracted the guys that treated me just the same – it’s as if you’re trying to find all the proofs in the world of those limiting beliefs you have about yourself. You keep affirming and reaffirming that you’re ugly, you’ll never be good enough, and so that’s what you keep getting.
No matter how painful it gets, you became so familiar with the voice that tells you you’re unworthy of love that eventually, you learn to become comfortable with it. You compromise yourself, settle for less, then shove your needs all the way to the bottom, and you walk around during the day with only the things that others have perceived to be wrong about you. So you start buying into the idea that in order to be accepted and loved, these wrongs need to be corrected ASAP.
Let me tell you what you’re missing all the while: There’s this Will that loves you just the way you are, but you just won’t open up. Either you’ve become blind about other men that are not Bill or you’re unconsciously protecting yourself from this potential new love. Because pain is inevitable, it’s way more comfortable with the kind of pain you already know. It’s like wanting to change a bad habit, but falling back again. You don’t want to risk wasting time on new things because you still have a lot to correct – you don’t want another new thing to correct right now.
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All Bills are the same – they hurt me and they make me feel unpretty. But all Bills are built differently.
Along with the looks department, I became obsessed with other things that just aren’t “right” for the second Bill, the third Bill, and so on. Like, I’m not a natural talker, but this one Bill claims to love extroverted girls, so I became so talkative that he and his friends thought I’m an airhead. At that time, I was also entering my sophomore year in college, and this is where all the not-good-enough beliefs spilled over to my student life, in later years to my career, my social life, my family life, and eventually my faith. To make this as brief as I can (even though I know it’s still going to be really long …), as an art student I had basically thrown my creativity (and life) out of the window. What I did was kept attempting to fulfill all the requirements on the assignments sheets. They were there to make you come up with something out-of-the-box, but I stressed myself out so much on what I should do “right” that I kept getting results that added nothing new to the table. By senior year I was failing a lot of classes and was very aware I was wasting a lot of my parents’ financial support, and I believed at the bottom of my heart I was worthless. I was useless as a daughter, useless as a friend, useless as a human in this world. I didn’t aspire to be anything anymore (some of you who’s been here for a while already know I had fallen to a period of depression before. I’ve also missed my menstrual period for 17 months. This was when.)
The summer of 2011, a year left to graduation, I came back to Jakarta for my first holiday in 1 year … and all I said to my mom upon arrival was that I wanted to quit school and start making money. I didn’t need to feel pretty anymore, I didn’t need to feel like a girl anymore, and I certainly didn’t need to feel good about myself anymore. There’s no way any decent guy would want to be with me. I just wanted to be useful someway, somehow, make the world a better place before I cease to exist.
Of course it broke my parents’ heart.
I did eventually graduate and became healthy again, but by that time, the negative script in my head had already replaced every last trace of my core self. Being overprepared was my second nature. Everything had to be just “right”, and if I can do more than just right, even better. I would sacrifice hours of my sleep and calories from my meal to work my ass off. The moment I yawned as a sign I needed sleep, the reflex was “Millionaires work 60-70 hours a week, don’t be so lazy.” The moment I felt a pang of hunger, the reflex was “People less privileged than you survive days without food because they didn’t have the money. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Of course you can’t see all these things on the surface. During my previous job, my supervisors mistook it all for sheer diligence. They valued me by giving me the pay raise and more assignments, and I went the extra mile 99% of the time because frankly, doing all the extra work made me feel very useful. Until they’re all done, I couldn’t look into the mirror and see anything worth looking at. There’s only another Bill, another requirement to fulfill, another work to be done, another extra work to be done, and then a few extra miles to go.
You can imagine the pulsing head, the droopy eyes, painful back, shaky hands … and yet I still pretend I’m alright. It’s nothing compared to what Melinda Gates has done to the children in Africa. It’s nothing compared to Mother Teresa’s courage. It’s really nothing, and I still hada lot to correct. I even shunned my boyfriend and kept making him feel like an outsider throughout the first year we’re dating. Even though at the bottom of my heart I yearned to share my pain with someone, I was afraid to trust him because he’s not Bill. Because he’s not Bill, he didn’t know how ugly I am. Because he’s not Bill, I didn’t want him to feel my pain. Because he’s not Bill, I didn’t want to make him go away.
When I thought I was only protecting our relationship, I was actually hurting it. I hurt him when I didn’t tell him I got into a car crash. I didn’t ask him for help when I got lost in traffic and my battery almost died. I didn’t tell him I have my needs in a comitted relationship, because I didn’t even own up those needs to myself. Guys want to feel needed, and when all I wanted to be at that time of my life was just useful, I have broken another heart by making him feel useless.
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See how this thing snowballed to something far bigger? See how the more you hold it inside, the more it affected everyone else around you?
Back then, my parents and my boyfriend worried a lot about how I’m taking on too much at my job. Whenever they express this concern, they’ll hear a thunderous howl from me and a big, bellowing cry because “Nobody understands!”. Well, whose fault is that? You didn’t allow anyone else but Bill into your life. How could you expect others, especially those who care about you, would understand you’ve fallen into this need of feeling good doing that much … just to get the approval of this one persona?
Up till now, I still feel the need to do a lot of things and doing them well. I feel good being praised for what I do, and more importantly, I feel useful, even though that feeling usually only lasts for minutes, and then I’m back to being unpretty again and having to work my ass off to become good enough.
It’s all because “I must be x to be good enough” and “Until x is done, I’m still worthless.”
This much I’ve shared today to tell you that I’m still recovering and that I’ve actually been to the edge of my sanity – it’s much, much worse than ugly. When you’ve lost the essence of your own nature and have nothing left of your soul, it’s very easy to topple and fall, even without the presence of the slightest judgment or criticism about you. For a time, I gave taking my own life a good thought. As I got better, I considered therapy, but my mom believed I was smarter than that. Like I said, a really big part of my healing was Jesus, but I know I have to share my story on this anyhow because frankly, too many women carry around negative scripts in their head in our increasingly image-driven culture.
I broke it down to thses 10 big steps, but I know those of you who’s hit rock-bottom need smaller steps in order to actually get out of that shithole. The process takes time and is really gradual, but this is what I did over the past couple of years:
1. Recognize it. As with any change, it takes a certain amount of self-awareness. Realize how serious it is and how it’s messing up your head and your life. Try going a day deliberately watching how one thought jumps to another. You’ll see how it’s became so natural for you to respond so negatively to situations (“Why does this always happen to me?!”), how it’s became a reflex for you to reject compliments (“No, no, this is actually a pretty old shirt”), or how easy it’s became to feel guilty for things you didn’t even do wrong (“Can I have another glass of water? Sorry I keep asking …”). These all follow an unconscious pattern, so deliberation is a good place to start to catch it during the act.
When I first realized how crazy I was, I was crying and screaming to my boyfriend only because I was late for a casual dinner date. I was so angry at myself for not being punctual (because 90% of the time, I’m on time), and I was so guilty for being far from perfect. I took the “do to others as you would be done unto you” rule very seriously, so I despise being late. Just know that people are more forgiving than you give them credit for, so do the same with yourself: Forgive. It’s good to be aware of your mistakes, but most of the time, there are other things more important that are up for judgment.
2. Watch it. Practice deliberating your thoughts from a nonjudgmental point of view. Trust me, it can take up to a year to finally succeed at this within a 24-hour timeframe, but keep on it. Some people call it meditation, but it’s really just being neutral.
Notice how often that feeling of being less than enough come and how immediately you reaffirm it in your head with a “I’m not good enough”. Distance yourself from it, and observe these word-to-action process (and vice versa) as if you’re watching a third person. Don’t judge the character, don’t criticize the character, just watch it as if it’s someone you’re watching from afar.
3. Challenge it. Let me guess – you start caring about this person, right? It’s someone else, it’s not you. You want to do something to help this person get herself back up, because then you’ll feel useful. Hold it there – this not about you. It’s about her. Why are you so self-centered? Why does it all end with you? You should just mind your own business rather than act all altruistic when you’re not.
Oh, shut it, you inner critic. I bet that thought pattern would come along somewhere along your practice. Don’t surrender to that voice just yet, because realize that what she’s saying to you hasn’t actually become a reality yet. Things can only become a reality if you swallow it and act it out. Next time, the moment this inner critic enters your mind, Immediately find something good about this person you’re helping. It can be anything – her hair, her smile, her shoes. Make this baby effort everyday. Eventually, the thought pattern won’t stop at your criticism – it would go from your gut instinct directly the person you’re reaching out to … and in this case, that person is you.
4. Don’t act on it. When you feel the urge to quit or when you can’t come up with something good about yourself that you like anymore, just hold still. Don’t bring yourself more into it and stress the fact that you can’t find something good about yourself anymore, and then you’re unworthy, and then you’re unlovable, and you’re hateful about it all … Just. hold. still. If you want to attack anyone at all, go use a punchbag or break some serious sweat to let off that steam.
5. Do it in fear. You know you should be doing the things that serve you well but you’re afraid because you might fail to make everything as perfect as you’d want them to be. What do you do? Get into the habit of making fear your friend. Don’t push it aside when it comes and think you need it completely gone in order to start getting what you need to get done get … well, done. It doesn’t have to be well-done, it just has to be done. So if fear wants to stay, let it stay. Let it sit beside you as you do all the things you have to do. Just remember: No matter how your work turns out to be, you are still entitled to your own opinion about yourself. Fear has a voice, but it’s never yours.
For me, it’s really hard to keep on choosing to do the things that serve me well because I still believe that ultimately, no matter what I do, I’m still next to a speck of dust. As I’ve learned from the deep hole I’ve been through, you really can’t function as a human being in this world if you disregard the things that are good for yourself. These are basic things such as your health, your home, your sense of belonging. So what I did was simple, but radical in every way: I shifted my service from me to someone far bigger than me, someone far bigger than all the Bills in the world, and that’s God. Life becomes so much easier to repurpose everything for God instead of for myself because I still can’t completely trust myself, and probably never will. I’m not always good, and I still don’t feel I deserve being treated well most of the time (my boyfriend suffers most on this), but God is good all the time, and that’s a good enough reason for you to feel good.
Now over to you: Have certain things in life caused you to lose confidence in yourself? What did you do to get yourself back up?