When I was a little kid I was convinced I was the ugliest girl in the world. To come up with an animal to represent this overblown insecurity issue, I imagined the closest thing to a modern-day monster—an alligator. I dressed her in something I could have worn as a child, and placed her in school, where my self-loathing was most strongly felt. In life I eventually grew out of my certainty that my looks were hideous, but this painting is about being insecure in general—about a strong, false self-perception.
The images behind her on the chalkboard are reminders that, even when I feel bad about myself, forces of power (Wonder Woman) and protection (Our Lady of Guadelupe) are at work. Even when I was sure no one in the world was as hideous as me, I was surrounded by encouragement through experiences, people, and my surroundings. This strength and inspiration seemed to emanate from everyday life, but in retrospect the effects were as magical as if Wonder Woman and Our Lady were really involved.
There is another interpretation of the two women on the chalkboard. In a way, their influence may have contributed to my bad opinion of myself. Through my construal of societal expectations, I determined that I must aspire to be a super woman, able to do everything better than normal. I was pretty sure I could never be as beautiful, sexy, strong, honorable, smart, and sparkly as Wonder Woman, and indeed no one could. And then I had the impossible standards of the saintly and loving image of the Virgin herself to live up to. The two images inspired and taunted me at the same time.
To combat my insecurity as I aged, my well-worn mechanism was to push harder and aim higher, all to change myself for the “better.” If I could just be more than I was I wouldn’t have to feel so bad. I saw it as well-developed ambition, but I really wanted out of my own skin. I wanted to be prettier, skinnier, smarter, saner, and harder-working, a sign that I was subtly telling myself I was stupid, crazy, lazy, ugly, and fat. Underneath all these surface labels was one concept. Shame.
Perhaps no one gets out of childhood without some of it, and surely we act it out in different ways. For me, I took the achiever role as my way of working out of it. My attempts at self-improvement were so constant and accepted as the correct path that I didn’t recognize shame at all. I just felt a constant need to be busy with, well, anything. I had a long list of ways to change everything in my life to make it better, and the list would always stay long no matter how much I checked off. It was a never-ending effort to be Wonder Woman and Virgin Mary.
Ultimately, low self-esteem and shame are overcome by finding ways to esteem oneself. I’ve found the best remedy is to surround myself with people who respect themselves and others. I learn by example and by being loved. When I am around people who like me even with my long list of shortcomings, I see myself as likable, period. This potent and unarguable notion has been the cornerstone of change in my life, and if it weren’t so darn simple I could go on and on about it. But there it is.
I also try to partake in activities that nourish me and lessen those behaviors that perpetuate an unhealthy self-concept. This also sounds outrageously obvious, but many people much wiser than me have said it so many times that it must need emphasis. If I want to be uplifted, I must find good balance in my life and stay away from downer people and situations.
Right friends and right actions may be obvious healers of low self-confidence, but I don’t tend to choose the best people and situations until I learn how. I have been convinced I was choosing supportive people and undertaking enriching activities only to find out as time passes I‘d once again gotten myself into an unwholesome situation. It would uncannily resemble, at least in spirit, the very thing I was trying to move away from. It aroused in me the same unsettling emotions I’d been used to, and felt like a carousel that wouldn’t let me off. That’s because I was attracted to what I was comfortable with, and what I was comfortable with was unexamined.
The fields of psychology and religion hold principles that, in tandem, offer a way off the merry-go-round. To shake loose the stuck perspective of self-hatred that keeps repeating itself, I take from psychology the idea of becoming aware of my past. My formative years brought about the warped perception in the first place. The acknowledgment of the origins of my shame opens the door to transformation.
From religion I take the notion that I am not alone, and that there is a miraculous, mysterious, and boundless supply of options that I can’t access with the limited thinking and lack of trust that shame begets. Making efforts toward imagining Possibility shows me how to walk through the door that psychology helped open.
As I come to terms with the past and start believing life has good things in store for me I start choosing more evolved people and situations with which to engage. It takes courage to try yet another friendship or career-move when the previous ones embodied the same confidence-shattering ugliness I’d grown used to. But if I’ve changed from the inside I’ll be surprised when I find that my new choices are actually quite good.
It was so thrilling when I first started making choices that were good for me. Being around people who don’t deal in shame enriched my self-concept, and partaking in actions that didn’t drain me fortified the idea that I actually like doing nice things for myself.
That unending self-improvement list of mine doesn’t exist any more. I do stuff, but it now feels like I have a long list of fun things I’d like to do and a few obligations that seem very manageable. Most of my activities feel like another way of being creative. Even my paintings, which could seem like an attempt at changing myself, are a way of exploring and learning to love (or at least accept) the different aspects of myself. And now instead of yearning for the perfection of Wonder Woman and Mary, I admire the regular people I meet who are comfortable in their own shoes. And guess what? Alligators are adaptable, strong, and just plain amazing.