Spoiler Alert: I suffer from crippling social anxiety and self-esteem issues.
I am not unique in this regard; many others share this same affliction. Because of these negative beliefs, I have placed limitations on myself. That’s where the phrase “limiting beliefs” comes from: we literally limit ourselves with our own minds!
To reach our fullest potential, we must accept that we hold these false beliefs, recognize their source(s), and use mindfulness to address them. This is something I’ve been working on for a while now – keep reading for my personal experience and advice to anyone who has struggled like me.
A Target for Bullies – My Personal Experience
Like all children, I did not become self-aware until I reached a certain age (around the time I entered middle school). That’s not to say that I did not know I was a person or that I existed in the universe, just that I never really thought about me as a concept. It didn’t occur to me to care about what other people thought of me, what I thought about myself, or who I was on a deeper level. But when my classmates’ opinions started to matter, I began to experience what I now recognize as shame.
From a young age, I was praised by authority figures for my talents. Teachers liked that I was well-mannered, worked hard on my assignments, and was kind to the other children. My parents were happy with me when I behaved well and unhappy with me when I did not. I saw certain qualities rewarded in myself and those around me: being clean, well-dressed, and "pretty" or “handsome;” being polite and kind; being intelligent and well-spoken; and being talented or gifted in some way. Many of us strived to meet these ideals, while others fiercely rebelled against them,
Along the course of adolescence, it became apparent that some of my classmates were better at these things than were some others (in various aspects and to varying degrees).
Cue the jealousy.
While I basked in the glory of winning praise, competitions, or good grades for my smarts or other talents, these same qualities were not often appreciated by my peers – a phenomenon with which anyone with talents, gifts, or privileges (read: that’s everyone) is familiar.
I was the target of mild bullying in middle school (weren't we all?) which escalated to severe while I was in high school. The first time I remember a peer commenting on my looks was in 5th grade; a boy asked me why I only talk and sing out of one side of my mouth. I never even realized that I did so, that I have muscular asymmetry on my face, before that moment.
I felt like a freak.
In middle school, my long, sloping, prominent nose (the Crawford family nose, I’ll have you know!) was an easy target: a group of girls literally called me “Nose.” Kudos to them for creativity! I always thought my nose was fine before then.
Another nickname I got was “Knees” for my admittedly knobby leg joints. To be fair, I never felt offended by that one because it was given to me lovingly by friends; regardless, I still hate my knees to this day because of it.
In high school, the bullying reached a new level in terms of severity and became more generalized rather than specific to a certain feature or body part. At the time, I did not understand why I was targeted, but my mom swore that it was sparked purely by jealousy.
Though I realize now that this was probably the case, it was no consolation at the time: whatever the reason for my torment, it was nearly intolerable.
In 9th grade, I, along with a group of fabulous back-up dancers and tumblers, won the school talent show for an act we created entirely ourselves and had rehearsed diligently. I sang and we all acted and danced while a few did some handsprings. It was epic, if I do say so myself (shout out to my girls if you're reading this!).
The talent show was judged by a panel of staff members, and many of our peers did not agree that we were the best act (or at least they preferred their own friends had taken 1st place). For weeks afterward, I was harassed by a mass of angry audience members who were hell-bent on expressing their disagreement with the decision.
I was terrified.
The irony is that I was close friends with all members of the groups who earned 2nd and 3rd place in the show. We sang in chorus together and were each other’s biggest cheerleaders; I had even helped them practice their talent show routines, filling in for absent members!
That was a one-time event that eventually blew over, but it was not the end of my troubles.
There was a group of girls who mercilessly tortured me nearly every day throughout high school. Their abuse was always more mental/emotional than physical, although I was shoved a handful of times. For instance, once they mutilated the cat that my lab partner and I were dissecting for anatomy. They snuck in the room while it was empty and cut out its eyes and tongue for me to find the next period.
I was horrified and afraid – it seemed like a threat.
Another time, in that same class, they took the aqueous humor (eyeball fluid) from the sheep’s eye we were dissecting and put it in my backpack. If you are familiar with formaldehyde used on cadavers, then you know that stuff stinks to high heaven. It took weeks to clean out completely.
Once in the school parking lot, to keep me from leaving, they formed a human blockade behind my car. When, worried about what they might do next, I attempted to navigate around them, they rushed to the administrative office to report that I tried running them over.
They threw papers at me, hurled insults in the hallways, and otherwise did whatever they could to make me feel small and attacked.
Each day before school, I awoke with a sense of dread and depression. I knew I’d have to get up, get dressed, and go to my personal hell – high school.
I wept and begged my mom to let me change schools. She researched countless options for me, but they were all heartbreaking; we both knew it would mean giving up all the things I loved about my alma mater – my heritage there (3 generations strong), my amazing chorus group and director, and my spot on the best cheerleading squad in the county (go Red Devils!).
In the end, we decided that I should focus on my studies and get enough college credits to finish high school early. A lot of people know that I skipped 11th grade, but most people don’t know why.
I gave up being valedictorian of my class, I gave up graduating with the class I’d been with since kindergarten, just to escape the merciless bullying.
Many people don’t understand why a child or teen would take their own life over bullying, but I do. I could’ve been a part of that statistic, easily.
What does all that have to do with self-esteem?
It’s nearly impossible to face that level of scrutiny and abuse without acquiring some unhealthy beliefs about yourself. Even though I had been taught that I was intelligent, talented, and kind, I made myself small to escape the pain and humiliation of public critique. I shrunk myself and my gifts to avoid naysayers and haters. I’m only now learning how to address these issues in myself and it’s a battle I fight daily. Here is what my personal self-esteem issues have looked like over the years:
Late Teens - Early 20s
My late teens and early 20s were the height of my self-esteem, anxiety, and depression issues. I struggled to attend my classes and took little confidence in my work. I participated in destructive behaviors like excessive partying and drinking. I made poor romantic relationship choices, developed some unhealthy friendships, and caused significant stress for my loved ones.
My caring and devoted family and friends were concerned and distraught over my mental state and my behavior. It is so hard to watch a loved one struggle and not know how to help. It pains me to know that I caused this anguish for my loved ones.
During this time, I also encountered periods of intense motivation to work and improve myself to make up for my perceived failures and various shortcomings. I would set out to accomplish a goal, work diligently until I attained success, and then found that the happiness I attained was only fleeting. I'd go right back to my destructive ways.
Though I had plentiful gifts and a bounty of love in my life, I was in pain and I was hurting myself.
I’ve grown a lot since then, learning some significant (and difficult) lessons along the way. I’ve hurt people with my actions, disappointed others (and myself), and ultimately grown to accept a past that I know I cannot change. Now I work to move forward as best as I can: when you know better, you do better.
Just because I’ve grown doesn’t mean I’m cured. I understand my self-esteem struggles to be a lifelong battle, perhaps my most important hurdle.
Today, when I feel embarrassed by my looks, I may hesitate to wear certain clothes or avoid going out at all because I think everything looks awful on me. I might avoid sharing photos or videos of myself for fear that others will notice my flaws. I sometimes:
Avoid wearing bathing suits in public
Avoid certain camera angles or lighting
Feel embarrassed when eyes are on me (like when I’m teaching yoga!)
Obsess over how an Instagram or Facebook photo will be received by my followers
And so on...
It's not just my looks I fret over. When I’m lacking confidence in my abilities, I get anxiety at the thought of teaching new yoga students. I get clammy, dry-mouthed, and nauseated at the thought of public speaking (my #1 fear). I am, at times, afraid of trying new things or taking my passions to the next level for fear of failure. I might back down at a work meeting, even when I know I’m right (or, worse still, start to doubt that I’m right at all!). It also took me about 2 weeks to write this simple blog post because I was anxious about how it might be received by my followers.
Insecurity is something that I have to deal with in nearly every aspect of my life.
You Might Be Like Me
We all have stories like these, and certainly some would cause mine to pale in comparison. Some of us have been abused emotionally or physically by parents, caretakers, and significant others. Some have been told they are worthless, stupid, nothing. Some have been neglected and ignored to the point of not seeing their own value. Some have been publicly scrutinized and ridiculed in print or on TV or social media.
Just because you hear a voice in your head doesn’t mean it is right. If it’s telling you something negative about yourself, that is NOT your voice, and you are free to shut it up any ol’ time.
Here are the words we should all listen to instead:
You do matter. Your gifts are real and powerful. You owe it yourself and to the world to grow, expand, and shine for all of us. Don’t dim yourself for anyone or anything! Let us bask in the glow of your amazing talents.
But, like, how?
I call it moving from self-conscious to conscious of self.
When we are self-conscious, we only think of ourselves and how we are being perceived by others. We worry that we are not good-looking enough, smart enough, or talented enough. We worry that our imperfections will be obvious to anyone in our presence, so we hide away, dulling ourselves and keeping our gifts from the world.
When instead we become conscious of ourselves, we use mindfulness to watch these patterns play out. We see the fear, worry, and self-consciousness (see above) creep in. We see how these negative thoughts about ourselves only serve to limit us. We watch how it feels to be held back because of our limiting beliefs.
And, with practice, we place our anxiety aside to achieve what we want to achieve, haters be damned.
Look, there will always be naysayers. There will always be people who want to drag us under when we’re on top and want to kick us when we’re down. It’s important for us to keep in mind that these people, the ones who hurt us and seem to enjoy it, are usually sick people, unaware of their own issues.
Are we really going to base our own sense of self-worth on what someone who is ill believes about us? Do the girls I described above sound like they were emotionally well, or is it more likely that they were playing out their own fears, insecurities, or other pain? With time, we can have compassion for those who tear others (including ourselves) down, but that does not mean we actually believe their words. Instead, we choose not to identify with them.
We believe in ourselves, in our goodness, not because we are perfect, but because we know we will learn and grow from our mistakes and shortcomings.
We quiet down, look into our hearts, and see the inherent value there, After all, you know yourself better than anyone else – you’re the foremost expert on YOU, so forget what anyone else says!
You might be thinking, “That’s all well and good, Michelle, but I feel bad about myself all on my own, without any input from anyone else.”
And to you, dear friend, I ask: have you ever seen a baby become embarrassed? They have absolutely no shame – I mean, they will literally shit themselves. smile about it, and laugh while you clean it up. And we adore them all anyway!
What I mean is, we are all born with inherent value and without shame, then we just get mixed up along the way. We lose the connection to our deeper self. We lose confidence about our place in the world.
Without mindfulness, we will never recognize all the ways that we have been shaped by our culture, friends, family, education, and experiences. Once we see the causes and the patterns, we can address the root issues and stop the low self-esteem loop.
Just like we acquired some unhealthy beliefs throughout our lives, we can get ourselves a brand new set of healthy ones today!
We must start from a place of understanding that, though imperfect, we are good to the core, we are enough, and we can make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. Simply believing we are good and capable provides us with the confidence necessary to begin doing just that: making important, significant, and lasting changes.
Make up your mind, right now, that you’re going to start walking a new path. That you’re going to start using mindfulness to probe your fears and anxieties.
In every situation wherein you feel timid or unsure, ask yourself “What are you so afraid of?” I guarantee you’ll find there is not much there to fear. Yes, there will be leftover pain, regret, and lessons from your past, but you do not have to let your past define you any longer.
The world is yours to bless with your gifts, your talents, your incredible beauty. Please don't keep us waiting.
"When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out.
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me.
Look out 'cause here I come
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum.
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me."
This Is Me, Keala Settle, (2017)