Episode 165: Mini Episode: Low Self-Esteem w/Dr. Guy Winch
Clinical psychologist Dr. Guy Winch shares some insights and tips on dealing with low self-esteem. Guy is the author or the book Emotional First Aid.
Welcome to episode 165. It’s a mini-episode with our returning guest Guy Winch and our topic is low self-esteem. Let’s get right to it.
I’m here with Guy Winch, who’s a PhD and has a book out called Emotional First Aid, and you have some great tools and tips for how to deal with common issues that people have. Let’s talk about low self-esteem.
G: Yes, well that’s an epidemic, really. And it’s an epidemic because it’s one of those things that the people who have higher self-esteem are very good at keeping it up and the people who have low self-esteem are even better at keeping it low. So, for example, research tells us that people with low self-esteem are actually really resistant to compliments—authentic ones. When their partners tell them something good—‘oh you were very considerate, it’s very nice the way you did this’—they bristle; it makes them uncomfortable. Because if their self-esteem is low, that seems to them that ‘oh, now there’s an expectation which I’m never going to meet so that just made me—now there’s pressure, I’d rather I didn’t hear that in the first place.’
P: Or they have an ulterior motive.
G: Oh yes, certainly, or ‘what do they want from me?’ The thing about low self-esteem is that it’s something we really have to look at as something that we really have to nourish. There’s research that shows—and in my book I call low self-esteem our “emotional immune system,” is what self-esteem is. And when our self-esteem is low, our emotional immune system is low. And when our self-esteem is high, we are more resilient when we encounter rejection, failure, anxiety, stress. Even in some studies, giving people small boosts to their self-esteem and then putting them through certain situations like that, they deal much better when you’ve given them a small boost to their self-esteem. So our self-esteem is like an emotional immune system. It’s like the armour that we wear to the battle of life. We want to strengthen that armour, and I really would urge people to think of their self-esteem like body armour that they wear to life. You would never want to poke holes in that armour, so whenever you have this internal dialogue in your head that’s negative and self-deprecating and self-critical and self-blaming, realize you are poking holes in your armour. As maybe it feels very real to you—maybe it is—you don’t need to play that reel in your head because you are weakening yourself unnecessarily.
P: Something I find myself doing, and the regular listeners know this, is putting myself down. And I was thinking about it this morning and I thought ‘you know, one of the reasons I think I do that is because I want to do it before you do it before you do it because it feels less shameful for me to get it out of the way before you can do it,’ and then I feel stupid.
G: If the other person were to do it?
G: And how do you feel when you do it? Less stupid?
P: Yes, and a kind of insincere way—and this is in hindsight—an insincere way of being quote-unquote “humble.” Which is kind of manipulative. I don’t see it as it being manipulative when I’m doing it, but the very act that I’m trying to duck my head down to not get criticized is manipulative.
G: Well, yes, but—
P: Am I being too hard on myself?
G: I think that’s too harsh, I really do, because who are you manipulating there? The other person, so they don’t criticize you? I mean, you’re not harming the other person. To me, manipulation is something that actually disadvantages or harms another person.
P: Oh, okay.
G: You’re not doing that, so I think it’s too harsh. But yes, no, I listen to your podcast regularly and I am aware of your um…
G: …habits. I’m saying that because I think it’s a good image to keep in mind, you know, and I understand in certain situations if you put it out there first then you won’t be vulnerable if the other person puts it out there. It works in that sense except that the price you pay is that the next time, you feel even more vulnerable because you’re reinforcing the message. So it’s a short-term gain, perhaps, of maybe you feel a little bit more resilient in the moment, you’re going to feel much less resilient the next day when you meet the next person. So it’s not a great gambit in that sense. And the other thing that’s the problem with doing that with a negative self-criticism is that it really reinforces that perception that, you know, it kind of is like cutting our legs out from under us when we’re trying to get somewhere. It doesn’t serve a purpose. Maybe that one, in some way, sometimes, but it doesn’t, you know, it’s not worthwhile in the long term.
P: It feels safe to me because I feel as if—and I know this is something I need to work on—it feels as if if I’m being too confident, I risk being cocky and opening myself up for being hurt, so it’s better to retreat back to this place where I know I’m not in danger of being full of grandiosity and self-delusion, but clearly I’m going too far on the other side. But it feels safe and it feels real to me and when I feel like I’ve overstepped my boundaries or whatever you want to call it where I’ve puffed myself up too much and somebody’s going to think ‘oh that guy’s kind of full of himself,’ I can literally feel a physical wave of shame and fear rise up through my body. It almost feels like my face is flushed.
G: Yes, and I’ve heard you say that before. Look, the thing is, a lot of the time it’s a false dichotomy. In other words, it’s not that the opposite of being self-deprecating is being arrogant. There is a very big range that those—there’s a big spectrum—those two things are on and there’s a big, there’s a lot of stations between self-deprecating until you get to arrogant. Number one. And you don’t need to hit arrogant, you can just go up a little bit from the self-deprecating and get to some kind of medium. Number one, but number two: the question is: if you’re trying to work on your self-esteem, can you allow yourself to err on the side of arrogance if it does happen? Can you have self-compassion and allow yourself to come off maybe sounding a little too full of yourself in the service of trying to work on your self-esteem? Can you forgive yourself for that if that does happen?
P: I suppose I could do that consciously because I am sometimes arrogant but unaware of it, and then beat myself up afterwards. Or maybe I’m just perceiving myself as arrogant, but I have been called arrogant many times in the past, mostly before I got sober, but I suppose that also—I would imagine most people who’ve been accused of being arrogant have incredibly low self-esteem and it’s a coping mechanism of trying to compensate.
G: Sometimes, but actually sometimes what it is is that people are used to them a certain way, and them hitting the normal range, which is not arrogant, seems to the other person like now they’re arrogant because they’re usually so self-effacing. So it could also be like a misjudgement on the other people’s part because they’re not used to seeing them actually just feel okay about themselves. So it could come off—I get, sometimes, people…once, I remember, when I was new to the city, and somebody said—I heard somebody say “well that guy’s really pompous” and I remember, I never exchanged even a word with that person. But they heard me speak, they heard I have an accent, and like “oh, his accent is very pompous.” Well I can’t control my accent! It is what it is, I’m not responsible for it, you know. But that was their perception. Well, what are you going to do? I can’t change that. I felt very upset by it; I felt judged and I felt embarrassed by it, but I was able to convince myself that ‘well, actually, there’s not much I can do about that one.’ So it…more them, you know, in some kind of way. But look, the self-compassion thing is very important when it comes to self-esteem, and we’re working on our self-esteem. You know, when you spoke about imperfection another time, then we said: if you’re trying to work on perfectionism you have to allow imperfections and even strive for them. And when you’re working on self-esteem you have to allow for mistakes and even strive for them. When you’re trying to correct something upwards you can’t just hit the gauge exactly where you want it to be, you might overshoot a couple of times. But look at it as a process in which you will find your equilibrium at the higher point and forgive those overshoots because, really, what’s the worst thing that can happen there? Somebody thought you were arrogant. So? So, really, so what? So are they that important? Is their opinion that important? Anyone who really knows you knows you’re not. Anyone who really knows you knows you’re working on these things. So somebody who doesn’t know you? Less important, what they think. You know, you have to reason that out and realize that when you’re working on something like self-esteem, any kind of correction is going to involve some mis-shoots and they have to be okay in the service of the larger goal.
P: And, you know, a thought that just occurred to me is it’s possible that I’m an un-arrogant person who has moments of arrogance, and that’s human.
G: Yes, I’d say that’s true. So all in all, you’re a good person. All in all—you know, and again, moments of arrogance, I want to define that even more specifically. The thing that you don’t like about arrogance, that most people don’t like about arrogance, is that it usually connotes to us some kind of attitude about other people in which we see other people as less worthy. That’s our association to arrogance, that if somebody’s arrogant, they think they’re better than other people. And in fact, that’s probably not something you think even in your moments of quote-unquote “arrogance.” I don’t think you’re someone—just from my listening—who thinks of himself, or thinks of others as less worthy than you. Even if you came across as arrogant, or felt it for a moment, it wouldn’t be with that caveat of ‘and other people are less worthy.’ So that’s the thing, that’s the ingredient about arrogance that most rubs us the wrong way and it’s probably going to be absent, even in your moment of arrogance.
P: And, you know, it just occurred to me that the person that called me arrogant that has stuck with me the most—although my mom used to call me arrogant all the time—was a club booker who I knew was fucking people that he was taking a 90% commission on these private gigs and giving the performer 10% of the money. And he asked me to do this ridiculous gig where it was like 3 in the morning, it was an after prom with drunk teenagers, you know, it was just the shittiest gig on paper for the shittiest money that you can imagine, and I didn’t cut it down, I just said “no,” you know, “I’m not interested.” And I heard back from him that he was saying I had an “arrogant little attitude.” And as I think back now I’m like ‘why was I blaming myself? This guy was a greedy dick.’ And I took the blame for it because he didn’t want to see his part in that. But I suppose it recalled some of that childhood hurt of having, you know, being called arrogant by my mom.
G: Right, and I think even with that, there’s probably other motivations that were present in the picture on your mom’s part rather than just actually being concerned that her child might be--
P: Oh yeah.
G: --a little too full of himself.
P: Oh yeah, there was definitely some other issue.
G: Yes, exactly. So the point is that that’s what most people are concerned about, ‘I don’t want to come across as arrogant.’ But really, it’s not…as cocky, but it doesn’t—that ingredient of that, of like, you know, seeing others in a lesser light doesn’t usually come into it so it’s actually not that bad a thing if you really think about it. And it’s a necessary evil. Again, you want to adjust upwards so you have to allow yourself permission to overshoot.
P: So what are some tips for people who deal with low self-esteem?
G: So look, one of the interesting things is one of the most popular techniques people use for self-esteem is positive affirmations. Right? You know the ‘I’m attractive’ and ‘I’m going to find great love’ and ‘I’m going to be a great success,’ and ‘I’m very worthy,’ and ‘every day will get better and better’ and, you know, and you see them in refrigerator magnets and on calendars and in the Chicken Soup books, and sometimes at the bottom of e-mails—which I find annoying—but still, the thing is that when we look at the research and say ‘okay, so there’s research done on positive affirmations. What does it tell us?’ It tells us that it really does help, but only one group of people. And the people that it really helps are people with high self-esteem.
G: And, unfortunately, people with low self-esteem: it makes them feel worse.
G: Yes, and that just find--we find that over and over again. And it’s just so ironic! And unfortunate! But that’s the case. Now why is that the case? Because, you know, the science of persuasion tells us that if a statement falls within our belief system we will accept it. But if it falls too outside our belief system we will reject it. And when you’re feeling really unattractive, and really unpopular, and really unloved, and you’re looking in the mirror and telling yourself that you’re really attractive, and you’re really popular, and you’re really loved, you’re not going to buy it. You’re actually going to reject it and remind yourself that that’s not how you feel.
P: Maybe even feel that you’re also sappy?
G: Well, or, yes, or that (unintelligible 14:08) whatever, but my point is: it’s the people that actually feel attractive, that when they look at the mirror and go “I’m attractive. Yeah, I kind of am attractive!” You know, they’re the ones who don’t need it, you know? And so that’s the irony of positive affirmations; the people who need them most are the people least likely to be helped by them, and actually more likely to be harmed by them.
P: Will they come to a point as their self-esteem increases where they begin to help?
G: Positive affirmations? Yes, but then how do you get there without them? So the thing is, there’s a different kind of affirmation that you should do and it’s not the generic positive affirmations. If it has to fall within your belief system, it has to be self-generated. So, for example, if you’re doing an affirmation—and they have to be domain-specific: are you going to affirm your value as a dating partner, or as a friend, or as an employee, or as a husband, or as a father? Whatever it is, I mean choose the domain in which you’re trying to boost your self-esteem. And here’s the exercise--
P: So get specific.
G: You have to be specific. So let’s say dating, just let’s choose that one. Make a list, as exhaustive as you can, of qualities you actually know you do have that you know are valuable in the dating sphere. So, for example, you know that you’re loyal, you know that you’re a good listener, you know that you’re very supportive, you know that you’re a great cook, for example. You know that you are very emotionally validating, you know that you’re really easygoing on vacations, you know….etc., etc. Make as exhaustive a list as you possibly can of things you know that actually are valuable in a dating—in a relationship arena. Choose one of them and write a brief essay—one to two paragraphs—about why that quality is important, how you’ve manifested it in the past, how you might manifest it in the future, and how it’s been found valuable—or might be found valuable by relationship partners. So two paragraphs of an essay. And do that once a day. Do that before you go out on your date.
P: Writing the same thing the second time or a different thing the second--?
G: Choose a different quality.
P: Oh okay, so pick something else.
G: Yes. And go through the list. People can, people usually say to me: “oh, I can’t think of anything,” and by the time we’re done they’ve thought of 25 things. So make a long list, you know.
P: Never predict how you think it’s going to be written out and whether or not you’ll be able to come up with something. Never.
G: Start with a list, you know. I mean and again I say to people “well are you loyal when you’re in relationships? “Yeah well I’m loyal.” “Well are you a good listener?” “Yeah, I’m kind of a good listener.” “Are you considerate on birthdays and those kinds of things?” “Yeah, I’m a…” “Are you a good gift-giver? Are you…” I mean you can just come up with so many of them. And then write one every day, you know, that is affirming an aspect of yourself that you won’t reject. It’s reminding yourself of what you’re bringing to the table.
P: I love that.
G: Real stuff.
P: Yeah. Your tips are so practical and make such perfect sense, and yet… I don’t know if I’m speaking for the listener, but for myself… I forget so many of these things, or they’ve never even occurred to me and I’ve been in therapy and support groups for 10 years. There is always so much to learn and on a certain level that’s depressing, and on a certain level it’s exciting.
G: Well look, part of the idea of writing a book—and this is why I wrote the book—is I really did think of it as a psychological medicine cabinet. The same way you have it in your medicine cabinet or your drawer, keep the book in your drawer. When you feel something happens, go to the book, look it up; you don’t have to memorize it, you know. The thing sometimes people say to me, and I want to warn listeners of this, is people will say to me about this self-affirmation exercise, they’ll say “I tried it, it didn’t work.” And I’ll say “well did you make the list, did you write out the essay?” “Well yeah, in my head.” And I’m like, alright… To me, that’s like saying ‘I was really hungry and I thought of all the food I had in my fridge and how I could make it but now I’m still hungry.’ Well, because you didn’t eat it! So actually, you know, the listing—making that list—is like preparing the food, and writing the essay is like eating the food. The writing is how we absorb the psychological message. You can’t do that in your head. You actually have to figure it out, process it in your brain, go from the thinking area to the writing areas of your brain. When you think about what’s involved, different areas of your brain are responsible for generating that list, for generating the memories, for generating the examples, for putting them down on paper. You’re activating all kinds of areas of your brain. It’s how you’re going to absorb that message: you must do the writing.
P: I’m so glad you said that. I’ve always been amazed by the illumination, and often the catharsis, of writing. Literally feeling my body change sometimes when I write things out, and feeling, often, a sense of peace and hope that wasn’t there five or ten minutes earlier.
G: Right. It’s a powerful tool and psychologically speaking, as you said, it’s one of the best ways we absorb psychological messages. And again, how long does it take to write a two paragraph essay? It’s ten minutes, it’s fifteen minutes? This is your self-esteem, this is your emotional immune system, the armour that you wear. And that’s the fifteen minutes.
P: What about the person whose self-esteem is so low they’re having trouble bringing themself to do that? Is there any tip for a self-esteem that—and just caught in that, you know, being frozen. Is that the really, kind of the most basic one? That they just need to will themselves to do that?
G: Well a) they should. But here’s something that might help them. So if you really have trouble bringing yourself to do it because you just can’t think of yourself in that way, you’re just feeling so bad you don’t want to think of yourself in a good way. Do this little trick: imagine that your friend was feeling really bad about themselves and you wanted to remind your friend of their value, of their worth. Make the list as if it’s about your friend. Write the essay as if you’re writing it about your friend. And when you’re finished, put it aside for twenty-four hours. And twenty-four hours later read it as if it’s about you. So separate the writing and the reading. Write it for a friend because most people, even when they’re feeling extraordinarily crappy about themselves, will go there for a friend, will be supportive for a friend, will make that effort for a friend. So do it as if for a friend. Put it aside, and then read it as if it’s about you—which it is.
P: What are some other tips for dealing with low self-esteem?
G: So I mentioned this issue of self-compassion. Self-compassion is a very, very important thing because the idea with self-compassion is that we do indeed exhibit much more compassion when our self-esteem is low to others than we do to ourselves. We have a wicked double standard when our self-esteem is low. Wicked. And we’re kind of aware of it, but it’s when we flesh it out that we are stunned by how much we are aware of it. We will say things to ourselves—and I sometimes say to people—and people will say that to me in a session, they’ll say “oh, and then when I, when the date doesn’t call me back, I go through that thing in my head where I tell myself I’m this, I’m this,” I have them write it out. And then I have them tell me who their best friend is, or if they have kids. And I would say “I want you to imagine reading that to your kid about that kid.” Would you say to your child “I’m a pathetic, pathetic loser idiot who no one would want to date dadadadadada,” and they’re horrified by that thought, of saying that to, certainly to a child, certainly to a friend. It seems the most cruel—they would never ever think of doing that. Well, then why would you do it to yourself, really?
P: I think because people think that they’re disciplining themselves, that it’s going to improve them. And it’s such a sick notion.
G: And I would love—when people say that to me I say “do explain to me how that works. I would love to hear, in what way that’s going to improve you.” “It’s going to keep me humble.” And I always say to them “humble? Not your problem. You don’t have a problem of being too arrogant.” I always go back to that, I’m like…and I always say to them, you know, as a therapist, I’ll say “if I hear you sounding too arrogant I promise you I will tell you to bring it down a notch.”
G: “Not my biggest fear when I think of you, of you being an asshole, dick, arrogant schmuck. Not what I worry about.”
P: You must be a great therapist. You have such a good sense of humour, and you’re so practical and easy to talk to. Your clients are very lucky.
G: Well thank you very much.
P: I was just testing you to see if you were going to deflect it with low self-esteem.
G: No, you see? I’m modelling what I’m preaching.
P: No, I did genuinely mean that.
G: Any other tips for low self-esteem?
P: I would start with those because that’s a project, low self-esteem. That’s not a quick fix. That’s something you work on, you really create awareness about in your own mind. You really have to work on that for yourself. And these things do work. In other words we know when—we have people do the self-affirmation exercise, we can measure their self-esteem right afterwards. We see it gives it a boost, we see that when we put them through a situation that’s anxiety-provoking they respond in a much more resilient way than they would. We know that self-compassion is very effective for people when they do those kinds of exercises of imagining what they would say to a friend and then saying that to themselves with that same kind of compassion. We know that really makes them feel better about themselves, it really makes them more resilient. So, again, to me the most important thing with self-esteem: think of it as your emotional immune system, as your armour. And think of it that you need to strengthen it. Do not pole holes in your armour.
P: And I would—I love that. And the other thing that I would add because it’s worked for me is support groups because they loved me until I could begin to love myself. And I do have to say I do love myself. I have moments and periods of backsliding where I can get into a funk, but I rise out of it on an almost daily basis and for the most part I live in a place where I do love myself. It’s the flashes of it that disturb me and have me backsliding, but it was a result of seeing how other people viewed me and beginning to, it beginning to sink in that they couldn’t possibly be lying to me on such a consistent basis, and seeing that love in their eyes, and feeling it through their actions. That’s what I’ve gotten from a support group, and it’s been, it’s been life-changing.
G: Yes, I’m all for support groups; they’re very important for that reason and others.
P: Guy Winch, thank you so much.
G: Thank you.
Love me some Guy Winch and from the feedback I’m getting from you guys, you love you some Guy too. I’m going to read three surveys and the first one—and they all have to do with low self-esteem—this first one is from the Shame and Secrets Survey filled out by a woman who calls herself That Girl Over There. She’s straight, in her twenties, raised in a slightly dysfunctional environment.
Ever been the victim of sexual abuse?: “Some stuff happened but I don’t know if it counts.” I thought this one was interesting because 99.9% of the ones that people check that box for, to us listeners it almost always is like ‘oh no, that’s clearly sexual abuse’ but this is one that I do have to say I don’t know if that counts; this one doesn’t sound like it to me. She writes: “when I was around thirteen or fourteen years old and visiting my father, I was sitting writing a letter to a friend of mine. Dad came in the room to say hi to me, I guess, and he started rubbing my shoulders and back unsolicited and ended up sort of grazing his fingers along my lower back and then he just left the room. I’ve never told anybody about this but it seriously creeped me out. I don’t recall any other instances of weirdness—I hope it’s just a matter of there not being any, not that I just can’t remember.” Um yeah, that um…I dunno, that’s uh…I’d be interested to know what you guys thought of that but it didn’t—I think it’s possible for something to, like a one time thing to kind of creep us out but for it to have been innocent on that other person’s part. If there was a pattern of it, I would say that “yeah,” uh…your feeling was probably right on. Anyway, she has been emotionally abused; she writes: “shitty boyfriend never pays compliments or acknowledges my physical appearance at all. Once I called him on saying things about other girls but not me and he said ‘but if I said things like that to you, you’d get self-esteem and leave me for someone else.’ I looked at him, horrified, and said it was the worst thing anyone’s ever said to me and told him ‘no’ when he asked if he could take it back. He makes excuses not to have sex so I’ve quit asking. I’m not some horrible, troll-looking person, I’m just an average girl and others find me attractive. It really hurts what confidence I might have had. He shrugs off my worries and anxieties and makes fun of me later for them.”
Any positive experiences with your abuser? “He can be really sweet and funny sometimes, which puts me on a never-ending see-saw of feelings about him.”
Darkest thoughts? “Minor suicide thoughts like ‘what would it be like to walk out in front of a car?’”
Darkest secrets? “All I can think of is maybe stealing things from work in the past and then the above thing with my dad.
Sexual fantasies most powerful to you? I don’t think that has anything to do with our topic.
What would you like to say to someone you haven’t been able to? “I would like to tell my boyfriend all the issues I have with him and our relationship and how selfish he is, and how he’s losing me because he’s basically a child in an adult’s body, that I’m sorry that your mother left you but I can’t be that for you and you need to learn how to take care of yourself.” Wow, that’s awesome.
What, if anything, do you wish for? “To be in a good place financially.”
Have you shared these things with others? “The things I’d like to say to my boyfriend—I’ve vented about them to friends before but to tell him would crush him, and even though he’s been mean to me on several occasions I have a hard time being mean to him.”
How do you feel after writing these things down? “About the same, really.”
Thank you for sharing that and I think the thing to look at in that relationship with him is ‘what do you, what do you have control over and what don’t you have control over?’ And the things that leap out to me are the work that you can do on yourself and the boundaries you can set ‘cause you can’t control whether or not somebody treats you like shit but you can control whether or not you stand there and take it, and whether you allow them to keep being in your…in your life. Hold on; swig of water! [drinks] But thank you for sharing that.
This is from the Shouldn’t Feel this Way survey filled out by a guy that calls himself D-Rokka…Rokka or Rakka. He is straight, in his twenties.
What would you like people to say about you at your funeral? “I would want people to say that I was a good person. I want them to say that I hard-working, respectful, wise, and talented.”
How does writing that make you feel? “It makes me feel like I am afraid to compliment myself and hesitant to acknowledge good traits in myself.”
If you had a time machine, how would you use it? “I wouldn’t use it; life is already complicated enough. I’m supposed to feel happy about life but I don’t. I feel anxious and depressed. My brain is constantly setting up problem scenarios for myself and it is exhausting.”
How does it make you feel to write that out? “Good.”
Do you think you’re abnormal for feeling what you do? “Not at all, I just don’t think that I’m very good at dealing with it.”
Would knowing that other people feel the same way make you feel better about yourself? “Yes.”
Thank you so much for sharing that, Rokka. Rokka, Rohka? Whatever you want to call yourself. Either way, it’s good.
And this last survey is from Shame and Secrets, filled out by a woman who calls herself Longshanks. She is straight, in her twenties, raised in a “pretty dysfunctional” environment, never been the victim of sexual abuse—“some stuff happened but I don’t know if it counts.” “When I was about fifteen or so—“ I don’t think that one is uh…some guy tried to feel her up at a football game in high school but she had a big, puffy coat on. “More recently, my step-father has started making sexual advances towards me.” Definitely sexual abuse; even if he never touched you, making an advance at a child—especially a child you’re a caregiver of—is clearly sexual abuse. “He says he will pay me to walk through the living room in a bra or to take a shower with him. I haven’t told anyone this, I just keep telling my boyfriend that I want to move out—“ I guess she still lives with her step-dad—“and he doesn’t understand the urgency. But my step-dad did this kind of thing when I was fourteen as well and has touched my breasts, so all I can do is try to avoid him—which is hard when I work with him and he is always the only person home.” Ugh, I’m…my heart goes out to you. That must be a prison.
Ever been physically or emotionally abused? “Been emotionally abused; a few people in my life have been this way with me and it makes it so hard to trust. The first person has been my dad. Through much of my life my parents would fight and use my sisters and me to get the fights to each other now that they have been divorced almost eight years.” Ugh, I fucking hate it when parents—divorced parents—use their kids as pawns. “While at the same time, my dad acts like nothing wrong and he loves me.” God, I’d love to hear somebody say to their kid ‘well you say you love me then why do you use me as a pawn to make mom feel bad?’ “It’s really bad when I moved out to live with my mom; he kept yelling at me how I was I was ‘only using him for his money like everyone else.' Fights like that make it hard to be around him now, even when he has calmed down more. The other was my ex-boyfriend. He was my first everything. When we were first intimate, I thought I would marry this man. Yeah, I was raised Catholic. Stupid me. But the week after we had sex he called me and dumped me over the phone. I didn’t have much interest in sex before, and after that it has been even harder even though I love my current boyfriend of three years very much.”
Any positive experiences with your abusers? “All my memories of my dad are when I as little. Sure, he wasn’t around since he was a workaholic, but he was great. Then he was my hero. Obviously it hurts compared with now. As I’m typing this, I’m just balling. So my feels are very complicated. I no longer speak with my ex.”
Darkest thoughts? “I drive a lot—to school, to work—and I think about crashing my car all the time. What it would feel like—“ Boy, the, there’s so many of us that have that fantasy about, you know, turning into the light pole or driving off the cliff. I would hate to see what our fantasy insurance rates would look like if we all acted on that…. That was so not worth stopping to inject. I want to take that back. Um… “--what would it feel like to just smash my car into the median in the road. I also think about just getting the balls to end all the pain I feel. I could never do it, but I think of what people would do if I was dead. Who would care the most? That my boyfriend would be the only one who would notice because I wouldn’t be in bed when he came home. I feel terrible thinking about that. When I started counselling, I was very specific about how I never thought about killing myself, yet here I am doing it all the time after being away from counselling for over winter break.” Well you know what I’m going to say about that: get back to fucking counselling.
Darkest secrets? “I mentioned above about my step-dad saying he would pay me for sexual things. Recently, I did flash my tits to him for the money in his pocket. I haven’t told anyone I did that for only twenty-one dollars, and having been raised Catholic, and just believing in being true to the person you are with, I just think of what a slut I am.” That has nothing to do with slutty or not slutty, this is about low self-esteem and thinking that…you know, that that’s how, that it’s okay for somebody to treat you that way, and that it’s okay for you to treat yourself that way. “I betrayed my boyfriend for nothing while living with him and my step-dad in the same house. My mom has no clue either—she’d hate me if she ever knew. Sexual fantasies, I don’t think we need to go into sexual fantasies.
What, if anything, would you like to say to someone you haven’t been able to? “Treat me like I am a person. I think so much about making other people happy but no one thinks about how their choices affect other people. I love you, but do you love anyone enough to consider them?”
What, if anything, do you wish for? “I wish I could control my emotions. If I have to cry, I can’t hold it in. If I’m angry, I have to let it out. I can’t be the adult I want to be if I can’t even control my body. It’s more like living in a trap than a human body.” You know, I think if you found some people, a network of support, that talked about emotional stuff then you could find a place to let those feelings out and then they wouldn’t come out in front of people who can’t handle it.
Have you shared these things with others? “I shared a little with my counsellor but not to that level. I go to a school student counsellor and it’s a different person every semester so we weren’t able to get that deep. I was just afraid to open up at first and I didn’t want her to think I was so messed up that no one could help me.” I don’t think any therapist or counsellor is ever going to say ‘this person is so messed up that nobody could help them,’ and I encourage you, in that first session, to let it all hang out. Maybe bring this survey in. Print it out, bring it in, and just read the whole thing to them.
How do you feel after writing this down? “I just feel so sad. I just can’t stop crying as I look at it and think how sad all these things sound.”
Anything you’d like to share with someone who shares your thoughts or experiences? “Try to take everything one day at a time. If you can’t get through one day—if you can get through one day, you can get through one more.” Well, that’s so true. That’s so true. And I hope you can get to a place where you can love yourself as much as, you know, I hope you can feel the positive feelings for yourself that we feel from reading that survey about you. ‘Cause I think everybody probably feels, like me, that they’re touched by your honesty and your vulnerability, in that survey. And I just want to send you a hug.
And I want to end it with doing the thing that Guy suggested. As I was editing this episode together I thought ‘well why don’t I try writing down the qualities that I have as a friend?’ And as uncomfortable as it is to read it out loud, I’m going to do it. Qualities I have as a friend: I’m compassionate, I give good hugs, I have a good sense of when they want me to just listen and not give advice. I can help them to laugh when they need it. I readily share my flaws, shames, and mistakes. If I feel it, I tell them that I love them—in other words if it’s a person that I love. I’m good at diplomatically setting or enforcing boundaries without shaming them. I am good at finding honest ways to compliment them. I don’t bullshit them. I don’t make it all about me. I don’t tolerate them making it all about them. I’m good at finding honest ways to help them understand an opposing viewpoint. And, finally, I’m good at looking into their eyes and letting them know I see, hear, and feel them. That wasn’t as uncomfortable as I thought it was gonna be. Wow! I thought right now I’d be throwing up into a bucket, and I’m not. Anyway, I hope you guys enjoyed this episode; I know I got a lot out of all the stuff that Guy has suggested, but especially this one about low self-esteem. I think it’s a really important topic for all of us, and um….glad you guys are here doing this thing with me. It’s nice; it’s nice to not have to do it alone—and I hope you know you’re not alone, and thanks for listening.