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Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Self-Esteem Built On Shifting Sand

This is a TMI post. For the most part, it's about how I failed myself. In some ways, it's about depression, or maybe it's just about growing old and growing up.

I'm staring down the barrel at thirty (my birthday is August 16th *ahem*) with an unusual amount of terror. Really, thirty shouldn't be a big deal. With current medical trends and my lifestyle choices I should live to 90, if not a few decades longer. I don't think it's the birthday that matters, it's what being thirty signifies. Being thirty means I am no longer the youngest person in the room, and that's always been something that defined me.

Ever since I can remember there were three things that made me special: I was smarter than other people, I was skinnier than other people, and I was younger than other people.

Those three things defined me. That's what gave me a sense of self-worth. These were things I was praised for by everyone. Which is - actually - terrible. Parents, teachers, and friends all praised me for things that were out of my control.

I was the smartest kid in my class for years, until I hit college and found I was pretty average. I wasn't the one who cried if she didn't get 100% on a test. I haven't rewritten any theories or changed the world. I have friends who have, but I'm not as smart as they are.

I was skinnier than everyone back when I could afford a juice box and a sandwich a day. Now that I can buy groceries, eat three meals, and have four kids? I'm fat. In fact, I'm so fat and pathetic that I'm going to go grab a piece of cake to eat while I play at my computer and write this post. Because it sounds yummy. And I might go for a run or do yoga later, but I won't promise anything.

I was the youngest, because my parents sent me to school early. I was "gifted" a term that's come to mean "my parents drilled me with flashcards at age two". But, youth was my gimmick. I remember a university professor praising my essay to the class. "The best grade on this essay came from a freshman!" he told a class full of seniors... and me. I'd tested out of all the other liberal arts classes and snuck in to the senior's class on mythology (I loved it!). Looking back I wonder why the professor didn't say anything about my research, the points I made, or the language I used to convey my ideas. I guess that wasn't as important as the fact that I'd just turned 18.

For twenty-odd years being the youngest, smartest, and skinniest was enough to make me a Speshul Snowflake. And at twenty-three, just after the birth of my second child, it sent me spiraling down into hardcore depression. A recent graduate, I no longer had grades to tell me how special and smart I was. After sixteen years of being taught that I was as important as my grades, I was drowning in self-doubt. Graduating nearly killed me, literally.

Part of it was no doubt postpartum depression, but most of my depression came from failing to be the smartest, skinniest, and youngest. What I'd pinned my self-worth on was a recipe for depression.

I can't stop aging. There is no way I can be the youngest forever. I outgrew it a decade ago. I can't be smarter than everyone else. I can be smart, and I think I am a very intelligent person, but by basing my self-worth on someone else's achievements I set myself up for failure. I'm going to gain weight. Weighing 90 pounds at age 30 wouldn't be healthy. Still, there's this image of Twiggy-like person in my mind and I think I should look like that. I found her in my photo album, she's me, age ten.

I'm turning thirty in a few weeks, plagued by random bouts of depression, and my best friend told me to make a list of five things that make me special. Five little things that I like about myself, or that I do well, or that make me ME. I failed. Miserably.

My self-worth has always been based on being more -ER than someone else: younger, smarter, skinnier. It's always been a competition. I created my self-image out of shifting sand, trying to capture something ephemeral.

I am thirty (soon) and I don't know who I am.

I'm not fishing for compliments, but I'd like some advice. How do you define yourself? What makes you special, and how do you figure that out?


  1. You're going through what I did a year ago. Your friend was pretty much on the money - you have to define yourself by yourself. Everyone has a label for you - daughter, wife, mother - and yes, you are, but you're also YOU.

    Making comparisons is easy, but it's also too easily a way to bring yourself down. There's always going to be someone "-er" than you. That's life. But, to quote my boy, "don't look to others but concentrate on what you want".

    You've identified the problem. Now you're on a journey to rediscover yourself. You know who you are as daughter, wife and mother. Now you have to learn to be Liana.

  2. Sit down to make the list again and this time, forget about your physicality. Do you value your intelligence? There's one. Do you value your ability to write good stories? There's two. Keep in that vein and you'll find out your worth is more than you might think. I bet you make it past a list of five too=)

    I recently had the same problem. I turned 31 earlier this year, and had to reevaluate my own worth. I used to be skinny and the weight gain of two kids and birth control has had a major effect on my self-esteem. Learning not to worry about who you were THEN is a huge hurdle, but one worth leaping. Once you do that, you'll be happier and healthier.

  3. If you have to compete, compete against yourself. A person has so many things they can control that they can work on: their personal honor, self-control, how they treat others, the effort the put into their goals that another person for comparison isn't really necessary.

    In defining yourself, were you perhaps stymied by looking for unique things? That is to say there are plenty of things that you maybe like, are positive, or define you that aren't unique, but if they are positive things and things you otherwise like, does it really matter?

  4. I went through something like you did when I turned 34, but for different reasons and I also suffer from severe depression, among other really fun things (not).

    I try to define myself by what I contribute rather than by what my past looks like. I can't go back and become what I was anymore or go back and fix it. I surround myself with things that remind me of what I'm good at now, where I am now in a positive way. I adore my son and being a good mom is one of the ways I identify myself, so I have things he made me in school and little things that remind me I'm his mom mixed in with my books. I know if I was 400 lbs. and bankrupt, my family would still love me, so I identify myself as a loved daughter and sister and keep in touch with my family often to nurture those bonds.

    I guess those are just examples - I pick things that don't involve physical judgment or something you can measure on a scale. If we all used those as a way of identifying ourselves, even the most perfect people would fall short.

  5. It's interesting to me that you have analyzed this so thoroughly and completely. Most people who are going through these kinds of change of life crises cannot itemize exactly why they are anxious or depressed but you did. I am amazed by this. Sounds like you are also going through some grief-- grieving the loss of your youth, your (perceived) beauty, and your contribution to society (again perceived because being a mom is a huge contribution that never feels important when you're in the middle of it). I went through this once and what helped me was talking to a grief counselor. I didn't realize I was grieving for a loss (not death of a loved one but other kinds of loss) until she pointed it out to me. She told me I needed to go through the stages of grief to heal and get out of it, and it worked!

  6. Liana, in the short time I've known you, I've found you are a) funny, b) spiritual, c) a great mom, d) a great writer, e) intelligent, f) hard-working, and g) disciplined, h) loving, i) tolerant, j) open-minded . . . and the only reason I can't keep going is because I literally have to start again @ the beginning of the alphabet to remember the letters. And if you think I'm kidding, well, may it raise your self-esteem right there. :-)

    I'm 32(!), about 70 lbs overweight (can't even use having kids as an excuse), graduated summa cum laude, and am still trying to start a new career. I have two main points I'd like to make: 1) if you're suffering from depression (seriously) consider therapy, medication, or alternate means of treatment. I don't say this as an insult. I say it b/c depression an illness, and there are remedies. So that's number one.

    Number two is that I agree with what some of the comments here seem to be saying: I think you're asking the wrong question. It's not what makes you special, or more "--er." You are special and unique because there is only one you, PERIOD. Comparing yourself to others is a loser's game. Focus on what makes you HAPPY. Writing, your husband, your kids, LDS, whatver. By being engaged in activities you enjoy, your sense of fulfillment will increase, and your doubts will likely fade away.

    Did you notice I switched to numbers (1 and 2) halfway through the comment? Yeah, I still have problems w/the alphabet. Your second self-esteem raiser right there. *examines fingernails*

    You're welcome ;-)

  7. I think it's great you can lay everything out and pinpoint why you are feeling what you are feeling. I hope you can take your knowledge and start on a path to rediscovering who you are and what you value about yourself. Perhaps a lot of prayer? Sometimes I've found the only worth I can see in myself is in how others feel about and value me. Sometimes that's enough to get me through. I know you have many surrounding you. *HUGS*

  8. I don't have any words of wisdom for you, Liana, because I'm struggling with the same thing right now. I can only say that I've seen a strong, faithful, intelligent woman presenting herself very well in all of the dealings I've had with you. I can see a wonderful, compassionate mother who is a fierce defender of her children. I see a woman with a gift for spinning words and creating interesting characters and stories.

    You've analyzed what's making you depressed. I can't even do that. You've set yourself on a path to set your own definition of you. You're moving forward instead of sitting still.

  9. I hit this point at 38, staring at the approach of 40 like looking down the barrel of a gun. I can't tell you what's going to take to make you feel better. I only know what I did. I realized that the only person who could really change how I felt and who would truly define who and what I was...was me. So I got myself fitter. I sat down and finished a book. I threw myself and my work out into the internet. I got a tattoo. I went out and lived. I stopped being just 'mum' and 'wife'. I went hunting for Pippa, and I found her. I stoppped wasting opportunities and being afraid of jumping. My mum died at 43 with a hundred dreams never fulfilled. I don't want that to happen to me. But the only person who can make that change is YOU. There will always be someone more -ER than you. So? It doesn't define YOU unless you let it. Rewrite your definition. Ignore the rest.

  10. Lots of good points already made so I'm going to add in this. Look at fashion throughout the decades. Each decade had it's own idea of the "perfect" model. You grew up during the decades where thin models are revered as the perfect form. I was born just after the decade where full-figured women were the desired models.

    Physical standards vary. What you consider overweight might not be that by your husband's standards or by the medical community. I know people who freak out at being ten pounds over their "ideal" weight.

    What really matters is the person inside the form. Are you the person you want to be? Whether or not you compare yourself to other people, you have to compare yourself to what you consider the "best person".

    So, make your list again. This time write down what you consider the qualities of the best a person can be and see if you match up. Considerate of others? Check, keep up the good work. Patient all the time? No, keep working at it. And continue, adding more qualities as you think of them.

    I also went through my own upheaval in my thirties, although I had a different trigger for it. From what I hear, the thirties and forties are the time for people to re-evaluate themselves and actually discover who they are. Despite a lot of people using the years right after high school to travel and "find themselves", most people don't really try to define themselves until they hit their thirties and forties.

    You have a couple of advantages that can work for you. The first you've already used, you've analyzed how and why you feel this way. The second comes from your writing, look at yourself as a character in a book and describe yourself. How would you plan this character's journey of self-improvement? Can you do this in your own life?

    It comes down to three things: 1) what you want to change, 2) how you plan to change it, and 3) who you want to be.

    It'll take time. The best things always do. Remember to encourage yourself and don't get upset when you seem to backslide. As long as you keep moving forward a few steps back don't hurt.

    We can tell you how we all dealt with defining ourselves but in the end it is your journey and you have to forge your own path.

    1. Oh yes, I forgot the most important statement I wanted to make: Age is relevant to your point of reference...

      on Pluto you aren't even a year old yet!

  11. The concept of size and body image in our society is highly distorted. If you still jog I suspect your perception of self in that area is way off. Don't fall for the skinny hype. There are zillions of people who reject the artificial concept of so-called beauty that is shoved down our throats by corporations trying to create a market for us to buy things. Your real beauty comes from a myriad of other sources and is indeed truly special.

    30 is just another number and a very arbitrary one at that. The number of rotations of a planetoid around a star. Getting older may not feel like much fun but at least it means you're still around. My advice would be to forget about such irrelevant nonsense and try to keep your mind on the stuff that really matters, like enjoying yourself, going after your dreams and being a good person.

    Happy birthday!

  12. I passed 30 like 9 years ago, and am just starting to regret it :) I hear a lot of "-est" going on in your statements..."young-est," "smart-est." Perhaps it's a tendency toward comparison that is plaguing you? As those around me are so fond of telling me, you're still quite young. Really. That whole trauma about turning 30 is a societal thing, and very arbitrary. You're obviously quite intelligent, as well. There will always be, however, someone out there who is more of any quality that you can name. Also, there will always be those who are less. We're not on a tier or hierarchy, we're all just human with different gifts, and thus, by definition, finite beings. Love and accept who you are, and that gives you room to do many other things, as well. Michelle referenced prayer, and I do think that faith has much to do with what I've said. It's what enabled to survive things like turning 30-ish. :)

    Be well.

  13. I have a ridiculously high IQ. My mother had a masters in radio physics and applied engineering. My father has two doctor degrees in applied mathematics and nuclear physics. Before I turned sixteen, I've won enough science Olympics to give Dexter (from the cartoon) a run for his money. I went to college at seventeen. I tested out of high school's senior year - they had no credits to give me. Every person who knew me expected me to become an extraordinary scientist.

    I'm a college drop-out, who sits at home and makes up stuff for a living. I'm happy.

    Here is what you do: stop looking in the mirror, keep doing what you love and try to do more of it, and be a good person. It's enough. You're not accountable to anyone and crying because you don't feel special enough is kind of silly. Chin up and carry on.

  14. I hear you. I've struggled with a lot of these issues, myself. I used to define myself by being young and thin and smart, but that was a long time ago. I'm almost 35, I'm overweight and there are always people smarter than me. Plus I've got all sorts of other issues (not even remotely pretty, freaky history, books don't sell well, don't make much money, etc. etc.) that I can whack myself over the head with when I want to. It was hard, going from that person I was to who I am now. Self-acceptance is never an easy thing.

    I try to focus on the positives. When it seems like it's too much, doing things I like with people I like helps. Sometimes I go back and make a list of all the cool stuff I did recently, or I just go sit with a cat and try to relax.

    Maybe the most useful thing I can say is that we're always becoming something new. It's hard to deal with that sometimes, especially when you were really comfortable being the old you, but that doesn't make the new you any less lovable, wonderful or excellent.

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  15. "Special" is a label bestowed by others...it's not something I ever see myself as. I'm just "me", for better or worse. Some people see that as special, others see it as just average. Not for lack of trying on my mother's part, I assure you...I'm just too practical to have ever believed her. ;-)

    I can't remember when this occurred to me - it was sometime after my husband and I got engaged (so late 20's - apparently a common age for this, eh?), but maybe it will help you. I'd just graduated college a few years before, and I was trying to decide what the heck to do with myself...basically, what kind of job I wanted. In my world to that point, everyone around me (including me) was defined by their work (I worked full-time through college, so I had a slightly different crowd than the normal study/party group). I was a college student, but that wasn't how I or anyone I knew defined me - rather, they defined me by my title at work, taking classes on the side. It had been "who I was" for 10 years...but suddenly it was time to move on.

    So I was thinking about who I really was and who I wanted to be...and it hit me that really, I am not just who I am in that moment - I'm the sum of all my past choices. If I'd been raised differently, educated differently, chosen different paths...I'd be a different person. And I took awhile to just think about *why* I chose certain paths when the decision was mine, and what would happen if I'd chosen differently.

    What I found was that the decisions I made at those times in my life *defined who I was/am*. And the decisions I make today still add to that definition. Some are made without much thought, and others are made deliberately, because that's the *kind of person I want to be*. For me, who I am is more a matter of how I think and react to life. And largely, that dictates what I do, rather than the other way around.

    I'm 37 now, and that's still how I define myself. I can't imagine that ever changing, and while I may be getting closer to 40, it doesn't bother me (though age never really has - I enjoyed turning 30, to be honest).

    In any case, I hope that helps. Knowing what I do of you, you'll have this whole thing figured out in fairly short order. One thing that I know you are is a philosophical/analytical thinker - and that gives you a huge advantage in times like these.

  16. One of the things I've found since I hurt my knee is I have part of my self-worth especially as a wife wrapped up in something that is completely unhealthy to value myself on. Defining your self-worth is always going to be changing, shifting, even when you are 90 you aren't going to value the same things you do now.

    We completely disagree with each other on SO many things. We always will. But I want to offer you 5 the things that I see you as.

    Not a push over
    Not afraid to speak her mind
    And stands true to strong convictions.

    Those are the things I see you as. They have nothing to do with how old you are, how pretty you are, or even how book smart you are. You are so much more than that.

  17. The single biggest thing that got me out of my similar hole was banning 'should' and 'have to' from my vocabulary. Why? Because it made me own my actions. I'm not washing the dishes because I should or because I have to, but because I want clean dishes to eat off. Once I'd established that way of thinking, it was easier to identify things that I was only doing because of external ideals, not because any part of me actually wanted to. If the only reason I'm doing something is because I 'should' or I 'have to', and not because of something underlying that I value, I don't need it. Cut. *snipsnip*

    Love you, twinny. You'll push through this. Just remember to laugh. *hugs*

  18. Well, as your mother I can state a few obvious things:
    1) You were kind of skinny to begin with dear, so a few extra pounds is probably healthier for you anyway, and you did just have a baby in January! As a nurse, I'm saying cut yourself some slack here in the weight department. Proper diet and exercise will take off that baby weight within a year.
    2) Yeah you went from being in all honors classes in HS to being just another fish in the pond at FIT, but what a brainy pond it was, so don't sell yourself short there either!
    3) Yup, you're getting older, it happens, but as long as you don't look your age, or always act it, it's ok. And you don't look your age, and you don't always act it, so I think you're good there too!
    4) Time sifts out the keepers and the acquaintances, and you have lots of keepers. From each and every state you've ever lived in dear, that says a lot about the kind of person you are in a big way!
    5) It took me 53 years and losing my job to get my act together and start doing what I really love with my jewelry. You did it before you were 30 and are doing it very well, how smart are you? VERY!
    6) I always love you, and to me you are always "er"!