When I was younger, I was painfully preoccupied with how people perceived me.
I carefully curated my thoughts before I spoke. Every word was a brushstroke that painted the self-portrait I wanted others to see. I compulsively monitored my appearance: my clothing, my weight, the amount of make-up on my face. I was bones and tissue thrown together inside a sack of skin — held in place by façade and insecurity.
When people complimented, congratulated, or agreed with me, I felt as though I was worthy in their opinion. I must have been good enough because they thought that I was good enough.
“Yes! You think I’m beautiful! You think I’m smart!” I would say, punching the air in giddy excitement. “That must mean that I’m actually beautiful, that I’m actually smart!”
However, it would cripple me when people did not perceive or receive me as well as I would have liked.
“You should start working out again,” a male classmate in high school said to me in the heat of an argument — one that was silly in retrospect but seemed important at the time. This was the year that I quit a varsity athletic team. I’d put on weight after my life ceased to revolve around running, squatting, lifting, and jumping. That following spring, the same classmate tried to kiss me while we were both at a party. I had lost 25 pounds during the past several months and a significant bit of self-respect in the process.
My insecurity has not changed with age.
I worry that people will find me pretentious or obnoxious. I worry that they will think I’m unattractive, uncouth, unintelligent, or unkind — so many adjectives whose “un” prefix can make me feel as insignificant now as I was at 15 or 16. I dress up, sometimes excessively for the occasion. I want to look pretty, but I hate it when I feel like people value my appearance more than my personality or intellect. I go overboard on eyeliner (but eyeliner feels like a security blanket, somehow). I temper my love of food with my fear of calories. More than I’d like, I care so much about former relationships (not all, just one or two) that I don’t give as much life as I should to my present relationships.
I am still less confident than I’d hope. I don’t think that anyone ever carries so much self-confidence that they don’t worry about people’s judgments or opinions — which can be vile as often as they are kind. Maybe Beyoncé truly gives zero effs. Who knows?
But, my confidence has grown in spades. I realized that my self-consciousness stemmed from living to please other people — to satisfy an image that I wanted to present of myself, to make them think that I was as great as I hoped to be.
I became much, much happier when I started living for myself.
At one point, it became less important to me what people thought of me than what I thought of myself. How could I expect anyone to think highly of me, to value me to if I didn’t do that first? I had spent so much time manipulating and disguising my own skin that I didn’t feel comfortable in it. Naturally, it would still sting if someone commented nastily on an aspect of my being, but if he or she told me that I wasn’t, I would exhale sharply, grit my teeth, thank them for their (misguided) opinion, and tell them I was.
At least, I hope I would.
External validation is a double-edged sword, and it drew a little too much blood when I began to depend on it. For me, the trick is understanding that the opinions people form of me, negative or positive, are only secondary to the opinions that I hold of myself. I have to love myself. We all have to love ourselves, but it is one of the hardest skills to cultivate. It has to matter more that we love ourselves than it does that anyone else loves us.
I’m working on it.