Healthy self-esteem is absolutely critical to our success. Without it, we are crippled by that constant voice reminding us of how inadequate we are. By the nauseating and gut wrenching feeling that curdles in the stomach every time we try something new. It attacks our nervous system with the thumping rumble of fear that pulsates through the body. And for many of us, it is completely sub-conscious. It isn’t something that we necessarily think about, but it completely hijacks our decision making and behaviour.
As part of our own survival, many of us make desperate attempts to resolve low self-esteem as we get into adolescence and adulthood. Being creatures that see in colour but often think in black and white, we tend to resolve issues by doing the opposite of how we feel . If we judge ourselves as inadequate, we will often set ourselves up to be perfect. We do this by creating rules and expectations to live by, like: “I must never make mistakes,” “My house should always be spotless,” “The lawns must be mowed in straight lines,” “I must weight myself daily,” or “I need to know everything”.
It becomes obsessive and consuming. And to make matters worse, we don’t start to recover by focusing on those things we are achieving. No, we observe the mistakes, the errors, and the oversights. This intensifies our anxiety further, causing us to punish and flagellate ourselves at every opportunity. Naturally, this starts to erode our confidence and actually increases the likelihood of us making mistakes. At this point we are at risk of depression and the only solution we have out of the collapse is to set even higher standards and even more rigid rules for living. Of course, one first needs to get over the suffocating avoidance and procrastination that happens when we strive for perfection.
If, on the odd chance, we actually do succeed it’s like an addictive reward. We don’t heal or reassure ourselves but instead strive for further unrelenting standards. Either that or we minimise our successes by putting them down to a fluke or stroke of luck. This may be because we get so invested in the story of failure that it is too confronting to acknowledge success. Because of this we can become kings and queens of self-sabotage.
So how do we step out of this destructive loop? Well firstly, it’s important to acknowledge the cycle we are stuck in. From there, healing can begin by really understanding the meaning of self-esteem. This includes learning to think, feel and behave with genuine confidence and compassion. It requires us to reflect on our rules for living, increase our tolerance for mistakes and errors, and develop a new language to make sense of our experiences without relying on ‘perfect vs failure’. This may mean that we learn to see things as lessons, opportunities and experiences instead. From there we can start to explore the “good enough” zone that is realistic and achievable. It is learning to see ourselves as authentic and unique individuals who have strengths and weaknesses as opposed to shameful inadequacies. It also requires us to focus and integrate our successes and achievements, and in a way become our own cheerleaders.
There are some really wonderful self-help resources out there to help overcome perfectionism. It may also be something you wish to work through with a therapist.
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