Staying Adrift in a Sea of Compliments

“If you live off a man’s compliments, you’ll die by his criticism.” -Cornelius Lindsey

I think every girl goes through a phase where she hits rock bottom in the “self esteem” department. For some this phase is during those awkward middle school years, or perhaps during her first few relationships. For others the phase may stretch into her adulthood and not only detriment the majority of her relationships, but also her career and social life. Still, others may never truly overcome their low self esteem and live in a fear of never being enough for their entire life.

I classify myself in the first category. I have recognized that when, after my first long-term relationship ended, I had hit rock bottom. I didn’t even find myself having low self esteem; I had no self esteem.

Looking back, this fact saddens me. Not only did I believe myself incapable of ever finding love again, I also criticized my body, my appearance, my abilities, and my reputation. With this kind of thinking, it’s now easy to see how I allowed certain people into my life who had no benefit to my overall health and success so soon after the breakup.

I had such a sour outlook on myself that the only real sustenance I consumed were compliments. There is one case in specific I’d like to share: I was dating this guy who really knew how to articulate his “feelings” well. It seemed that everything I wanted to hear, he said. I was told how beautiful I am, how strong, how determined, how special of a person I am with unlimited potential and capabilities. All these things were the exact opposite of how I felt at the time. For a girl whose mirror is so clouded with fear and sadness, these compliments became more than they were meant to be; these compliments became my life line.

To ensure my caloric-fill of compliments, I made some poor life choices. I visited the bar with this guy almost every night for a month. I starved my body of real nutrition to fend off any “fat thoughts.” I completed the bare minimum in all my coursework, denied myself of sleep in fear of dreaming, and focused more on my outward appearance than on my inner stability. I became an empty shell whose only fill was smooth words. So it’s no wonder that when the relationship ended and the compliments ceased, I felt as if I was drowning.

As I waded through the crowds, sometimes a kind statement or small gesture kept me afloat. However, I began to find that no compliment truly ebbed my insecurities. This revelation was what I had been seeking. It was as if a mountain peak had finally caught my attention. It took only a few moments to decide I didn’t want to drown, so I started to swim towards the island.

The salt-water of compliments changed to the fresh-water of clear thinking. As my swim neared the island, I found my feet skimming sandbars. I was able to stand, on my own, with my own two feet. I didn’t need any flotation devices, and I definitely didn’t need anyone’s assistance. I stood strong. I stood proud. I had won.

In hindsight, it is still unclear to me what finally caused that mountain to peak. Maybe I had a dream, or God answered a prayer through a simple meandering thought. It doesn’t really matter though. What matters is that I was once completely lost, living on compliments, and focusing solely on what the world thought of me. I didn’t care what I thought about myself. And then, out of the blue, I questioned new aspects of life and my reality shifted.

One of the biggest questions for me was this: why is it that it seems some people believe only the best about themselves, while others, especially women, seize onto the most self-critical thoughts they can come up with? Well, ladies, it may actually be a physical and intellectual habit that we cannot control. In our brains there is this thing called the anterior cingulate cortex (I’m no scientist, I just know how to use Google…) that actually causes judgmental thoughts and negative thinking. In women, this part of our brain is actually larger and more influential than that in men. It helps us observe the emotions in others, so it’s like we’re built to be responsive to the needs of those around us. We are more emotionally sensitive by nature, especially with disapproval and rejection.

So it is no wonder that my rock-bottom came after my love was rejected. My womanly worry overtook me. Yet, even in the worst of times, I somehow managed to navigate life fairly well, graduate college, earn an income, and strengthen the most meaningful relationships with my friends and family. I could walk without weaving and chew without spitting. I continued to live.

No amount of flattery can undo the progress I have made in approving of myself and loving who I have become. A kind word here or there can still make me blush, but I no longer intake those compliments to fill my heart or build myself up. Though the future is full of crashing waves, I won’t be knocked back down. I am who I am, and I could not be happier.

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