Self-Image and Self-Esteem

I realize I didn’t continue my story from last time. But I guess I am just not quite ready to. I am trying to be okay with whatever comes out on here. Not judging what I write, how it comes off, how I organize entries, what people think, etc. Just be true to myself; if I end up encouraging someone in the process, that would be great!

So a little bit about my current state: I have low self-esteem. Big surprise. Ever since I grew out of adolescence, I was ashamed of this. I would continue to deny this fact, referring to it in my mind as “something only teens or super immature people struggle with.” Now, by the grace of God, I have accepted that, most likely through no fault of my own, I struggle with low self-image and self-esteem but that that fact does not define me.

Last week my therapist gave me this hand out on Self-Image and Self-Esteem written by Earnie Larsen. Self-image is based on the messages we received during our earliest years- whether direct or indirect-and these messages become how we see ourselves. Self-esteem is a direct reflection or your self-image, dictating 1) our expectations, 2) our options and 3) our limitations. I sincerely related to this: “If people have low self-esteem the value they have of themselves is very low. They see themselves as losers. They don’t expect to do well so what options do they have? Only negative options. The expectations are that it will never work; I’ll never be happy; no one will ever love me, and so on. ‘The limitations we place on our lives make our expectations come true.’ ”

The weird thing is, because of my identity as a “depressed” and “anxious” person for over half my life, these self-limiting thoughts have become such a deep part of myself. It’s like I am addicted to them; while in reality, I do have positive thoughts about my value, it just seems “wrong” to allow myself to think them.

My therapist’s assignment for me was to choose an area of my life in which I was very successful and answer some reflection questions about it. It was so hard to think of an area I was “very successful” in. I was bombarded by thoughts of areas I was once confident in, such as teaching, speaking Spanish, writing or my faith; and the sad reality that, in recent years, I have experienced utter failure (from my perspective) in these areas.

Fortunately I was able to dismiss these thoughts pretty easily; then I thought of my new job as a PCA (personal care attendant). While I am easily ashamed that I currently work only about 10 hours a week (I had to quit my “professional” full time job as a teacher last June), I still realized I am proud and confident in the work that I do as a caregiver. Doing the following reflection was very powerful for me and I hope it also brings you joy and comfort in whatever you are going through at the moment.

Here is my reflection:

  1. Choose an area of your life in which you are very successful: Working as a PCA (personal care attendant) for a 10-year-old girl and her family a. Self-image: how do you define yourself in this area? Very competent. Because of my sensitive nature, I bond well with people in a one-on-one relationship and learn how they tick, what would help them and overall, I have intense love for them (usually, of course, there are always certain people we “click” better with and who are easier to love). I am also someone who is dependable. I do what needs to be done efficiently; I show up to work every day; her parents see how well I work with and care for her so they trust me. I am myself with her and I try to always put her needs before my own. I am honest and friendly. I am a down-to-earth person with her family and I seemed to have “clicked” with them. I especially feel like I have become friends with her mom who is around my age. I have been able to support and encourage her as a mom and a Christian woman (and a teacher); and I feel honored that she has trusted me by opening up and sharing with me more and more! 

    b. As you define yoursef-how do you behave in that area? With integrity. Honestly, I have been tempted by all the alcohol at their house. Because of who I am and the relationship of trust I have built with this family, I rarely feel tempted anymore. In fact, I am confident that I could never betray them in this way. Other times, when I have put my needs before my client’s or gotten frustrated with her, I feel badly and always try to apologize to her and/or God. I have grace for myself, and am able to move on the next time. I also behave confidently. Because of the relationship I have created these last 5 months, I now have a say in her treatment, activities, etc. I have been voicing my thoughts more often and taking risks. The more I take a risk, positive things happen, which builds my confidence even more so I continue doing hard things.c. The consequences of this behavior: How I behave at my job has given me hope and confidence in other areas of life; so ultimately it has been a healing journey. My behavior has reminded me where my true gifts lie-in influencing individuals, just being present with them, using my sensitive nature to make a difference. The more I am my “true self” in other areas, the lower my chance are of giving in to temptations or going against this true nature. Also, this job has given me a renewed vision of my purpose, whether occupationally or in general: my God-given purpose; so I have more positive thoughts about my future!

    d. What is the result? The results define and deepen your self-image. The result is that there is no denying that I have made a difference and that my presence in others’ lives does not go unnoticed. While I haven’t affected large amounts of people, the people I have influenced are very dear to me and when I think about hurting or betraying them, it is devastating; similar to when I think of if one of them gets hurt or ill or worse. This kind of love is undeniable, and is the reason I am alive today. Thanks be to God, this love is my main purpose for living, something I could barely acknowledge when I was so ill last year. The reason I do what I do and why I am dependable and act out of integrity is because of the love I have received from Christ and the dear ones he has graced me with in this life.

    The messages of self-worth are:
    *I am full of love and have a lot of love to give.
    *I am worthy of love.
    *I am loyal, trustworthy and a person of integrity.
    *I can reach people on an intimate level, because of my deep sensitivity.
    *I have a deep awareness of self, I am honest and vulnerable and am more capable than many of helping others develop these traits.
    *This family has been graced and blessed with my presence as their PCA. (As I have been graced and blessed by them.) I can see myself being committed to them for many years to come.
    *Through my relationship with this precious child, I have also had a glimpse of what I can and will offer as a mother one day; I am reminded of the deep calling and privilege I feel of adopting this title in the near future!

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Withering Away into Nothingness

On February 27, 2005, I was sitting in a parking lot waiting for my parents to drive me away, away from the hell I was experiencing at college, waiting in agony, in desperation, in a state of surreallness and dizziness. I wrote: “I have never felt more disempowered / More lowly, more pitiful / The more I am around people / The more I lose joy / Because I feel like a failure / I had so much joy before / When I felt I had it all together / When the things I did made me believe I was worthy / No matter how genuine the love of others / I can never accept it because/ It makes me feel more and more ashamed / Lord I want you and you only / I want to shut the world out.” I was at the beginning on a new journey; I had no idea what hell would await me but I could tell it was starting. I was a junior in college at the time.

Since my early teen years, I became familiar with Depression. It was my new identity; a way I gave myself worth and my life meaning. I was accustomed to the sadness; the endless tears; the shakiness; the constant ruminations about self, world, faith, God, death; the many medications and therapy sessions; the physical illnesses that both caused and were caused by the depressions; even the suicidal thoughts that came and went sometimes for weeks or months at a time.

Early in 2005, I thought I was having a reprieve from depression because I hadn’t thought about killing myself in a few weeks. I began having more trust in God and peace about my future. My brain was so fogged over and still probably under the influence of major depressive disorder, but the way I saw it, I was getting better.

But then I began having strange symptoms in which I felt “I was withering away into nothingness.” It was a hazy, disoriented feeling in which I became an observer of the world and myself. It worsened to the point that I literally felt no control over what I did or said. When I talked it was like a stranger’s voice talking. This made participating in class discussions and even having conversations with friends a nightmare. I always seemed fine on the outside, but sometimes when someone got close to me I would become unable to breathe and my heart would start to race. It felt like other people were literally sucking the life out of me. Not only that but I began feeling a lot of tightness in my chest starting around 6 or 7 pm every day. It felt like my body was shutting down; I could do nothing but lay down, but when I tried to rest, my mind raced and I would lay there as if there were a hundred bricks on me.

I researched my condition and later confirmed with a doctor I was suffering from depersonalization disorder, which is often a coping mechanism for people who do not adjust to change well, perhaps a symptom of depression. Looking back several years later, I realize I’d had a crazy couple months. I was still adjusting to my life back in the U.S. after a semester in Guatemala. I was dealing with the fact that both of my older brothers were in serious relationships. My one brother Greg suddenly got engaged in November to a girl younger than me who I barely knew (they began seriously dating when I was abroad). This news sent me into a tailspin. I felt my brother was being lost to me while also jealous and full of self-pity and self-hatred because of my state of singleness.

My oldest brother Nate, with whom I was extremely close, was dating my best friend and I was very enmeshed with their relationship. December came, and besides normal holiday and winter blues and dealing with my new bizarre physical symptoms, I was reeling with pain and sorrow of the tsunami tragedy in Southeast Asia (I had a history of experiencing worsening depression when disasters such as this occurred). Then in January, at the start of an extremely stressful interim (in which I took one class but was expected to do about 8 hours of homework a day), Nate broke up with my friend. I did not deal with this well, especially since my friend was also my roommate. It was one of the most painful times of my life. Whether it was this new disorder, or just a different type of depression, I later realized my body did not know what to do with all the changes and stress around me.

I began my second semester at Bethel College (now Bethel University) with a full load of classes, including an internship in a third-grade classroom. I was also working part time taking care of adults with disabilities in a group home. In all of my activities I hoped everyone saw me as a professional, competent, secure and happy person. Inside it was a hellish war; in fact, it became a daily battle to survive, to not take my life. I was constantly reasoning with God, pleading with him to take me out of my misery, my physical pain, paralyzing anxiety and despair. There were very few days that went by that I did not create a plan in my mind of how to take my own life.

I was so desperate for relief – I had always thought about hurting myself but I had never gone through with it. So one evening, I cut myself with a razor.  I’d heard that cutting had helped with relief of pain and my distorted mind told me, “What’s there to lose?” The next day, I was at my elementary school internship in the faculty bathroom. I felt so dissociated I didn’t even know who I was. I wanted nothing to do with the broken and confused girl I was the night before but I in no way could become the competent and worthy adult I wanted to be in that moment. I was washing my hands in the bathroom and wished I could just wash away every painful thing I had ever done to myself. I felt like I was and always would be my own worst enemy. In thirty seconds, I would have to face twenty-five children and try to teach them how to not be like me. I could not do this. I hated who I was. How would I ever change?

Just a few days later, I told my psychologist at Bethel about the cutting incident and that day he along with my parents basically made the decision for me: I would take a leave of absence from school. In a matter of hours, my whole world once again shifted.