Friday, 4 September 2009

Pondering Self Esteem and Seeking Approval

Self esteem - not to be confused with self confidence and self love... although closely related, is something we all need in varying amounts in order to feel we are doing okay. It's fed by our personal achievements, but also hinges precariously on the approval of others. A reasonably high level of self esteem provides us with a feeling of accomplishment, acceptance and self worth. A low level leaves us feeling we're of little worth, and in extreme cases, unlovable; as anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship can testify.

Clearly some need more of this fodder than others in order to happily flourish. We've all met those self effacing, modest types who hate the spotlight, but are nonetheless content with their lot. But it's the self effacing ones who hog the spotlight; the ones who claim to suffer from low self esteem, yet appear to display a self love bordering on narcissism that intrigues me.

I know quite a few of these folk. They tend generally to be considered attractive, even beautiful individuals, who appear to adore showing off their physical beauty while protesting they are anything but. They are very hot on self promotion, their personal websites often displaying hundreds of self portrait photographs. Yet when questioned on this apparent contradiction, stress in elaborate detail how much they despise their appearance. But their behaviour belies their protestations. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways; dressing to be noticed, always striving for perfection in their physical appearance, often by a combination of extreme diets, grueling workouts and resorting to cosmetic surgery... yet they never seem satisfied with how they look, whilst displaying it for all the world to see.

Many, if not all the ones I know have suffered from an eating disorder. Perhaps they are deluding themselves, or maybe deep down they know they are physically attractive, because the compliments come thick and fast, when prompted... and their perpetual self promotion accompanied with self effacing put downs ensures a constant supply of reassuring compliments. They clearly need this reassurance to keep their levels high.

Self esteem is a fragile creature... starve it and it rapidly becomes emaciated... feed it and it thrives. There's no doubting we all need it, but why do some need it more than others? Is it constant over feeding that triggers an almost addiction like craving? There's no doubt beautiful people attract others, are generally successful and appear to lead charmed lives compared to the rest of us mortals who were less fortunate in the gene pool. So why do so many of these beautiful people feel unloved, insecure and lacking worth? Do they come to rely on the approval of others for their feelings of self worth?

Not that I'm suggesting for one minute that we shouldn't be generous with our compliments. I think most people would agree that praise fosters healthy growth far more than criticism ever did. It could be argued that we subconsciously expect more from beautiful people, or they themselves perceive that more is expected of them? Or is it that compliments were kept to a minimum because it was a given that they were beautiful, so deemed unnecessary... but clearly was necessary? We've all heard of the beautiful girl who was never asked out on dates because everyone assumed she must have a boyfriend.

I possess a high level of confidence, a fair degree of self love, and reasonable self esteem... but it hasn't always been the case. Abandoned by my mother as a baby, discriminated against by my childhood peers, a marriage devoid of affection and emotional support, and ultimate rejection for a younger more attractive model; knocked my confidence, my feelings of worth, my perception of my lovability, and fed my fear of abandonment.

My reserves all but depleted, I eventually recovered, fueled by a single comment from my childhood. I lived with my nan... we were very poor and living in an affluent neighbourhood, and because I was different (I was the one with no mum and dad), I had few friends. One day after being rejected once again by one of the neighbouring kids, I ran home and sobbed in my nan's arms. She took my face in her hands, looked me in the eye and said "they're only jealous because you're so beautiful". That one sentence must have planted itself deep inside me to carry me through, despite all the knock backs life had in store for me. Let me assure you, you would not consider me beautiful, not in the conventional sense, but I do believe I am beautiful.

Something similar happened to Dawn French (I could be her body double). When she was a young girl her dad asked her to come and sit down as he wanted to talk to her. He then proceeded to tell her how beautiful and special she was. All these years later, despite her weight gain and fading looks, she still radiates an inner confidence that translates into real beauty.

I'm sorry to disappoint those who were hoping for a conclusion... I don't have the answers. I am just curious why some people seem so contradictory in their behaviour and what they claim to feel about themselves.

But if you'd like to enlighten me, I'd be interested in your views.


  1. I have no answers but the comment made by your nan reminded me of a throw away comment made by my dad when I was a child - a negative one that he absolutely has no recollection of saying and would be horrified that I have remembered no doubt. I'd like to know that answer to the question too

  2. If only we were more careful about throw away comments that can have a lasting effect on others. I made one within earshot of my sister when I was a thoughtless adolescent (though I didn't know she was standing outside the door at the time... and it affected her for years.

  3. wow. that is all! not very eloquent is it? but you are and this was a very emotive post. so wow. :)

  4. Finally got around to reading!

    Interesting thoughts, though without a conclusion... what do we have here?

    You spent a lot of time describing your own situation. It's important to note that everyone -- the pretty people included -- has a story just like yours. It might be more or less grim with varying caveats; but everyone has a story.

    Jumping to conclusions based on what someone says or outwardly shows is stupid. Do you actually look at pretty people in magazines and say 'Gosh, they must have great lives!!' -- I hope not...

    We're all swimming in a mire of mentalities. Some of us get bogged down; some of us make it to the surface more often.

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  6. Thanks Maisy. Yes, it is an emotive subject, and one that has long since puzzled me. Someone very close to me once described it as "knowing I look good, but feeling worthless inside".

  7. Sorry if I touched a nerve Seb. Of course we all have stories. Some affect us more than others, and we all have our own ways of coping with them.

    I was attempting to understand the apparent contradiction between outward behaviour and inner feelings. Perhaps the above comment made by a friend pretty much sums it up.. for him at least.

  8. No, no nerves touched here. Just commenting :)

  9. That's good to hear. :) Actually, your comments have been very helpful and given me much food for thought.