Self-esteem is a funny thing. I tend to think that I have a pretty healthy self-esteem. In some ways, I do – I am confident enough to sing in front of crowds of people, I love to perform, I am not afraid to be goofy with friends and family, and aside from the amount of weight I’ve gained the last two years, I’m pretty happy with myself physically.
A couple of weeks ago, I started the Self-Esteem module of my therapy manual. I thought “this will probably be the easiest one, I have a pretty good self-esteem.” So I started to read the homework assignment. “Practice giving compliments more frequently, and receiving compliments.” Okay, no problem. “Do something nice for yourself every day (without having to earn it).”
.. what? No no no… *backs into darkest, most corner-ey corner with security blanket/teddybear/thumb in mouth/you get the idea*
My chest started beating rapidly. I couldn’t catch my breath. Those few words completely sent me into a tizzy. My brain was searching for what just happened. Did bullets fly through the window? Did a big grizzly bear come down the stairs? I was sitting on the couch in comfy pajamas, wearing comfy socks (I’m a big proponent of ‘Hygge’), sipping a warm beverage and just read a few words. Boy, did I feel like I got pushed off a cliff.
After two or three days of dealing with random waves of anxiety spells, I finally had the mental space to start processing what happened. I’ve felt like I had to “earn my keep” since I was very young. I was told over and over again that I was spoiled by my older siblings. Spoiled =you don’t deserve stuff/happiness/comfort/etc. Yes, I had a more comfortable childhood than them. I know that. But they also had things I didn’t. They grew up with younger parents, full of energy and excitement of having started a little family. Excitement to take their kids on fun adventures. By the time I was old enough to form memories, my parents were both tied up with multiple rebellious teenagers, and most of the time, it was up to me to entertain myself. I’m not saying I was lonely, but my parents were not as available as they were with them. Regardless, I was told I was spoiled. I didn’t deserve to have a happy childhood.
One of my sibling’s family in-law was extremely competitive. Everything I did or had, was completely picked apart. Including how “white” I was despite being Latina. Once again, I was being accused of being spoiled. Yes, I am spoiled because I have a 12” b&w tv, clothes, and toys that all came from goodwill, and were accumulated over years. They probably cost less than the $90 perfume your parents gave you for Christmas.
Later on, I got married at a very young age to a very charismatic man-child who became adept at calculating emotional debt. I was frequently the bad guy, he was frequently the martyr, and most arguments went like this: “but I did this and this and this for you!” So alas, I spent most of the time feeling like a horrible, selfish wife – particularly during our melodrama of a divorce.
Bringing it to the present, I am now married to a wonderful man who treats me so well. While we have been happily married for almost 7 years now, I obviously have emotional baggage that gets dragged along with me wherever I go. Add to this the fact that my father passed away, and that I try the best I can to fill his space for my mom. It explains why I am constantly running through to-do lists in my brain, constantly feeling like I should be productive and doing “stuff.” I don’t want to accrue emotional debt, and I want to earn my keep, all while trying to be the perfect daughter. It is only when I am so burnt out that I get irritable and lash out, or when I am sick, that I allow myself to relax and do something nice to myself (like watching Harry Potter movies for the 153rd time). If I am honest with myself, I know that when I’ve come down with a cold or have cramps, part of me feels like it just breathed a huge sigh of relief: “Viola, you’re off the hook now! Nobody is expecting you to do anything except pamper yourself so that you feel better!”
Undoing all those layers of conditioning, and making the conscious, deliberate choice to be nice to myself without having earned it first (Hey, I did all the laundry and dusted the entire house! I can sit and watch youtube videos now!) feels INCREDIBLY foreign, scary, and like I am walking a tightrope. I see the objective of this therapy module on the other end of it. But in the meantime, it feels like a 90/10 chance I’m going to fall back into that label of being a spoiled brat, worthy of being rejected by my closest people.
So far, I have done my assigned exposure therapy of doing things for myself without having to earn it first. It had to be things that are out of my comfort level, but not so far out of my comfort level so as to dysregulate my emotions completely. I allowed my husband to make our lunches for me despite his load of homework while I played games on the wii (per his insistence); gave myself permission to be a lazy lump on the couch; and told my mom I am going to stay home instead of visiting her two days in a row, because I need to have a day of just being at home, relaxing, and enjoying me-time. It’s been a struggle to do those things. I feel guilty. I feel like a let-down. And yet, neither my husband nor my Mom hate me as far as I can tell. So as my therapist would say, I am collecting new data that this new behavior must be okay after all.