the other night, i attended a lecture put on by the alumni association of my school featuring a psychology professor who has been teaching at skidmore for 33 years (he is, as he puts it, “teetering on the edge of senility”). he gave a version of the same speech he gave five years ago, when i first went up to skidmore for accepted students day – one about ‘the self’ (quite the lofty term) and how it develops. he started out by running a bit on how crazy it is that we don’t remember being born. we don’t remember being one year old, or even two years old, in many cases. when we finally do figure out that we exist, not just physically but figuratively, our perceptions of ourselves are undisputedly colored by others’ perception of our self. it’s no wonder then, that little girls (and boys, but i think this is moreso the case with girls) create their personality based on how their classmates treat them, that the one child who has to sit alone in the cafeteria thinks her self worth might be a bit less than that of the peers who sit, laughing and trading stories over ham sandwiches, at a chock full table in the middle of a checkerboard tile floor.
solomon argues that our initial self perception is dictated by how our parents treat us. next, it’s our teachers, and as we age out of middle school, it switches to our peers. perhaps you’ve heard the joke about going to therapy? when in doubt, blame your mother. it’s probably her fault. per solomon’s thesis, it just might be true. of course, it’s not all about our parents, our teachers, our peers. at some point, we have to figure out how to dictate our self worth based on how WE see ourselves, instead of on how others see us – but it’s certainly an interesting take on how our self esteem develops, isn’t it?
it can be incredibly hard, as an impressionable teenager, to go against the grain – to not go with the urge to match your behavior to everyone else’s. to be part of the herd, so to speak. i recall that from the moment i stepped through the doors of middle school, i wanted nothing more than to be exactly like a girl named lauren. like me, lauren had developed early – except her curves were deposited in all the right places. she had a chic bobbed haircut, and her blonde bangs fell over her eyes when she leaned forward in math class. all the guys would lean forward with her. i told myself maybe if i purchased the jeans she purchased, if i cut my hair like hers, if my sun in magically worked with a blow dryer instead of natural summer sunshine, i just might get the attention she got. of course, this was ridiculous, and impossible. lauren had been blessed with genetics i didn’t have. her jeans sat perfectly on her hips, mine bunched at the seams. her hair was perfectly straight and silky, mine was mousy orange blonde (thanks to too many summers of the aforementioned sun-in) and an ugly, wavy texture. little things like this convinced me she was better than me.
i’ve struggled with my self esteem for as long as i could walk and talk, and it took me through high school and into college to finally feel right with myself – like i could hold my head high when i walked through campus, like i was worthy of good friends, and a good life, and love and happiness. i’m not sure what happened in my younger years that convinced me i was so unworthy of the things that any well-adjusted person should expect (though i could name a few incidents that stick in my brain like glue still today), but it took me a REALLY long time to say to myself, “you’re worth it.” (thanks, l’oreal, for the tagline)
even today, at the ripe old age of 27, i still have moments where i sit on my bed with my cat and think, “i’m a spinster at 27. i have no true friends (this isn’t true). i have no one who loves me (this is also not true). i am a failure (you got it – not true).” and i have to shake myself out of those moments, because somewhere, deep down, i have figured out that i’m worthy – and that it’s okay that i don’t look like everyone else, act like everyone else, do what everyone else does. i wish i didn’t have such moments of self doubt, but i’d like to think everyone has them sometimes, right? we all go there from time to time, even when there’s the little angel on our shoulder telling us, “you’re being ridiculous. eat a piece of chocolate and CHILL.”
but in those moments, the sentiment in the image above is good to have around – because sometimes, we forget how great we are. we’re oblivious to how wonderful we can be. how beautiful, how funny, how insightful. we forget that we have something to offer to the world, even if it’s not what someone else has to offer. and that’s the point, isn’t it? we all have something to offer that no one else has. that’s what makes us ourselves. and that’s a beautiful thing.