Since no one can travel right now because of quarantines, I figured I’d write about something more personal and closer to home. If you’re anything like me, you’ve experienced your fair share of self-doubt, insecurity, and jealousy. We’ve all been there. At an embarrassingly young age, I fell into the trap of comparing myself to others. So let’s talk about why we torture ourselves internally and figure out how to stop.
My problems, like most, started in childhood. When my mom left my dad, money was tight, so my awesome older cousin gifted me some clothes she had outgrown. Instead of being grateful to have an array of cute, gently-used outfits in my closet, I was jealous of my friends whose parents could afford to take them on shopping sprees at the Limited Too. When my mother, aunt, and I headed to Myrtle Beach, I felt great until I saw pictures of my friends with their families in Mexico and Hawaii.
In retrospect, I realize the clothes and summer vacations were never the problem. The tropical backdrops of Hawaii were stunning, but my real focus was on the seemingly perfect families laughing in the foreground. The root of my unhappiness wasn’t material, it was emotional. I was miserable was because my dad was gone, and I felt abandoned. The divorce made my family different from everyone else’s. I worried what others would think of me—would they reject me, too?
As I entered my teenage years and adjusted to my parents’ separation, I faced a new set of challenges most young girls experience. Every magazine model and celebrity I saw was idolized for being blue-eyed, skinny, and blonde. Throughout middle and high school, I struggled off and on with my self-image because of my naturally curvier build, dark hair, and wide hips. Some days, I embraced and loved what made me unique, but other days, I felt uncomfortable in my skin and wished I could just look like everyone else.
Even during the happy times, I sought validation and approval from outside sources instead of from within. My depression and anxiety made it hard for me to be happy with my life. I couldn’t feel satisfied with my body unless someone complimented my looks. My grades weren’t good enough unless I got all A’s. I wasn’t worthy of love until someone told me I was. If my friends were upset with me, I was a social outcast. I wrote about this in my previous post, but I lost myself trying to earn validation and avoid rejection because I thought that would make me happy. If anything, it did the opposite.
In late adolescence and young adulthood, I resolved to leave those negative thought patterns behind. I focused on the positives and tried to be happy. Fake it ’til you make it, as they say. I projected a very confident version of myself to the world. I took on my friends’ problems and tried to fix situations that had nothing to do with me. On some level, this strategy of acting confident and helping others worked, but the doubts would always eventually creep back in. That’s because I wasn’t really working on my issues, I was running from them.
While I knew logically my insecurities were unfounded, my perspective only genuinely began to shift about five years ago at my mother’s funeral. In the sea of people who came to pay their respects, I don’t remember anyone commenting on her appearance or belongings. No one brought up the divorce, her financial struggles, or weight-loss surgery. They were sharing stories about her life and who she was as a person. That’s because when people die, we don’t remember the artificial stuff. We remember how someone treated us, what they made us feel, and how one time they laughed at a joke so hard sweet tea came out of their nose. A person’s inner qualities carry more value than anything money can buy.
Also, when we lose someone we love or go through a difficult period, we discover who genuinely cares about us and who doesn’t. Do we really need to invest our limited time and resources in people who don’t show up for us at our darkest hour? No! As a result, our social circles can become much smaller during a crisis. It may sound counterintuitive, but this is actually a good thing. Being surrounded by close friends and family who truly wanted to uplift me helped me heal. Although I lost the support of a lot of people, I deepened the relationships in my life that mattered. I even started to strengthen my connection with my father. While it took a long time for me put all of the pieces together, the bigger picture started to become more clear.
Through working with my therapist and doing some deep self-reflection, I came to realize I’m the only person responsible for my emotions. Life will always be hard, so I can’t expect someone else to swoop in and make it better. In the same vein, I also can’t escape my problems by focusing on someone else’s instead. I had to stop looking at everyone else’s life and focus on my own. If I was ever going to be happy and manage my depression and anxiety, I had to make a change and value myself more than I was.
If it’s hard for you to stop comparing yourself to others, and you struggle with insecurities, it may be time to talk to someone you trust or a professional.
In the meantime, here are some things that have helped me reel in my negative thoughts so I can focus on what really matters to me:
Practice daily gratitude. Every day, I write down three things I’m grateful for no matter how big or small they are. Example: Today, I am grateful for this hot cup of tea, my family, and the new game I am playing. Any Animal Crossing fans here?
Stop scrolling so much on social media.
Most phones allow users to set limits on apps like Instagram and Facebook. If seeing too many posts starts to mess with my self-esteem, I take a break. I also try to fill my feed with positivity and humor so that when I do scroll, it’s genuinely enjoyable.
Work on yourself.
I set realistic and healthy goals for my body and don’t punish myself for eating chocolate. If you really want to lose weight or build muscles, do it for you and no one else. Achieving fitness goals can boost your self-confidence tremendously. Just make sure you track your progress and no one else’s. Learn to be okay with how you look right now.
Become a better person.
I try to focus on the qualities of people I admire that aren’t physical and work on developing those traits in my life. For example, I want become a better listener and friend. I also want to stop procrastinating so much. You can pick any role model to emulate.
Stop worrying about what other people think of you and evaluate them instead.
Personally, I think this is the hardest item on this list. But I do my best not to obsess over whether or not people like me. I focus on treating them with kindness and respect while observing how they behave toward me and others. Life is too short to get emotionally caught up in people who are bad for us because we crave acceptance and approval. Not everyone will like you, and that’s ok. You don’t have to like everyone else either.
Delete people who make you feel bad about yourself and create distance from relationships that no longer serve a purpose.
There are two main types of people who lower our self-esteem:
The first type is pretty passive but still important to watch out for. This could be someone you’ve known since high school who always posts glamorous modeling photos on her social media. She has every right to do this, but if seeing this content brings you down, it may be time to unfollow.
The second type is more insidious. These are “friends” or family members who make jabs at our expense and tear down our self-esteem. (This goes beyond playful joking.) Their criticisms can also manifest in offering unwanted advice or backhanded compliments.
“Maybe Tom would like you more if you lost ten pounds.”
“You look so much better with makeup.”
No one should say ever say things like that and expect to have a place in your life. Understand their remarks aren’t true, and they probably act this way because they’re insecure of themselves. Have a chat with them about how their words affect you, and if they can’t treat you with the respect you deserve, it’s time to move on.
Also, don’t be afraid to create distance from relationships that are overly dramatic or one-sided. If you’re the one always arranging meetups and communication, pull back and focus on yourself for a while. If a cousin only wants to talk about their problems and doesn’t care about yours, stop lending an ear to them at midnight when you know their behavior won’t change.
Use the bad times to focus on and better appreciate the good.
When my mom died, I couldn’t feel positive about anything for a while. It was certainly okay and normal for me to experience anger, apathy, and hopelessness. There are days I still have these emotions and cry for my mom like I did when she died. But staying in school, going abroad, and finishing my degree helped to instill a new kind of confidence and zest for life in me. I realized there are no limits to my strength and resilience. Surviving the lowest lows has helped me appreciate the small things in life and keeps me from taking loved ones and blessings for granted.
Help yourself and then help others.
It’s important our own needs are met before we make any big sacrifices or we’ll just burn out and end up feeling resentful. Practice self-care to fill your own cup and then let it overflow to others. No, you don’t have to donate thousands of dollars to charity or start a fundraiser from the ground up. (Although, if you can then props to you!)
Use painful life lessons to develop empathy and kindness. Share a smile with a stranger, buy a friend a cup of coffee, or offer to drive your niece home from a party. Don’t think these actions are insignificant, either. Even small gestures of kindness can leave a big impact.
Accept setbacks and treat them as learning experiences.
I didn’t magically get better after a few of these revelations and a month in counseling. In fact, I’ve gone through this cycle and therapy several times because I’m a human and I fall back into old habits. There will always be triggers and circumstances that are unavoidable and knock you off your game. When this happens, be kind to yourself and do what you need to do to get back on track. Each time you do, you’ll realize you’ve come a little further from where you were before.
Be your own best friend and talk kindly to yourself.
You’d never tell your bestie she was too fat or not smart or pretty enough. So why do you tell yourself these things? When we get down on ourselves, we won’t always have someone else around to lift us up. Plus, over relying on friends, family, and romantic partners for a self-esteem boost is no good. It puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on loved ones and can actually push them away.
If you catch yourself having negative thoughts, acknowledge them. Everyone experiences this, but you don’t have to let a broken record keep playing. Redirect your focus and repeat positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror. You can also think them in your head if you’re at work and don’t want to look crazy. At first, it’s a little strange, but it gets easier with practice.
The bottom line is we can never make an accurate comparison with anyone because we only have complete access to our story. Everyone else only shares the parts they want the world to see, not the problems taking place behind closed doors. Even if some people really do have perfect lives (which I’ll wager no one does), there is enough happiness and love in the universe to go around. Someone else’s appearance, riches, and success do not take away from me or you. We are all beautiful, unique, and valuable in our right, and it’s time to recognize that.