Reader Request: Self-worth and Outside Input

Reader Christine sent me this question via e-mail, and although it’s not strictly style or body-image related, it hit so close to home for me, I felt I should share our correspondence:

What if someone feels bad about him/herself, not because of body/appearance insecurities, but rather accomplishment/intellectuality insecurities? What would you suggest to help that person back on a path to self love? For example, the university student who can’t forgive herself for her terrible GPA, and since she valued herself based on her intellectuality, now feels as though she has no worth? Or the career woman who has worked incredibly hard to get to where she is and was passed up for that promotion (or worse, demoted) and now feels as though she has no value?

I’d been feeling very down and worthless with my falling GPA, and at my college campus a production of The Vagina Monologues was going to be held. For advertising they had put signs up on women bathroom mirrors saying things like “You are not defined by a number. Stop letting the scale define your worth!” Well that’s a sentiment I can get behind! But then I realized how hypocritical I was being because I’ve been letting my GPA define my worth and all my feelings about myself. And then of course I got to thinking, and I realized that when I thought about female confidence/lack thereof I always think of appearance issues. However, people, and more specifically women, hate themselves and are insecure for so many reasons beyond appearance/body issues, and I’d love to know your thoughts on this particular type of insecurity/self-hate.

Although I’ve come a long way over the years, I spent all of my youth obsessing over GPA, individual grades, accomplishments, achievements, and quantifiable praise. Being a smart person in a graded school system can be a mixed blessing. You are rewarded for good work and creativity, but may become dependent on that feedback system to feel worthy and accomplished. And depending on how you’re wired, you may end up feeling a strong thread of competition, either against yourself or against your peers. That can be incredibly damaging. If you have a tough semester and your GPA ends up in the toilet, or if you graduate and can no longer rely on grades as a tangible measure of your value, your self-esteem may plummet.

As Christine points out, though, many people eventually transfer this type of personal achievement record-keeping over to career. Failing to procure jobs or freelance gigs, getting passed over for promotions, even receiving scant praise from superiors can impact your confidence. Without hard evidence of accomplishments and worth, it can be hard to feel secure. Hell, it can even become a vicious circle that decreases motivation to continue setting high and worthwhile goals. If there’s no reward at the end, why bother?

Here are some things to consider if you feel like you’re really struggling to separate self-worth from sanctioned achievements:

Look at the big picture

Did something happen recently that may have impacted your performance? Were you sick? Did your dog die? Did you take a class that was WAY harder than expected, or outside your realm of expertise? Was there a change in management or a shakeup among employees? Is the economy failing? People who become dependent on praise are often pretty self-focused: If someone in our circle of friends is upset, we IMMEDIATELY assume it’s because we’ve done something wrong. And, likewise, if there’s a shift in our achievement trajectory, we IMMEDIATELY assume it’s because we suddenly suck at life. And sometimes we’ve slacked off, or bitten off more than we can chew, but sometimes the world has thrown us a curve ball. Take a step back and see what factors are influencing recent life events.

Are you happy?

Sometimes your grades suck because you’ve fallen in love and are so busy making out with your new flame that you skip a few too many classes. Sometimes you get reprimanded at work because you’ve been daydreaming a little too much about your upcoming trip to Paris. And even if your performance isn’t suffering due to non-school, non-work happy-factors, consider your overall state of mind. If you have great friends, a supportive family, rewarding hobbies, loving pets, a rich intellectual life, access to great food or great artwork, the drive to explore your surroundings, athletic prowess, virtually anything in your life that brings you happiness, you’re ahead of the game. Grades and work may seem like the ultimate measure of worth, but they aren’t. In my opinion, happiness is. Are you happy? Can you work on focusing on things that make you happy outside the school/job realm?

Stop comparing

Do you beat yourself up for getting an A- when one of your peers got an A? Do you question your entire career path when you apply for and are denied a promotion, and a competitor is rewarded? Or do you look at your college GPA and pull your hair out because it’s so much lower than your high school GPA? Comparison is hard-wired into the human brain, and we do it without thinking. But just as comparing your figure to the figures of your peers is both irrelevant and harmful, holding yourself to the achievement standards of your peers is often both irrelevant and harmful. I realize that relying on competition is a time-tested motivator for all manner of achievements – athletic, scientific, intellectual, and more. And for those who thrive under those conditions, it can be a very effective system. But for those for whom comparison triggers self-doubt, misery, and acute anxiety, it’s a behavior best avoided. How do you avoid comparing yourself? No easy answer for that one, I’m afraid, since we’re all wired differently and the instinct is so strong. But for starters, just be aware when you’re doing it. Try to halt the thought pattern and switch to another topic entirely. Or try out a mantra like, “I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got,” and/or “I’ve got plenty of time to do great things myself.”

Do things for yourself

Grades and promotions are easy measures of worth because they come from external sources. If someone else says you’re awesome, it MUST be true, right? But that mentality can trap you into needing others to stamp you as approved before you can believe you’re doing well. So start cultivating activities you enjoy that are harder to quantify. Take up biking, hiking, kite flying, roller skating, or some other physical pursuit that doesn’t necessarily lead to direct or self-competition. Make travel a priority, start exploring your area, state, region, country, or hemisphere a little at a time. Work hard on your friendships and romantic relationships; Throw parties, hone your gift-giving skills, learn to really listen and respond. The world is full of rewards, and some of the best ones won’t be found in a classroom or office.

I hope these suggestions are helpful to anyone struggling with these issues. I’ve been there myself and have used these techniques to help shift my thinking, but also know how hard it can be to uproot those thought patterns. Be gentle with yourself, and patient, as you begin the process of re-routing praise-based responses.

Image via Parenting Ain’t Easy.

Originally posted 2011-09-19 06:10:13.

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41 Responses to “Reader Request: Self-worth and Outside Input”

  1. anks

    HI Sally, at a time when I am absolutely low about everything in my life, relationships, career, self image… this post made me smile… showed me the things I could do. Thanks a lot… 🙂

  2. Frankincensy

    I’ve had a competitive, grades-obsessed streak for most of my life, but something I should have realised earlier was that external validation never really made me happy. I was “successful” between 16 and 18 (writing awards, a publication deal, an offer from one of the best universities in the world). I was also completely miserable. I hated myself, and didn’t think my achievements were anything worth talking about.

    “Needing outside input to feel worthy” implies that when you get the right kind of input you will feel worthy, and that may be the case for others but I don’t think it ever was for me. I’m still hung up on grades and achievements but I know that they alone will never make me truly confident.

  3. Elaine A

    What an interesting topic! As I was reading through I realized that this actually describes me really well although I would have never thought that I relied on praise to measure self worth. My guess is there are many more of us out there 😉

    I think it’s very difficult in this society to NOT measure self worth against accomplishments and acheivements – we have been brought up to always do so. It probably even starts off as a young child – “look that little girl ate all her vegetables, you should too”. I think as you get older, as cliche as this sounds your world gets simpler and bigger if that makes sense. Not that I NEVER compare myself to anyone or anything but but I am able to see who and what the important things are in my life and when I’m going through something internal I kind of give myself permission to sulk about it for a day at the most then I look at the bigger picture and see that it’s not the end of the world. Whereas when I was younger I would OBSESS over the issue and pretty much drag everyone down with me. For me it helps to think about the situation and then think about the worst possible outcome and then I realize that it’s really not that bad after all. For example, if I apply for this job and I get it, great! If I don’t, that’s fine – the interview will have been a learning experience and I’m already great at my current job so I’ll just keep on going until another opportunity presents itself or until I decide to make my own opportunity.

    I know it’s not always simple nor black and white, but this thought process usually helps me get through.

  4. Anuja

    If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was Christine!
    Yes, I go through exactly what she outlines on a daily basis – when we hear about how we shouldn’t be insecure about our appearances because we’re smart, strong, accomplished, it reminds me that I don’t think I am. And yes, now that you’ve put it this way, I realize I think of my GPA, which is not as high as I’d like it to be, as a mode of self-worth, not unlike many women think of their weight. My friends don’t seem to relate, either – they’re busy feeling insecure about their flabby thighs or broken out skin, all the while maintaining perfect GPAs. I suppose to my benefit, I don’t have any insecurities with my appearance at all – I’m pretty happy with what I see in the mirror.

    Thanks for this advice, Sal. It really, REALLY hits home, especially today. 🙂

  5. heather

    oh! this is a great lady-thing to talk about! because this is hard–and hard things feel less hard if you realize everybody else is dealing with it, too.

    ‘doing the best you can with what you have’…that’s so important to remember, about EVERYONE, *and* yourself. i also try (try!) to always keep in my head anne lamott, who reminds you to ‘not compare your insides with other peoples’ outsides.’ and also my dad, who thought he was just teaching me how to operate a motor vehicle when he told me, “you can only drive the car you’re in.”

  6. Jamie

    “The world is full of rewards, and some of the best ones won’t be found in a classroom or office.” What a wonderful sentiment to focus on, Sal – thank you! 🙂

  7. Angela

    Thank you!! My self worth has taken a beating the last few years due to several work related transfers for my husband. He lands a great job and I have been working below my skill level for probably 8-10 yrs. I finally, finally realized his job allows us a quite comfortable life style but if we were both climbing the corporate ladder at hose speed we woould be divorced and our kids a mess. So, I have been cultivating my interests and hobbies,and family relationships outside of work (and loving fashion blogs)

    More than work defines me, I am a good friend, mother, daughter and community member, regardless of my pants size too 🙂

  8. Sandra, aka madam0wl

    While I’m a self-proclaimed introvert, happy to live in my own world for the most part, I think I do crave (or just look forward to / appreciate) outside input. Maybe more so it is a need for feedback in my virtual life, i.e. getting comments at my blog or on flickr photos, facebook, etc. Sometimes I get a little bummed when I create output that generates very little input. Also the “comparison” issue can be very prominent when reading other’s blogs. When that happens I usually step away for a day or two and then come back refreshed.

    But I can also relate to the feeling of insecurity in terms of making the switch from working, to grad student, to being a stay-at-home mom. Going from pulling in an income, to pulling in good grades and respect from faculty & students, to pulling my hair out while raising kids… well, that is a big loss in measures of achievement. After floundering for a year or so, I’ve finally come around a bit, trying to counteract the self-doubt by building confidence in my health/performance/body (with running & yoga) and lately I’m attempting to be more aware of when I’m spiraling down and try to stop my negative inner dialogue and reverse it- by praising myself and visualizing good outcomes. In turn, as a result, I might end up writing a somewhat “braggy” blog post, and if it annoys people or doesn’t garner any feedback? Well, who cares. I’m awesome anyway damn it. 🙂

  9. Patti @ NotDeadYet STyle

    Wonderful post, and a super way to start the week, Sally! It is hard to NOT let numbers of all kinds define us (weight, salary, GPA, age . . .) but when we can break free of those limitations we can be so much happier. Sometimes I do this by arguing with myself: “OK, you are 56 — what else are you?”

  10. Sal

    What a wonderfully wise group of women you are. I ADORE these marvelous comments, suggestions, and stories!

  11. Becky

    The best book I ever read on this topic is “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. A short description of the thesis of the book makes it sound kind of facile; but actually reading the book changed my perspective on achievement and measures in a really positive way. I recommend it highly.

    Essentially, her point is that we can see ourselves as growing beings who are always changing. Or, we can see ourselves as having a fixed amount of talent, intelligence, or whatever, that defines us. Those with a “fixed” mindset view measures of achievement (salary, job title, grades, etc.) as indicators of inherent personal ability, worth, etc.; which leads to the kind of problems we’re talking about here. If your grades go down, your view of your own value takes a big hit. Or you can adopt a “growth” mindset, such that you use these measures as clues helping you discover what you need to do next on your journey of growth and learning. From this perspective, if your grades go down, you see an indication that you need to figure something out, solve a problem. It’s a challenge to your mind, not a threat to your identity.

    The implications of these ideas are fascinating and far-reaching in the realms of school, careers, relationships, athletics, the arts – you name it. I’d encourage anyone who’s struggling with poor self-worth due to outside input to check this book out. It really changed the way I see the world and understand myself and others.

    And it relates directly to why I read this blog! I’d always thought of myself as inherently untalented artistically. Then my husband described to me how he learned to dress with style (and it’s true – he was a terrible dresser when we met, and now he always looks great), and assured me that if I wanted to dress awesomely, I absolutely could learn how. Sal, you’ve been an inspiration and a great teacher; I no longer feel doomed to only two style choices; drab or fashion-victim. 🙂 I am learning how to create and own a style that makes me feel expressive and beautiful. Thank you!

  12. Jo

    This is something I really struggle with. Especially because I was hanging around a judgey person who let me know (gently, kindly) that I wasn’t being successful in a couple of arenas he found quite important (job success, weight). He offered to help me — to coach me at the gym, to encourage me as I job hunted — but I ended up wrapped in his sense that I wasn’t performing up to standards.

    It took me a lot of time and a lot of therapy to understand that his might not be the only way to see the world, that maybe I wasn’t desperately unsuccessful and in need of fixing. And a long time to see that he was more successful than me career-wise because of some of the choices I’d made to stay in the relationship (that he didn’t see that). But 5 months ago, I walked away from that relationship. And in the time since, I’ve come to realize that I’m actually pretty dang awesome and competent. Still looking for work, yes, because that takes a while. But doing pretty darn well, and the future is looking brighter.

  13. Nelly

    Thank you for this post Sally – I am going through the same thing as Christine. I had a low GPA and by chance scored a job where I was valued for my abilities. It felt great, however, the internal politics made it impossible to stay happy there so I quit – and I took it badly. However I am learning by the day that the only way to get through these internal conflicts is to be grateful for your family and friends, busy yourself with activities that do not require thought (housework surprisingly brings its own sense of achievement!), and lastly, be kind to yourself. It’s easy to get lost in our negativity but if we think we are not alone in this, then that’s a step towards helping ourselves feel better.

  14. Cynthia

    I live in the ultimate nightmare of adult ranking and external validation — that is, scientific peer review of your writing, and ranking of your grant proposals. OMG. It is soul-crushing unless you develop a cynical attitude (hey, I don’t actually suck, it’s that the Republicans are systematically defunding science and funding rates are dropping like a stone).

    At first I used to let poor scores or rejections get to me, but now there have been so many of them (because when funding rates are 5% or less, you just aren’t going to get it most of the time) that they just kind of roll off. It’s weird. I didn’t actually try to adjust my attitude, but it adjusted so I can survive. I’m generally a pretty optimistic person (I! I will survive!) even when things are kind of crappy. There are enough good parts — my graduate students, graduating and succeeding! My undergraduate class, having 23 students on the first offering! Etc. that I can just focus on what’s working most of the time.

  15. Rebekah o' Jaunty Dame

    “If someone else says you’re awesome, it MUST be true, right? But that mentality can trap you into needing others to stamp you as approved before you can believe you’re doing well.”

    Yep yep yep. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself choosing outfits you know OTHER people will like, choosing activities you think will impress people rather than the activities you’d enjoy, hurrying through major life decisions to “keep up” with your peers… as a former Praise Junkie, I know!

    Sal, this post is FABULOUS.

  16. Becky

    One other thing I feel I need to comment on; the statement, Grades and work may seem like the ultimate measure of worth, but they aren’t. In my opinion, happiness is. Are you happy? could strike someone the wrong way.

    As someone who struggles with depression, I have had to learn that feeling lousy does not mean there’s something wrong with me. Sometimes things are not OK, and I like to feel free to be sad about that without spiraling down into a giant black hole of self-recrimination. I might have gotten bad news from the doctor, I might be losing someone I care about, I might be in an emotionally challenging situation, and I might feel terrible about all of it; but that doesn’t make me unworthy or undeserving of kindness.

    I fear our culture teaches us that negative emotions are “wrong” – adults get mad at children for crying, so they associate sadness with shame, punishment, and failure to be strong. I still struggle not to beat myself up when I feel sad, and to ask for kindness rather than disdain from others when I’m in a tough spot. There’s a big space between being a whiner and being a stoic, where I hope to live someday!

    I know you didn’t mean anything of the kind, but as long as we’re examining our memes…

    About happiness: I find that seeking happiness for its own sake does not work out well for me. If I follow my heart with both feet, sometimes happiness sneaks up on me. Other times, it doesn’t. Onward I go.

    • Anonymous, this time

      Great approach! Thank you for sharing! So proud of you, even though I don´t know anything about you.

      • Jen

        I too, deal with depression, and I had that thought, although I know Sal didn’t mean anything like that when she asked if we were happy. Because the truth is some days I’m not. And some days I feel so happy and blessed I could jump up and down. And mostly I fall somewhere in between.

        Also, as a preschool teacher, I never, ever make kids feel guilty about crying. Their feelings are their feelings, just like mine are mine, and I do not have the right to belittle them because they have feelings. I try to respect and work with them to find out how we can turn negative feelings around. . . but crying? Absolutely okay. If you’re crying, you’re expressing your emotions, and that’s a-ok in my classroom. 🙂

        Thirdly, I just feel like giving you a little wave. I feel like an island in my depression sometimes, and it’s nice to know there are others out there fighting the good fight. Be gentle with yourself.

        Finally, Sal, you are awesome! As I was having a not-so-great self-esteem day today (Why, oh, won’t somebody hire me?) I am printing this out and putting it on the bulletin board above my desk. This post and comments are just full of win!

    • Kate R

      That last thought about happiness from Becky: I’ve been thinking that happiness is not really the best goal for people. I think the real goal is finding that feeling of purpose, that you are doing something in the world of value. This is a profoundly lasting feeling, whereas happiness is not really meant to be sustained as a way of life. I think purpose gives you a feeling of satisfaction and contentment, that all is right with the world, and that is better than happiness.

  17. BD

    Thank you for this post, it really spoke to me. If I could print this off, pop into the TARDIS, travel back in time and hand this to my younger self it might have taken the place of a lot of therapy.

  18. Anonymous, this time

    Maybe a bit off track, but wanted to share my story in case it´s of any use (or maybe it´s just my inner narcississt…)

    When I went to med school I totally sucked the first two years. I was always late with assignments, always close to failing, studied a lot but not half as hard as I was supposed to, felt the world was against me, and barely passed (until I flunked the third semester). As a person who didn´t have to do much to get way-above-average grades in high school this was somewhat a shock, and my self esteem plummeted. I felt like I was worthless and stupid, and that I was making a fool of myself. I went home, worked at H&M for a while, and then returned with a vengeance. After the 12th semester (yes, med school in Europe takes 6 whole years) I graduated with flying colors. And started my internship. And nobody gave a rat´s ass about my grades. Lesson number one: those digits are not what define you, they do not make you a great and accomplished person, and you do not suck, if your grades do.

    So. After graduation I started my internship (1.5 yrs of compulsory training, we have to do it here in my country BEFORE specializing), and it was rough. I understood, at some level, that I wasn´t more stupid or slow than any of the other interns (even though I was ashamed that I´d had to go to a med school abroad bec of my grades – it´s even harder to get into med school here than in the US), but I was being very hard on myself, and compared myself to too many people at the same time (that´s not fair, peeps). I dove head first into a deep depression (hence the Anon today), and luckily I had a boss who SAW me and kicked me in the butt and got me some help. The standard treatment for someone with a depression that severe is 3 months of hospitalization in a closed ward, on suicide watch. Which is what I would have done, with our without the patient´s permission, had I been a patient of mine. I worked throughout the whole thing (a year), and refused to go on meds (retarded, in hindsight). My therapist (head of the national association of psychiatrists in beeep (insert name of European country here)) was very challenging, and lots of times I left her office in rage.

    Lesson number two: this feeling of inadequacy can SOMETIMES, in certain cases, stem from a narcississtic streak in your personality. As my therapist told me that I had. I misinterpreted her, and overdramatized the whole thing, and thought she was retarded and rude. Turns out, she was right. I do have it, and it´s normal, and it stems from my parents/childhood/wrong attitude/whatever. The Why isn´t what´s important; it´s the How To Deal With It.

    And here´s how it might apply to you: If lack of achievements bring you down; why? Do you have an urealistic standard for yourself that you´re trying to live up to? Is your life less complete if you don´t achieve what you want to achieve? I don´t want to come off as rude or a know-it-all, because I certainly don´t. But. Do you have other sources in life that make you feel good about yourself? That make you feel your life is good enough? That somebody else might envy you for something that you have? Family, friends, nice apartment, small apartment but made into a cozy space where you feel at home, green fingers, good friends, cooking skills, a nice family, a healthy family? I have a nice family but we´re all fucked up. I had to study medicine abroad, but I wanted to live abroad, and leart even more than I would have in my native country. I have a nice apartment but it´s tiny. I have a husband but I´ve kissed bucketloads of toads adn dragons and bum fluff and losers and what have you, and had my heart broken a billion times. I can cook (somewhat), but I kill everything green and flowery in sight. I have nice friends but I forget birthdays, and some of my friends are guilt-tripping, and some are flaky. I have a nice job, but a lot of the time I hate it. I´m healthy but have bad allergies. And I smoke. (Shame on me; I work in the pulmonology department and hand out patches left and right.) Winter here up north is hard and I don´t have money for the time being to buy a warm coat (my last one got stolen), or warm boots that will keep my toes warm and dry. But I have killer scarfs from Hubs and mine last vacation to Goa. I can sometimes freak out in big groups of people, or stay away from office gatherings or meetings with friends because of insecurities, but nowadays I cut myself some slack, and just tell myself that it´s ok. And I´m considered smart, witty, outgoing and a great public speaker with no fear of making a fool of herself. I have a too big (imo) tum, but my boobs are fantastic.

    Does this make sense at all? You only have one life to live, and the only one in charge of your feelings is yourself. You can choose to be miserable and feel like you´re worth squat, but guess what; you´re fantastic just the way you are. And reaching out to Sally like that, well done. I hope you eventually come to terms with your issues, and realize you´re just as great as the next person. We can´t all be Nelson Mandela. Or, as I have on my fbook page; Eleanor Roosevelt: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. (My addition: that applies to yourself, too)

    • rosie posie

      Thank you for this. It’s eerie, but I am currently EXACTLY in your situation. Due to a multitude of factors, I am unable to continue my 3rd year of medical studies in Prague & I felt so lost. I had long crying sessions & am almost always in a state of disbelief and I felt that I didn’t deserve any more chances because I have failed so completely at life. Reading your comment just gave me strength. Thank you. Thank you,

      And to Sally, I am so glad to have found your blog & it was compelling enough to keep me here as a frequent reader. I would have never imagined that I would find a genuine spark of hope about my EDUCATION and future on a blog that primarily centers itself around style & body image. Thank you.

  19. MrsDragon

    Sal, thank you!

    This is something I struggle with and it intersects with/stems from multiple things. A couple of the biggies:

    -As a kid my parents didn’t set standards (ie: No, “You have to have straight As”) instead they told me I had to “try my best”. Which sounds awesome until you realize that it’s completely unquantifiable. What’s your best? What’s good enough? If I can get a 98% without studying, is that doing my best? If I get a 100% and don’t study, was that adequate? So as result, I am very poor at having reasonable expectations for myself. If I didn’t kill myself trying than it obviously wasn’t my best and if other people are impressed by my sub par efforts, then they are just too stupid to know better.

    -So, when I do find someone whose opinion I respect, it becomes THE determining factor in whether what I did was good enough. (Because to me, it almost never is.) And if they don’t express it then I have myself a nice little crisis.

    -Which is why I identify so much with the Imposter Syndrome:
    which is an inability to internalize and accept your successes and instead feel like a fraud. And the more I feel like a fraud, the more I need external validation to overcome it. Hello vicious cycle.

    I’m making progress. Once I started work and had time for hobbies again, I found myself much more at peace with myself, much happier, and more satisfied with my progress at work. But it’s never a straight line, so it’s back and forth progress. : )

    • Cynthia

      Ah, impostor syndrome. I was one of those kids that just got As because I could, and I made it all the way through grad school and into a tenured faculty position and I sometimes still wonder if I belong here. Didn’t help that my ex-husband used to tell me (after I graduated with a Ph.D. for chrissakes) that I had “no marketable skills” and that I might as well just stay home and let him do the workin’. I showed him. Sucka. Anyway.

  20. J

    Nice article Sally! A few years ago I was “passed over” for a promotion but now I look at it as a blessing!! I would have hated the job and was only trying to make more $$$$. I realize now that I wanted the job for the wrong reasons. After I didn’t get the job I became a little bitter and jaded. However as time passed I realized that there is a lot more out there in life to do and enjoy. I chalk it up to experience and now I can never say “what if” because I tried my best!!!

    Thanks for all the positive input!! Turned 40 last month and bought my first pair of cowboy boots!!! YEE HAW!!!

  21. sarah

    one other thing which I find helps is to avoid or carefully monitor your relationships with people who ARE competitive, who are going to reinforce a sense of comparison and critique. Often, these folks are insecure themselves – and may not hesitate to put YOU down (in subtle ways) in order to make themselves feel better.

  22. D

    Wow, its like you read my mind recently and wrote this post. I grew up thriving on the praise I received for my academic accomplishments, and when I struggled through my first college, I felt like my entire life was a sham. It has been a few years since that time, but now I’m struggling with a similar situation. I always put so much personal value on being a scientist, and now that I’ve been there for a few years, I totally hate it. It is hard to not get stuck in a thought pattern that tells me that I’m a total failure now that I’m admitting to myself that I need out. Thank you for writing this!

  23. ily

    I can relate to what Christine is saying. I don’t like that I do it, but too often I’m feeling bad if outward approval is lacking. Like Frankincensy mentioned, when you look to others to gain a sense of confidence, it almost becomes like a drug and even if people do praise you, you just end up wanting more and more. Also, bad things people say about me can have a MUCH stronger effect on my consciousness than good things that people say, so there’s also the issue of discounting the positive. I try to think of the fact that my worth is not determined by other people. It seems like history is full of really talented people who were criticized and misunderstood in their time. Obviously that’s a depressing situation, but it goes to show that “the crowd” is not usually a good arbiter of someone’s worth. (Or as another example, some TV show that you loved which got canceled after 1 season, while a show you think is awful was on for 10 seasons. Just because fewer people watched the first show, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.)

  24. Darlene

    Thanks so much for this post! While I was the classic overachiever in high school and college who freaked out over an A-minus, I’m coming at this from a somewhat different perspective now: that of a self-employed crafter. Like other artists, crafters have to cope with a LOT of rejection, which might come in the form of low sales, NO sales, craft show or consignment shop rejections, customers at craft fairs who sneer at our work or tell us “I could make that for $5 and it’d look a lot better than yours!”, etc.

    It’s easy to get to the point where you can’t tell whether or not you even like your own art, because you’re so wrapped up in others’ opinions of it. Because, if your sales ever slow down of COURSE it’s because your work sucks and not because the economy’s tanking, right? 🙂 I am going to share this with every artist and crafter I know!

  25. kjlangford

    ack, Sal, I had drafted a comment to this post, but it was getting into the 600 word mark, much better suited for a blog post in and of itself, I’ll e-mail the link to you once I post it should you have time to take a peek. The gist of it is this: this post is awesome and something that I struggled with, and don’t struggle with as much any more to be honest, but I have a feeling I’ll come back around and have to deal with it again one day! Your tips are great.

    Interesting: Sarah’s true story post today shows a woman who decided to drop out of her PhD program after working on it for 5 years, it’s an inspiring story that (I think) is (indirectly) related to this same concept. I love when bloggers have “matching posts”… way less embarassing than wearing the same dress!

  26. Nadine

    Wow, this is a great article with FANTASTIC comments! Thanks for starting this discussion, Sal.

  27. Tatiana

    OMG, thank you for posting this. I know plenty of woman in college who couldn’t care less about the number on the scale but were absolutely crushed when they didn’t do well in a class, me included. Senior year was especially heinous, people were getting into grad school, med school, law school and there I was, scrambling to find a job.

    The only problem now is, my self worth is still pretty low due to a stagnant work situation. Through no fault of my own (yay bureaucracy), a position I thought was going to be fulfilling is now just boring.

    BUT ANYWAY, I’m taking you’re advice and seeing the WHOLE me beyond my job. I AM awesome (and humble :P) and I’ll get through this.

    Thanks for writing an awesome blog!

  28. Christine

    The comments & dialogue this post generated are so fantastic :D! This post is def. bookmarked for future reference.

    Thank you for this, Sal!

  29. Elizabeth

    I teach in a high school and I am sharing this with my advisees. If they read it (I hope they will) it will be rich food for discussion.


  30. pomomama

    Another fine post. Thank you.

    … and then there’s the scenario of academic woman, previously defined by her papers written, research and whatnot, switching around to being a stay-at-home mum where there is nil external reference or job appraisal or yardstick to measure/reaffirm against. Add in late motherhood, aging, and “not even having her looks to fall back on” and you have a recipe for certain unhappiness without a complete reinvention.

    Been there, nearly done that, almost back on track for happiness and satisfaction 🙂

  31. Melinda

    As a person with a severe learning disability that went undiagnosed until I became an adult, this post hits close to home.

    Not only have I been denigrated for my ethnicity and for the way I look…I’ve also had to deal with assumptions about my intelligence and my work ethic. My GPA was low in school because my self-esteem was low. I worked just as hard as everybody else to prove that I wasn’t dumb and lazy, because people have falsely attributed these qualities to me all my life.

    Yes, I would say that I’ve always struggled with feelings of doubt and insecurity. I know that I’m smart and talented and creative. The problem comes with people who assume that I’m unintelligent or have nothing valuable to contribute. Sometimes even my own husband is unaware that he treats me this way.

    I recently graduated university at 27 and it was tough. I worked my tail off. I was constantly writing essays and studying.

    I still encounter people who try to use their own choices in life as a yardstick to see how I should measure up. I just try to remind myself that I am more than my successes or failures in life. I am not defined by what job I do or what grades I earned in school.

    Academic achievements are wonderful, but there is more to life.