I used to think if I hadn’t burst a blood vessel on trying to achieve something, I failed. If I wasn’t making myself physically, mentally and emotionally ill with worry and stress, I was slacking. This is a problem when you have low self-esteem. No matter how much effort you plough into a project, no matter how hard you work, no matter what you achieve, you can never live up to your own expectations. I used to call myself a perfectionist but now I know better.
This is how people with chronically low self-esteem excuse their actions of self-flagellation. We tell ourselves that we are “perfectionist”. We tell ourselves we are “meticulous” and determined to do make a good job of it. But in the end, we know our best is never going to be good enough. It manifests itself in many ways but it is not any of the things by which we excuse it.
Having low self-esteem is a perversion of perfectionism. It is a perversion of being meticulous. It is a perversion of having high standards. It is a perversion of conscientiousness. It is a perversion of being realistic. It is a perversion of modesty.
In the early part of the last decade, I applied to go to university as a mature student. I was pushing 30 and in the full realisation I would be the eldest by far. It wasn’t a problem; I made some great friends and my time at uni was sadly too short but wonderful. The eight months between the UCAS application and starting my course I went through a lot of angst. What if I wasn’t good enough? What if I couldn’t cope? What if I had to drop out, what then? I didn’t drop out. I made it through the first year without problems.
Then the anxiety about the dissertation started. What if I messed up? What if I failed the degree because I messed up the dissertation? I came away with a 2:1 with a first for my dissertation. Let that sink in for a moment – I received a first class grade for my dissertation. Out of a class of about 40 people, only a handful of people got a better grade in their dissertation than I did.
This solid degree mark and the astounding dissertation mark spurred me on to study a master’s at the same university. Again, the anxiety started – what if I was punching above my weight? What if I mess up and have to drop out? What if I mess up this dissertation. Again, none of these things came to pass. I achieve my postgraduate degree with a merit. The grade is less important at master’s because only about 3-4% of the population has one. You’re an attractive prospect to an employer even if you passed by the skin of your teeth.
Do you think this convinced me I was academically capable? No. I was convinced I wouldn’t have the ability to do a PhD. In the end, money stopped me going for a doctorate and it would be many years – an ill-fated marriage and a divorce that would finally see me on the road to remedying a condition that had given me so much anxiety.
You are never “cured” of low self-esteem. However, you can fight it. You can learn self-acceptance and realise that you did your best. You can learn to stop punishing yourself and learn to be far kinder. Kindness towards ourselves is the best weapon we have.