Written by Shawna Chen
If you’ve been my friend since elementary school, one of the questions that most often came up in our conversations was probably: “Are you mad at me?”
I’ve been insecure ever since I can remember. To some degree, everybody has insecurities, but when your behavior and thoughts are constantly built around what you dislike about yourself, it can’t be healthy. And while I’m sure someday I’ll figure out how exactly it manifested, all I know is that I used to be extremely self-critical. My confidence didn’t come from my inner self but from external things. It came from my friends who hung out with me and reinforced the idea that I was worthy of friendship. It came from my family’s shows of affection and words of praise. It came from when I could play a piece on the violin without mistakes or write a story that people liked.Because my value of self depended so much on the external, being unloved became my biggest fear. If a friend ignored me one day, I’d begin to worry about what I’d done wrong and why they might be mad at me. Even if the friend told me later that they were just caught up with personal stuff and had not ignored me intentionally, I’d apologize and think to myself, “I must’ve said something they didn’t like.”
Once I came to Gunn, my self-esteem shrank even more. Surrounded by a sea of talented, beautiful, excellent people not just in academics but also in personality, I became so self-conscious I began to compare myself to others wherever I went. “Why can’t you work as hard as him? How come she’s so pretty and you’re not? Why aren’t you trying harder to be outgoing?” the little voice in my head demanded. Walking anywhere without somebody by my side, I felt uncomfortable because I thought it made me seem friendless and abandoned. I doubted everything I did and started holding myself back from enjoying myself and doing or saying the things I wanted to because I worried that I would make people dislike me.
My mind itself turned against me. Whenever I felt even slightly good about myself, it would point out other flaws. If I thought to myself, “Oh, I don’t actually look bad today,” my mind would reply, “But you won’t ever look as good in this coat as ________.” It also denied any form of flattery that came my way. Now, even if my dad told me he was proud of me, my mind would automatically respond, “He just feels bad because you didn’t do so great on your last test.” At night, I would stay up late lying in bed because my mind wouldn’t stop replaying humiliating moments in my head. Making fun of me, it’d force me to remember that uncomfortable day I fell on my butt in the mud in front of a bunch of other people during passing period. Every day, I cringed at the tiniest things I did and scolded myself for not being what I perceived as perfect.My family, friends and teachers have always been supportive of me, but they could only do so much reminding me of why I should love myself. I had to be the one to believe it. But in all these years, I had focused only on what I disliked about myself: my appearance, my awkwardness, my slowness when it came to grasping science concepts… I thought that these “flaws” outweighed anything I could be remotely confident about, so I only paid attention to what I criticized about myself. At the time, that didn’t seem so wrong to me. To me, it was normal behavior to pick myself apart, and to me, it wasn’t unhealthy to pull my confidence from how people treated me. To me, it was just what happened. It was like brushing my teeth in the morning: routine.
My therapist was the first one to point out how self-destructive this cycle was. My judgment of myself was in no way normal; I was constantly demeaning myself and bullying myself into believing that I wasn’t good enough. What I perceived to be the perfect Shawna was not realistic. “You’re human, aren’t you?” she asked. “Then you’ve got to give yourself room to be human.” She told me that my mind was using cognitive distortions—defined by Psych Central as “simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions—telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves”—to hurt my image of self and that in reality, those tiny things nitpicked by my mind didn’t define me. Other people’s thoughts about me also didn’t define me, she said. I’m defined by what I choose to be defined by.
To combat my mind’s distortions, my therapist asked me to try an exercise. She had me sit on one end of the couch and talk to myself in my self-critical voice, telling Shawna all the things I despised about her. The first time I tried this, the list was long. But then, she had me move to the other end of the couch and talk in my self-nurturing voice. “How would your self-nurturing voice respond to your self-critical voice?” she asked. Because I was so used to talking to myself in my self-critical voice, the first time this happened I actually had to sit in silence and ransack my mind for a bit. But eventually, my self-nurturing voice began to talk, reassuring Shawna that she appreciated my ability to empathize and that she liked how deeply I love.Admittedly, I didn’t feel much different after the first few times I tried this. I was skeptical of how it could change anything, really. But as I started doing the exercise more and more, my self-critical voice became more and more quiet. And once I identified those cognitive distortions, I was also able to recognize when my self-critical voice was using them to hurt me in my everyday life. Soon, my self-nurturing voice was automatically responding even when I wasn’t consciously thinking it.
Talking to myself in the mirror also made a huge difference. Now, every morning, I remind myself out loud what I like about myself and what I’m proud of before leaving for school. It seemed a little crazy and weird at first, but it really made me believe what I was saying and start thinking of myself in a more positive light. I could feel myself whole-heartedly enjoying myself again: not so obsessed about making a mistake on the violin, not so embarrassed about my love of Korean dramas, not so fearful of criticism about the way I lead The Oracle. I can’t tell you how much more free I feel, no longer shackled by my critical self.
I used to think that it’s not good to be too proud because being arrogant can be off-putting, but you can be proud without being arrogant. And often, having that pride can get you far. After all, if you don’t believe in yourself, then how can you candidly do the things you want and go after your dreams?
What I can change is how I choose to see myself.
It’s true that some part of me will always be critical and insecure about myself, but that’s not who I am. And it’s true that some people will always disagree with what I do and dislike things about me no matter what I do, but that’s also not who I am. People will have their opinions and their feelings, but I can’t change that. What I can change is how I choose to see myself. I can choose to pick myself apart, to disparage the way I look or what embarrassing thing I do, but I can also choose the more healthy option: to love myself wholly and completely despite those minute details and to define myself by my good.
Even at this moment, my self-critical voice is asking me, “But then what about your mistakes? If you’re loving yourself, doesn’t that mean you won’t ever change for the better? Don’t you need me to help you identify what you lack?” What I say to that is that you can love yourself and still strive for improvement without demeaning yourself. You can acknowledge what you could’ve done better without bullying yourself into thinking that that one mistake defines you.
And that’s what I’m going to do in this new year. In 2016, I choose to love myself. I choose to be proud of Shawna. I choose to define myself on the terms of my self-nurturing voice. In 2016, I choose to be confident. And so can you.