For most of my life, I was insecure and my sense of self-worth was nearly nil. My view about myself, my body, my self-worth, was always tied up with what others thought of me (or what I perceived they thought of me). To be totally honest, I still struggle with self-esteem issues! Who knows the reason for this – perhaps some of it came from the fact that my father was a man who did not express his emotions and did not interact much with his daughters, or perhaps it was because that, as a child, I did not believe I had unconditional love and acceptance from my either of my parents, or perhaps it was because I was just born with a few neurons crossed. Whatever the reason, my self-worth was always measured by the feedback I received from others – especially men.
I vividly remember the night I was asked on my first date – even though I now can’t remember the boy’s name. We were talking on the phone and I nearly killed myself in my rush to make it upstairs to ask my mother for permission to go on the date. I remember her bemused expression as she listened to me blurt out that I had been asked on as date and could I please, please go? I also remember how fast my heart was beating and how excited I felt. I had been asked out by a boy – all was right in the world and it meant I was acceptable, worth something, and “okay.”
That was really the only boy I dated in high school – in the conventional sense. Somewhere along the line, after me broke up with me very shortly into our relationship (if you could even call it that), I decided that whatever stuff made up the core of “me” was not good enough to get a boyfriend and that I needed to amp it up in the physical sense. My next “boyfriend” was a year younger than me and we were on the high school swim team together. We never even dated – but we were often together, at early morning and afternoon practice and swim meets. I thought he was cute and funny and he had that typical swimmer’s body with the wide shoulders and narrow waist. I flirted and pursued him relentlessly – and one day, on my twin bed in my basement room, we virgins had our first sexual encounter.
It was awkward and somewhat painful, but I remember feeling a sense of jubilation, because he wanted me and he found me sexy! That feeling was short-lived – because immediately afterwards, barely clothed, he threw himself down on his knees next to the chair at my desk and began to cry. He implored me to come and pray with him for forgiveness! He was, in his heart, a good Mormon boy – and we had sinned in a big way. I felt like Jezebel at that moment – the corrupter of good; the wicked, wanton woman. I declined to pray with him, but I didn’t stop pursuing him…because I “loved” him. I imagine he liked sex, because he visited several times – but he was always ashamed – of it and of me. Our relationship was secret and eventually he found a girl who was a little homely, pure, and not me. In my desperation to be close to him (because, remember, I “loved” him and if he did not love me and did not even want to have sex with me, something really must be wrong with me), I became close “friends” with his girlfriend. She would tell me every detail about their relationship – which, of course, mangled my heart and psyche even more.
After that, I moved on through a series of boys and men. I didn’t want to become a slut, so while I would go as far as getting naked while we made out, I wouldn’t have sex – because that would be a “sin”. Not surprisingly, none of these men wanted to “date” me or be my “boyfriend”. In fact, once they realized that I would go so far, and no farther, they would become angry and frustrated, often telling me in no uncertain terms all of the unflattering things they thought about me and why they wouldn’t want to be with me anyway. After every encounter, I felt increasingly slutty and disgusted with myself – and I was more and more desperate to find “true love.”
I then met my first serious boyfriend – I’ve mentioned him before – “The Dancer”. The Dancer was five years older than my barely 17-year-old self. I met him at the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) swim team I was on after school. I found him strange and a little weird, but I ignored my initial instincts (a trend I followed a lot in my life) and started to date him and then sleep with him. I’m not sure what my parents were thinking in allowing the relationship – but by that time there had been years of rebellion, fighting, defiance, crazy punishment, and therapy. They may have just been worn out with the prospect of attempting to parent me – and I would have just done what I wanted anyway!
I would stop at The Dancer’s house most mornings on the way to school, starting off the day with a bang and sometimes skipping school altogether. I also would see him in the afternoons. You see, I only had a half day of high school during my senior year, as I was supposed to be taking college courses in the afternoon. But I crammed those classes into two days a week and spent the rest of the time with The Dancer and his college buddies.
I think The Dancer was probably as emotionally damaged as me – because even though I slept with his best friend, cheated on him with a relative stranger, and then left him when I met The Loser – he always forgave me, took me back, and nearly had a breakdown when I left him for good. However, as usual, during the relationship much of my self-worth was tied up in what The Dancer (or the men I cheated with) thought of me. When The Dancer would become enraged because bouncers would not let me into a 21-and-older club he wanted to visit, I willingly took the blame – it was me – I should have dressed better, looked older, had bigger boobs. I should have procured a fake ID or been able to convince the bouncer to let me in. It never occurred to me that the problem was actually the fact that this Peter Pan of a man took a minor to an adults-only club, encouraging me to break the law and then irrationally blaming me when his plans were thwarted.
And then I met The Loser – as broken and angry of a man that I have ever known. I should have trusted my instincts when The Loser managed to get me fired from my first radio job and take my place – but he showed interest in me – and that was all it took. I ignored the fact that he had untreated bi-polar disorder – and self-medicated with copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. In my desperation to be good enough, loved enough, accepted – I joined him in his extra-curricular hobbies when he pressured me to do so. I moved him into my apartment, ignored my college classes to be with him, and helped him find a better job at the radio station where I now worked. But every day, I believed him when he told me I was not good enough, that he was better than me, that I had unrealistic expectations of him “putting me on a pillar”, and that I totally ruined his high. In the midst of his berating, I would feel more and more unworthy and desperate – I would cry and beg for forgiveness for whatever imagined sin I had committed. And I stayed…even after my boss fired him to try to get him away from me (and The Loser blamed me)…even through two abortions, because he didn’t like either of us using birth control…even when I was kicked out of college because I didn’t go to classes in order to be with him. And finally, when I got pregnant again and gathered enough gumption to let him know I would be keeping this baby, I married him – even though he told me I must have gotten pregnant intentionally in order to trap him.
When I finally left The Loser four years later, my self-esteem and self-worth was in tatters. I gathered the shreds around me and started over with my two, very young daughters. I swore to myself that I would never again let a man make me feel that I was less than, unworthy, the only one to blame if times were hard. I also swore I would never love so deeply or open my heart so completely that I would risk that kind of pain again. I would do things differently. I would protect myself and my heart. I would never love or need a man more than he loved or needed me. I would never allow myself to be truly open, vulnerable, or dependent on someone – which might allow them to hurt me.
I thought my resolves would protect me – but I was a fool. Looking back over my marriage with Doc, I wonder what might have been if I hadn’t been so frightened of being hurt, so protective of my heart, and more open to love. Would it have been different if I had enough self-esteem to fight when I needed, to say what I really wanted, to be honest with him and myself? I’m not saying that I was the sole cause of the demise of my marriage – Doc had and still has his own major issues, baggage, and faults – and he is not ready to face them, understand them, or attempt to improve them. But I do have to own my part and attempt to learn something from it.
So I continue working on myself – striving to live an authentic life and to honestly express what I’m feeling to those I want to connect with. Trying to love more fully and truly. Determined to reach that point where I rightly and whole-heartedly believe I am worthy of love and respect, deserving of happiness, and that I have a beautiful soul – and where no other’s words or actions can cause me believe differently.
Do you wrestle with self-worth? Do you allow yourself to be vulnerable in your relationships? Did you ever have an “ah-ha” moment that helped you to really believe you are worthy?