Self-Esteem: The Repair Kit
I justified it by saying I was only being fun.
When I got older, that clamoring morphed into something more overtly physical. I justified it by saying I was simply expressing my sexuality, which is natural and healthy and right.
What I didn't say, and perhaps didn't realize, was that I used sex to confirm that I had something to offer. As I lured a man in, I knew he was paying attention. And during the sex act itself? Clearly I mattered.
When I was still older, I stopped sleeping around, but I continued making eye contact on the street, in the grocery store, as I passed construction sites. (Look at me! Find me attractive!) I justified it by saying I was being friendly, but the truth was, I needed the people around me to make me feel important.
And not just sexually. If I wasn't told constantly that I was wonderful in all realms of my life, I fell into an I'm-a-failure funk. Then I'd pester the people closest to me—love me love me love me—or trumpet my most minor accomplishments, or complain to friends that—poor me!—some man at the grocery store kept following me from aisle to aisle, trying to make conversation. I measured my value by the attention I got from others.
"In some ways, that's not unhealthy," says Kathleen Brehony, a clinical psychologist, personal and executive coach, and author. "Everyone likes to have a reflection coming back that's positive," she says. "We're social animals. We want to be liked and approved of. The question is to what extent we will go to get that, and to what extent we need it. Anybody who says they don't care what other people say or think about them is probably not well liked or adjusted. On the other hand, there's a problem if you think that if men aren't looking at you, if you don't get an A on a paper, if you don't accomplish something professionally, then you're worthless."
Logically I knew I wasn't worthless, but there was something inside me that felt like George Jetson, running as fast I could, the treadmill about to sweep me under. No matter how I excelled, the voices in my head told me I was never enough. And I wanted to be enough, just me, without accomplishments, without flat abs, without flirting in the frozen food aisle. I wanted to feel—in my bones, my soul, my self—worthy.
So I set out on a quest to find my value on the inside, hoping also to find serenity and, at long last, peace.