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.
I started with books. First I tried the intellectual ones that delved into the female psyche and our traditional/historical role in society. They didn't help. I was already much too cerebral and could understand the heck out of this problem without doing diddly for my self-esteem.
Then there were the perky self-help books that told me all I had to do was open my mind to the beauty inside. That message was all well and good—except I knew what was inside, and it was inadequate. I was sure I had to be perfect to be loved.
The books kept me in my head, but my problem was deep in my gut, and hard to reach. I had done therapy, talk talk talking about this inner chasm, yet there it stayed, needy, gaping. Then I met Kim Forbes, a psychotherapist in Virginia Beach.
"We have to take the problem outside," she said, "where you can address it with all the resources you have as an adult."
Those voices, the ones saying I wasn't pretty or competent or worthy, were, Kim told me, voices from childhood, echoing, stuck in an endless loop. To the little girl who heard them, they were inarguable, but not to me as an adult.
Which is how I find myself talking out loud to a photo of a sweet little gap-toothed girl, her bangs cut straight across her forehead, her eyes innocent and wide.
"You are beautiful," I tell the picture.
Kim leans in. "Tell her it's not her fault. Tell her she is lovable."
I struggle not to roll my eyes. I am the anti-woo-woo, the confirmed skeptic. Still, I repeat her words.
"You are lovable," I say, feeling foolish. Then I get mad.
"How can anyone have told her she was stupid, fat, or ugly?" I ask. "Look at her!"
"I know," Kim said. "She's wonderful."
The photo is of me, of course, at age 5, wearing a yellow dress my mom had made. Kim and I are doing an exercise designed to separate my intellectual side from the emotional, and allow the former to comfort the latter. The picture is supposed to represent my emotional side, the one that has been bruised and quashed and never made to feel important. It's Kim's theory that both sides have to be acknowledged in order for me to feel mentally well.
"This is the child who needs to be told that she's lovable, that she's enough," she says. "That she's not perfect, and it's okay. She needs to hear it. You need to hear it."
In spite of my internal eye-rolling, I do it. I tell the little girl that she is lovable, that she is worthy.
"You don't have to be perfect," I say. I say it out loud. And, awkward and artificial as the whole thing seems, tears well up. It feels hokey to be talking to a photograph and to cry, but there it is, a deep swell of feeling spouting up, a realization that it's true, that that little girl is enough, just as she is, without accomplishment, without successes, without even trying. And that little girl is me.
I leave the session somewhat drained.
I grew up in a big Catholic family, my parents scrambling to meet everyone's needs in spite of erratic income and their own parents' stilted parenting. Their expectations were high, in hopes, no doubt, of helping us succeed. But the message I grew up with was "You'll be good enough if…" The "if" was different depending on who was doing the messaging, but it was never just "You'll be good enough" or—even more unlikely—"You are good enough."
So the next day I draw my living room blinds, prop the photo on a chair, and clear my throat, feeling utterly goofy.
"I know you're sad. I know you hurt. I know you want to open up and feel joy," I tell the picture. "It's okay. Because I—the grown-up version—am here to protect you. I am here to celebrate and marvel with you. It is okay to feel. It is okay to admit to flaws."
As I speak, I think of my daughter and the effort I have put into making her world a place where it is okay to have fears, to cry over boo-boos, to believe someone else is taking care of the big picture. I think of how I hold her and tuck her in, how I brush back her hair and laugh at her stories. I hope she'll grow up knowing she's enough.
Even as I form the thought, I feel a swelling of hope for myself. Maybe I need to do that for me, silly as it sounds. Tuck myself in, tell myself I'm worthy, laugh at my own jokes. Maybe that little girl with the trusting smile is going to be the one who heals me. I open my eyes and look again at the photo. This time, though, I'm talking to myself, the grown-up version. "I am flawed and I am imperfect," I say, "and I am enough."