School came very easily for me in early elementary school. I was an early reader and quickly understood the game of being a student and how to win at it. Right away, it was clear to me what to do to win positive attention from my teachers: get the answers right (and quickly), follow the classroom rules and help others, especially your teacher.
At a certain point in second grade, I hit a wall: the advantage I’d had in kindergarten and first grade had been exhausted and my teachers were teaching things I didn’t already know. It was disorienting and scary for 7-year-old me, and I was in a crisis.
Luckily, my parents and school counselor were there to redirect me that the goal of school wasn’t to be the best, it was to learn and it had just happened that I had not yet built the skills to learn, since many things came automatically to me in the previous years. Soon after, I found my stride and figured out how to get back on top through the rest of my school years.
In doing so, I received praise and acclaim throughout my school years as a high achiever, and was certain I was destined for success. I never would have imagined at the time that one of my biggest takeaways from my years in education was a crippling need to be a people-pleaser and a perfectionist.
Perfectionism for me isn’t about getting things perfect, per say, it’s always been about doing things well enough that I receive praise from whoever is in authority. From my earliest years on, I’ve fostered an addiction to the positive reinforcement from my teachers, professors, bosses and mentors.
Most unfortunately, I’ve allowed that external judgment to shape my self worth. Which, at first glance, shouldn’t be a bad thing if you’re getting praised. But, like any addiction, it grows and requires more and more. And, if there’s any threat of it going away, it induces panic and anxiety.
If I make a mistake, or perceive that something may not work out the way I’m intending it, I’m swept with anxiety. If I sense that one of these respected individuals is disappointed, angry or upset, I have experienced panic and emotional spirals.
All of this, I’ve recognized, stems from my earliest years of building an identity upon the praise of my teachers, which should be a good thing. But, rather than looking to myself to assess my own worth and goodness, I handed that responsibility off to others.
Psychologist Mel Schwartz writes about this as building “other-esteem,” rather than authentic self-esteem. In order to foster authentic self-esteem, one has to take control of their own thoughts and the judgment of their own worth rather than handing that off to others, good or bad though their opinions may be.
Reclaiming the right to judge myself can feel quite vulnerable at first. Often, we’re our own worst critics. But, good judges are fair and take all things into account. So, rather than simply assessing the things we don’t like about ourselves, authentic self-esteem is built upon the foundation of fair evaluation of the temporal nature of our current reality. Simply put: if there’s something we don’t like about ourselves, we have the option to improve it, and we simply need to choose to do it and put in the work.
The thing we don’t like isn’t our identity, it’s just a present state of our reality. Since we’re living in a constantly changing reality, we contain unlimited potential for change and growth, and that’s an extremely freeing way to approach yourself.