Many people struggle at their core with the sense that something is not quite right with them. They feel inadequate or flawed or just not worthy of being loved. It’s an incredibly painful experience, motivating them to work hard to earn acceptance from others. But, at best, they end up feeling like people appreciate what they do… not who they are. And so they feel perpetually driven to work at 150% or to be excessively kind and generous… they feel driven to earn acceptance.
If you can relate to this experience, you know how emotionally difficult and exhausting it is. While there is no simple fix, you can nurture self-acceptance, and even self-love.
Despite how it feels, your sense of inadequacy is not “truth.” It is only your perception of yourself. This is why there have been people in your life who have seemed to truly care about you and have even loved you. They are not crazy or simply misinformed about you. They see in you what you do not see.
To understand how you might be keeping your negative sense of yourself alive, consider these three mindsets (based on self-verification theory) – and note how they can be shifted to a more positive perspective:
1. Selective attention: When people see themselves as flawed or inadequate, they are likely to pay more attention to experiences that confirm this.
Example: Maggie – who struggles with a sense of inadequacy – spends the day with her friend, Nancy. Although they talk and laugh a lot throughout the day, Maggie is particularly aware of the moment during lunch when Nancy says that she is aggravated with Maggie for something.
How Maggie can shift her mindset: I am focusing on the one negative thing Nancy’s saying. The reality is that she’s also saying she liked shopping together and having a chance to catch up.
2. Selective memory: Insecure people hold onto the memories of experiences that they believe confirm that they are flawed.
Example: Later that night, Maggie keeps replaying Nancy’s aggravation with her over lunch, even though it was only brief. Of course, this memory reinforces her sense that Nancy did not enjoy her company – which she then uses to support her sense that there is something wrong with her.
How Maggie can shift her mindset: Nancy was frustrated with me over lunch, but that really did not last long. She also clearly had a good time throughout the day – like when we laughed as we talked about some of the things we did in high school and when we tried on clothes in the store. When I consider the whole day, she seemed to enjoy my company as much as I enjoyed hers.
3. Selective interpretation: When people begin with the belief that there is something inadequate about them, they tend to interpret their experiences through this lens. Any ambiguous feedback is seen as negative.
Example: When Maggie said she enjoyed the day, Nancy did not respond. Maggie assumed that this meant Nancy was upset with her.
How Maggie can shift her mindset: I assumed that Nancy not responding meant she was upset with me, but I don’t know that for sure. In fact, she definitely seemed to have been having fun most of the day. Maybe she was distracted at that moment, or even just tired.
Observing and reflecting on your mindset can change your whole experience. But because this can be so difficult to do, you may find it helpful to journal about it and talk with a supportive friend or therapist. As you do this, you can begin to see the ways you perpetuate all those negative feelings toward yourself. And you will see how the negative feelings are based more in perception than reality – which means that you can change them. With time and persistence, you can learn to embrace and love yourself for who you are.
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