In this life, each of us has the task from birth through adulthood of pursuing what psychologists refer to as the "separation/
individuation" process: moving away from parents and others to stand alone, to value ourselves and to trust our own judgments, opinions and decisions.One woman cogently expresses the self-diminishment that can come from not "separating" and "individuating:" "For years I felt like a liability - rather than an asset - to others and to myself. I was always trying to please other people, to say the right thing and to fit in."
Continuing, she says, "My lack of self-worth expressed itself in every facet of my life. If I went to a doctor, I felt reticent to even ask questions, not wanting to appear I didn't know something. If I went to the grocery store and the clerk looked at me `wrong,' I was sure it was because there was something wrong with me. If wanted to express my opinion or give someone a compliment, I felt so badly about myself, I would wonder: `Why would they care about what I think?' I ended up feeling isolated and lonely, disconnected from people at any level."
Notice that this woman's focus is "other-centered," that is, she is looking outward, rather than inward, for her strength. And she is assessing her worth through the ambiguous cues of others. This "other-centered" focus leaves her extremely vulnerable to the whims and capricious moods of others since the stark reality is that there is no direct relationship between "pleasing" and gaining abundant gestures of approval. At best, these rewards are only intermittently conferred by other people.
In addition, her "other-centered" focus prevents her from furthering her development of self since shebases her movements on the movements of others.
The following are ways that you, or anyone, might focus on others - to the extreme - and at the expense of developing a self:
- letting your good feelings about who you are rest on approval from others.
- focusing typically on pleasing others without putting your own needs into the equation.
- putting aside your own interests and hobbies to invest in those of others.
- letting your fear of rejection or anger determine what you say or do.
- valuing another's opinion and way of doing things more than your own.
- being constantly critical of yourself, inevitably viewing yourself as inferior to others.
- becoming an expert on the thoughts, feelings and wants of others at the expense of knowing your own.
- bolstering your self-worth through solving others' problems and relieving their pain (this self-worth ultimately plunges when you can't achieve your objective).
- feeling the need to be attached to another so that you won't feel insecure, frightened, incomplete or inadequate.
- using a significant other as a mirror to define yourself and to tell that self who you are.
- experiencing your very existence as threatened if a relationship is in jeopardy.
No one escapes grappling with these life issues, and most people experience significant ongoing struggles emanating from not finding a satisfactory balance between having relationships and having a self. For most, in fact, finding such a balance is a lifetime quest.
Though there are no easy answers as to how to develop a clear core self, these are steps you can take:
- Recognize that you, as the guardian of your self, are in charge of your own self-development - no one can make that investment for you.
- Decide to make a substantial, growing, life-long investment in your self. You are all you have! And you are worth the time, energy and resources an investment will take.
- Endorse your self. Give yourself the right to have opinions, beliefs, values and positions that are different from those of others - without penalty. Put yourself on the same plane as other people - if your position differs from another, that simply means you two are different - not that you're flawed.
- View disapproval as having to do with the idiosyncratic perceptions and present mood of someone else, not with your worth as a human being. You are intrinsically valuable simply because you are. You will make errors because you are a fallible human being. That has to do with your growth - not your worth. Learn from mistakes but don't diminish your intrinsic value by labeling yourself "dumb," "disorganized," "inadequate" or the like.
- Avoid putting all your attachment needs in one basket. Developing multiple sources for love and nurturance and stimulation will aid you in feeling secure and independent.
- Continually seek experiences that will increase your psychological awareness and understanding of your self. Focus inward to analyze and change your responses rather than outward to change the responses of others.
- Read books that will help you conceptualize ways of developing a firm sense of self such as: "Feeling Good," by David Burns; "Co-dependent No More" by Melody Beattie; and "The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships" by Harriet Goldhor Lerner.