It has taken me my entire life to begin to understand why I am the way I am. I am not proud to say that along my journey I have hurt those I have loved the most. I have betrayed family and friends. I have also hurt people I didn’t even know. What I failed to understand about myself until quite recently is that I completely lacked core self-esteem. Instead, I relied on situational self-esteem for much of my life. I never even knew there were different types of self-esteem until I read Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within. In this groundbreaking work, which I came to decades after it had been written, she explains that we develop core self-esteem when we are very young, usually in our family of origin. If we possess core self-esteem, we understand that we are loved and lovable, valued and valuable just for being—just as we are. If we lack core self-esteem, we tend to rely on situational self-esteem, which usually develops when we are a bit older, around the time we begin school. Situational self-esteem comes from doing. We are rewarded for what we do; we must earn situational self-esteem. What I didn’t understand is that because I lacked core self-esteem, I spent the majority of my life coping destructively in an attempt to fill that void.
Destructive coping takes many forms, and over the years, it has appeared in many different ways in my life as I attempted to fill my void. At various points along my journey I self-medicated by drinking too much, I starved myself in an attempt to disappear, I turned to men to make me feel loved, and I took on more and more work in order to feel I was an invaluable cog in the wheel. As a result, I hurt and betrayed almost everyone who matters to me—my family of origin, my friends, my spouse, my children. What’s worse is that even once I started to understand why I was the way I was, I couldn’t suddenly change my destructive coping. Those grooves were so worn into my brain—it was how those synapses were used to firing—that even when I knew I was turning to destructive coping, I hated myself enough to keep doing it.
I can’t go back and change anything that I have done before this moment in time. I can’t undo the hurt I have caused my mother, my spouse, my friends, or my children, but I hope they know that I love them to my core—even if I don’t fully understand who I am at that core. I continue to be a work in progress, and I hope to wake up tomorrow and make fewer mistakes than I made today.
The work I do with girls and women does not come from a place of narcissism. I have not rewritten my past. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t pretend to have any. What I do have is firsthand knowledge of all the dark places I have been along my journey. I can’t change where I have been. But I can own my mistakes, and try to help others understand the difference between core self-esteem and situational self-esteem—the difference between constructive and destructive coping. And while that doesn’t in any way lessen my burden or the pain I have caused, I hope that it helps others move forward in their lives with compassion for who they once were, a greater understanding of who they are now, and a clearer sense of their genuine path. If my mistakes can help one girl or woman avoid the darkness, I will be so very grateful.