What's a kid to do?
August 31, 2009 1:36 AM   Subscribe

I have had self-esteem, confidence, and anxiety issues my entire life. Lately, my confidence has been getting much better, but it is still very unstable. More than anything else, I want to be able to feel good about myself consistently. Is this possible, given my background (see inside)? If so, please share your success stories or advice on what I can do to feel good.

I came to America as an immigrant when I was 6 and had a rather hard time fitting in. To make it worse, I had a rather tumultuous family life and a slightly abusive father. As a result, I had little self esteem and no social skills -- until High School, I can positively say that I had never established any kind of close friendship.

Since I started college though, things have gotten much better. I've been involved in some extracurricular activities that I've been fairly successful in and that have helped develop my interpersonal confidence and leadership abilities considerably. In fact, there are days where I am positively charming, funny, outgoing, and "one hell of a guy". When I'm like this, I have no problem doing things like going to parties, initiating conversation with perfect strangers, dealing with confrontations, etc.

But underneath that glossy exterior is an absurd amount of insecurity. I am easily intimidated and I feel uncomfortable being around people who are as capable socially, because I feel like I have to keep up with them. If I approach somebody in anything short of my super-confident mode, I tend to be very hard on myself and feel like a social failure. When my self esteem fails, my anxiety climbs until it starts interfering with my ability to function. I have trouble speaking coherently sometimes, to the point that I can hardly carry on a conversation. The social anxiety tends to make me feel very lonely, even when I'm surrounded by friends and have people available to hang out with -- I just know I can't *function* with them.

Some nights I just feel hopeless. Every time I've felt like I've finally reached a point where I could feel good about myself consistently, it's all come crashing down again somehow. Usually it's because I'm not around people often enough -- for the reasons stated above, I only have a small circle of people to spend time with.

I know self esteem issues aren't exactly new to askmefi. There are many questions about social anxiety and a lot of good answers, but very few get to the heart of what I want to know -- is this something I will struggle with for the rest of my life, or is it possible for someone like me to find a consistent sense of confidence? I'll be frank with you -- I'm not posting so much for advice on what to do, but for encouragement that it can be done, not only for myself, but for the many people here I'm sure share the same experience. Please share your success stories. The more detail the better!
posted by ahrara_ to Human Relations (14 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Consistent self esteem just takes practice, and it's not impossible for you! It's rough for a lot of people, even the ones who might seem like it comes easily to them. One thing that springs to my mind right now is that most people understand that people generally fall into a spectrum of extroversion and introversion, and most people see a lot of variations on this spectrum in the people around them. So they're used to some people being incredibly outgoing all the time, some people being mostly quiet, and most people being a mix of the two (sounds like you fit here). Even people just meeting you for the first time on a particularly rough day for you are probably not thinking, "huh, what is wrong with this person?" if you're less outgoing and silly and talkative--they probably assume that this is your normal state: maybe a little quiet or reserved, maybe a serious person who is dedicated and concentrated/focused on something in his life.

Another point to think about is that most people are so busy thinking about themselves and the way they're presenting themselves, that they're probably oblivious to a lot of what you *think* you're doing to make yourself an obviously self-loathing pathetic mess. People WANT to see the great things about you, and they focus on those good things because they have fun when they're around you, and that's memorable.

Lastly, therapy can often be a great help in situations such as this. It's very easy for low self esteem to become a very loud voice in your head, and the key is developing another voice that can talk back with some counterexamples of great things about you, in a voice that's louder or stronger. :)
posted by so_gracefully at 2:21 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's the big thing for you to understand: As long as you base your self-esteem on other people, you are basically screwed and doomed to a life of social anxiety. What do I mean by basing your self-esteem on other people? I mean: worrying about your perfect "performance" in social situations, wanting to be a social god, wanting to have a huge social circle, being surrounded by friends all the time, etc. These things are television fantasies. The sooner you let them go, the better.

Feeling good about yourself is about feeling good about your self, not others. It's much more fulfilling to try being a really good friend to just one other person or a few others instead of trying to make the world think you are some super slick confident maniac. 'Cause no one really cares.
posted by Theloupgarou at 3:16 AM on August 31, 2009 [10 favorites]

I believe that stable self esteem is built on competence, rather than the other way around (under normal mental conditions).

I recommend that you therefore focus on improving the physical mechanics of social interaction - take a Toastmasters course, read a book on body language, read "How to Win Friends and Influence People", etc.

There is no functional difference between unconscious competence and self esteem.

This "outside-in" approach holds true for every other area of life I can think of.
posted by Spacelegoman at 3:19 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was a pretty dorky kid; when I was 20 I reckon most people would have seen me as shy, introverted, and awkward. Since then I've had various jobs, done various "extracurricular activities", volunteered for various things... and by 30 I think I mostly come across extroverted and confident, if still sometimes dorky!

Just the normal course of events, having to interact with all kinds of people, has been enough "practice" to make a difference. One particular thing that helped was to realise that lots of other people are in the same boat, and to try and learn ways of putting people at ease; this is easier to do than "holding the room", it will make you more friends and doesn't require you to be in SUPER CONFIDENT AWESOME MODE.

You won't learn without trying, you won't try without making mistakes, so you will have to learn how to forgive yourself and move on. Bear in mind that everybody else is far more interested in what THEY sound like than anything about you, so you can get away with a lot more than you think you can.

Lastly, some groups of people are much harder to fit into than others. If you find a community of people where you naturally fit in, everything will suddenly be much easier.
posted by emilyw at 3:43 AM on August 31, 2009

My anxiety and self-esteem problems began to ease after a year or two of therapy, and accidentally by way of the births of my children, discovering for myself that other people aren't a reliable point of reference to measure my own qualities. Realizing that I was continually internalizing someone's behavior toward me as a kind of verdict was the turning point.
I couldn't do this myself. I needed help at it, because I was so deeply stuck in this way of living, thinking and feeling. One thing seems to have ingrained this behavior since childhood: Our family had functionally-alcoholic, abusive parents. My dad could come home in a smoking rage, or in some kind of defeated mood to me and my four brothers, or something else we couldn't understand. We were constantly adapting, too young to know we were trying to manipulate their moods. We failed at that often. I can't blame them, they didn't know they were hurting us because we couldn't show the signs and they were too disabled by drink to perceive much of anything.
On the way I discovered another insight, which is that I'm an introvert. That's not a quality of personality as much as it is a prediliction, a comfort level. American society worships extroversion, sometimes at the cost of making introversion some kind of disorder that must be overcome.
So here I am, a well-socialized, fairly successful, emotionally healthy introvert. Other people don't scare me the way they used to. I can make a gaffe and not wonder, or care, what note people will take of it. Your new world at university is the greatest opportunity for growth, change and happiness. I recommend you find a really good professional to work with. DIY didn't work for me. Good luck to you!
posted by nj_subgenius at 4:58 AM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Others have spoken to the fact that these issues could very well improve for you as you get older / more mature / work on yourself. This is all true, but I'd like to mention another issue.

I've found that as I've gotten older, the frequency with which I have to do the be-social-meet-new-people thing has dropped dramatically. High school is all about establishing your social self, but you are thrown together with a whole bunch of people you may have nothing in common with. In college, there's already a little bit of self-selection going on, so you may be more likely to meet the type of people you will like, but there's still just a ton of socializing fit for the extrovert.

But after college, it dies down significantly. You'll have colleagues, you'll have some close friends, you may have a partner and eventually a family. If your close friends and partner are people with whom you do feel comfortable, then you'll feel comfortable in your free time.

There are still difficulties -- it can be hard to meet people, for instance. I'm not saying that everything becomes a bed of roses. But just be aware that college is a very intense period and one that is socially quite unique. Use it while you're there -- it sounds like you're making a lot of progress right now! -- but know that the social world will be quite different afterwards, and easier in some ways.
posted by wyzewoman at 6:06 AM on August 31, 2009

You don't need therapy. No one is totally self-confident. Also, seconding what Theloupgarou said.
posted by bunny hugger at 6:47 AM on August 31, 2009

Perhaps this will not seem initially as reassuring or cheerful as would be ideal, but I have many of the same problems you do; when I tell people how deeply socially insecure I am they tend not to believe me because I overcompensate for my insecurity by going over the top socially and then coming home and agonizing (often literally crying) about something I said or did that most people probably don't remember.

With this in mind, I definitely agree that therapy is a good solution. Not only do I panic less before social interactions, I am also (perhaps more importantly) less likely to flip out about meaningless and unremarkable conversations or things I said in the past that can't be changed now.

In terms of getting through and even enjoying social situations, there are some strategies I've found make me feel better and make interactions easier and more pleasant. It helps to ask people about themselves -- they'll always have something to say and you'll feel like a good, attentive listener. I also find I feel much better when spending time with nerds; in that case, your "hell of a guy" mode can work really well for you. I find that around nerdy people I unconsciously go into a "hostess mode" where what I try to do is make sure everyone else is having a good time which means that a) I have a focus, which helps and b) people are more likely to enjoy being around me because they are more likely to feel happy and at ease when I'm there. I've found that this is really really important -- there's a quotation from Maya Angelou saying "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel" and I think it's really true and very important. If someone is happy while you're around, they'll seek out your company.

I also find that I have a certain amount of social energy I need to use after which point I cannot enjoy myself around people any more. Perhaps this is the same for you? I had a rule in college where if I went to a party and at any point, be it five minutes later or six hours later, I decided I didn't feel like staying I would leave RIGHT AWAY (my then-boyfriend now-husband and I agreed on this as well, which helped; if either of us didn't want to be somewhere we'd just go, no questions asked. We still do this and it's a relief knowing you can always leave as well as actually going when you feel like it). This meant that sometimes I would spend a while getting dressed and walking over and then almost immediately turn around and leave. This is okay -- if your friends don't get it, just tell them you feel sick or have an early class or appointment and only dropped in to say hello. If you push yourself to be social when you're just not up for it you can feel worse afterwards or spend an entire evening being miserable and antsy and just wanting to go home. It might be worth figuring out exactly how social you need to be; for me in college (and, in fact, now) I wanted to go to a party about once a month. That gave me some good, much-needed social interaction, but if I went any more frequently I felt worse, not better.

With all of that in mind, I am generally not one for the armchair diagnoses but in so many ways you sound exactly like me that I thought I'd throw this out there: the very-up-ready-for-anything-you who transitions into the nervous-miserable-insecure-you is something with which I have definitely dealt. I have bipolar and therapy and medicine have been a huge help for me both socially and on a day to day basis. God knows that this in no way means you have the same issue (or any sort of psychological problem) but finding a good psychiatrist really can make a world of difference.

In a final bid to answer your actual questions:
"is this something I will struggle with for the rest of my life, or is it possible for someone like me to find a consistent sense of confidence? I'll be frank with you -- I'm not posting so much for advice on what to do, but for encouragement that it can be done, not only for myself, but for the many people here I'm sure share the same experience. Please share your success stories."

In honesty, I am pretty sure it is something with which I will struggle for the rest of my life, and I definitely know other adults including some a good many years older than I am who feel the same way. That having been said, there are people who are able to help me with this; I have a great psychiatrist and an amazing, wonderful husband who is kind and supportive. I have some very close, very excellent friends who understand how I feel and are patient about it. If I go out about once a month (i.e. to a Metafilter Meet-Up) I tend to enjoy myself and be pretty social. I still obsess about how poorly I believe myself to have behaved afterwards, but everyone there seems to be nice and accepting. I think this IS something with which you are likely to have to deal for the rest of your life, but it does get better, there are people who can help and please also know that you are not the only one who feels this way.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:52 AM on August 31, 2009

Yes, you will always worry about fitting in; it's human nature. College society celebrates a certain norm in terms of social behavior. You worry that if you cannot convince others that you live up to this norm then you will not be accepted. But then think about the absurdity of a room full of people each trying to demonstrate to the others that they 'fit in'. That would seem like a highly awkward room to be in.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 7:23 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have and had this kind of issue, maybe to a lesser extent. What I discovered towards the last couple of years of college, however, is that I'm much happier if I just say "screw 'em" for the most part, and do my own thing. I ended up gravitating towards people who shared some similar interests, who became my friends. More authenticity, less stress! I'm not saying I never worry about fitting in anymore, but I feel better most of the time and I have a great core group of friends. There's a time and a place to be obsessive about networking and outreach; I don't think this is the time or the place.

Also, in high school, a friend of mine was forever espousing the benefits of the "nobody cares principle" -- that is, everyone's so busy worrying about how they look that they don't really care how you look, and if you're a half-decent human being (ie, not terminally rude) you should get on fine. I wish I'd believed him sooner, in hindsight. Reflection on that period of my life shows me he was right.
posted by Alterscape at 7:40 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lots of people (myself included) have been in your shoes and gone on to normal, happy, confident lives. I won't say that I never struggle with moments of feeling like that scared little kid again, but it helps to recognize what a completely changed person I am, and how I've grown in the decade-plus since I felt overwhelmed by those problems.

Take your life one day at a time and recognize that you're constantly learning and growing as a person. Those crippling doubts and self-esteem issues? They haven't killed you yet, and they won't. In fact, you get stronger every day you rise up to meet those challenges.
posted by Chris4d at 10:29 AM on August 31, 2009

For what it's worth, I've heard all this about pulling yourself up by your bootsraps, reading Dale Carnegie, 'taking it one day at a time', doing it yourself and other advice I couldn't bring myself to believe at the time. If ahrara_ is asking this question it would seem he's been told the same thing before. If this is news, fantastic, save some dough and follow a paint-by-number scheme, but you've got to believe in it firmly enough so you won't get blown off course by something a book or an AskMe post didn't tell you.
posted by nj_subgenius at 11:34 AM on August 31, 2009

I want to be able to feel good about myself consistently. Is this possible, given my background (see inside)?

It isn't possible for anyone, given any background. Look, our lives are full of a lot of bad emotions. Somewhere, a lot of people got the idea that we are supposed to be walking around being all happy and anxiety-free all the time.

Not. Gonna. Happen.

Instead, work on reducing your reaction to these negative feelings. The best way to do that is not to do things which you might do to avoid the feelings, such as eating, drinking, looking at porn, whatever. Just learn to sit with them. Make it a game to learn how to engage and focus on the physical sensations (that bad feeling in your gut) for as long as possible. Stay right on top of that bad feeling without engaging the content of it--don't jump into any negative fantasies or anything like that.

Soon you will feel mastery over the feelings you have. Once that happens you'll see a big change in everything.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:06 PM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Give yourself a ton of credit.

Moving to another country at the age of 6, with the things going on in your family and here you are in college. Good on ya. (I moved from the USA to Canada at the age of 6, with no family issues, and that felt like a Big Thing.)

Feels like so much of what you relate is the experience of about 99% of college students--uncertainty in new situations with new responsibilities, being somewhere between a kid and an adult.

Too, sounds like you're getting better at it, and it's generally the sort of thing where the improvement is incremental, not that you can be anyone other than yourself (which may well not be SuperSmoothPerson, ultra-confident and charming in any situation).

Short of just about being unhinged or things like swearing loudly a lot, what we say and do in social settings registers a lot less with people than we think/fear.

An old line: When I was 20 I worried that people were watching me when I danced. When I was 40 I didn't care that they were watching. When I was 60 I realized nobody was watching.

I know that probably sounds trite, but here's hoping there is an ongoing sense that you're doing well, an ability to focus on that.
posted by ambient2 at 10:43 PM on August 31, 2009

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