Words matter a lot to me.
I spend too much time thinking about them, the meanings behind them, their uses in different phrases, how they’re used to communicate completely abstract things like feelings…
I think I spent most of my life thinking that I didn’t need others’ positive words because they were absent anyway. And I could supply my own. Self-love, right?
But here’s what I learned: no matter how much compassion I gave myself, how many compliments I wrote down as statements, and how much I believed them, it didn’t replace the fact that I needed to hear them from others.
About a year ago, when I voiced this concern to someone, pointing out different occasions when I did it to them, they told me, “Well, I guess I don’t feel like I need to hear it. I’m not insecure in that way.”
Is that what I was asking for — I thought to myself — for someone to take a one of those carnival hammers to my insecurities because I wasn’t strong enough to win this game myself?
But here’s the thing: I like myself.
I know, I know. I’m a woman, and I’m not supposed to.
But here I live, defying the principle rule my existence relies on — because I do in fact believe certain things to be true: I’m empathetic and tend to pick up on people’s moods and feelings quicker and more perceptively than most; I’m analytical and think deeply about subjects, heavily refraining from any black-and-white thinking; I love to make the people around me feel special and take great pleasure in giving them les petites attentions to make them aware that someone is paying attention; and I’m easy to confide in, as evidenced by the listening role I play at any party, bar outing, or gathering.
My looks have been confirmed to be of conventional appeal (thank god, how do you go on otherwise?), and beyond that, I don’t care to look like a guy’s Instagram model fantasy, a modernized Bratz doll. Besides, I tend to find people with quirks that defy the standard, much, much more attractive (you have something to actually look at!), so I don’t trust the patriarchal beauty ideal. It’s crazy, but hear me out: I am actually content with looking how I do.
I could keep going, but you might think I’m self-involved — a woman’s sin.
So why does any self-help book, magazine article, Reddit relationship post tell me that I’m insecure if I need the people in my life to tell me that they agree with my opinion of myself?
Well, an easy answer would be to blame the three mental illnesses that inhabit my brain permanently. Some days, they make it hard to be honest with myself, and I wind up sinking into their criticisms. But I guess if you consider an eating disorder to be a body self-esteem issue, you’ve already disproved my point, you smarty Twitter egg, you.
Another thing to which I could point is the language of extremisms we’ve adopted. Online only, at first, and soon after, ubiquitously. We make up hard definitions for everything, deciding that if something doesn’t quite fit into it, it has to be its direct opposite. A spinning globe with only the North and South poles to provide us refuge from drowning. Two circles that never intersect; John Venn never existed anyway.
Or it could be that we expect vulnerability in others first, as emotional guru (only not for a cult) Brene Brown would say. I grew up mainly surrounded by women. And women, it should be stated, are generally more complimentary than men. The one compliment I tend to receive from men is that I look decent — be it guys I’ve dated, befriended or been a stranger to. Sometimes they defer to the idea that they don’t want to give empty compliments, fill my head with nonsense that they don’t think, which leads me to wonder why they think saying something nice has to happen at the expense of truth. Really, in my very personal but baked-in-observation opinion is that it requires vulnerability to tell someone how you feel about them, especially when criticism comes more naturally.
But at the end of the day, it is my firm belief that communicating absolutely no or very few nice things will, inevitably, plant the seed of belief that you don’t think them… Almost as if no one can read your mind.
And the idea that a confident person “doesn’t need to hear it” doesn’t hold ground if everyone around them compliments them anyway. The Dunning-Kruger effect is the reality that men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both, but their performances do not differ in quality… Almost as if the world has built one side up and torn down its supposed opposite.
And what does it look like, a world without positive communication?
Wedding vows without your partner making any reference to what you’re like, or why they want to marry you; a birthday card from a friend with only their signature under a Hallmark writer’s generic sing-song poem; accomplishing a life goal and having no one voice their pride at seeing you do so; no compliments, no encouragement, no acknowledgement of noticing you, who you are, what you’ve done.
And then what?
We’re all staring at our bathroom mirrors covered with so many Post-its of affirmations that we can no longer make out our reflections.