Sometimes, the way we see ourselves, and the way other people see our actions don’t always mesh. We view ourselves one way, and other people perceive us to be another. This skewed perception can go both ways, but if you find yourself always being surprised at other people’s positive reactions to you, you might be suffering from low self-esteem, and that is why their comments feel like such a light in the darkness. I never thought I suffered from a self-esteem problem until I started going to therapy and writing professionally.
Little indicators kept popping up, and I would ignore them. That is until I sat down to write this article and proceeded to research why other people would see me differently than I see myself. This idea started because compliments make me uncomfortable, like weirdly unpleasant. I flounder about, not knowing how to respond appropriately.
Why compliments make you uncomfortable
According to Scott Dehorty LCSW-C (Wolff, 2017), “When you hear a compliment, it is automatically dismissed and feels very uncomfortable. There is not even a consideration that the one giving the compliment has any idea what they are talking about. The positive words absolutely conflict to how you feel about you, so they must be untrue.” Reading these words reminded me of a discussion that happened a few months ago.
I had written several articles for my only client at the time and decided to take a risk and send him some of my self published work on Medium. I couldn’t believe I had done it, or that he responded so positively. The pieces were about my childhood and depicted my mom leaving me behind to enter the witness protection program.
Well, much to my surprise, he read them, and sent me several messages saying:
- “I felt like I was in a movie.”
- “You’re an exceptional storyteller.”
- “I’m inspired by your grit and inner strength.”
I reread his compliments after the shock wore off and found myself questioning if he had meant them. Maybe he was just kind and didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
You see, anytime I share the story of my past with people, and they say things like you are an inspiration, it makes me feel uneasy. In a tiny dark corner of my brain, I feel like a fraud. I shouldn’t be an inspiration or hold a master’s degree or have a happy marriage and semi-normal children.
I wasn’t good enough for my mother to love me, or stay. I wasn’t well behaved or respectful enough for my grandma to be proud of me. I wasn’t impressive enough for my father to get to know me, and I was too much like him for my grandma to ever love me. I was simply not enough.
I sometimes wonder if I am just a skilled imposter pretending to live a life that defies what the stars had written for me all those years ago—the child of drug addicts that no one wanted.
Why do I continue to seek out accolades if compliments make me anxious?
Shortly after this interaction, my client told me he wanted to discuss other types of work I could do for his site. I was thrilled with the opportunity and brimming with excitement to talk to him.
I had no idea how this conversation was going to go, and I was just amazed that it was even happening. I had only recently decided to fulfill my dream of being a writer. I wanted to be a professional writer for as long as I could remember, and life had taken me on a different path.
I decided I was going to claim the life I always desired and become a writer. But I wasn’t a real writer…not yet…and this type of “a dream come true” shouldn’t happen for me. However, we did hold our call, and it was terrific.
Once again, he praised me for all the “excellent work” I had done and told me how he felt reading my stories. He asked me what I wanted out of writing and where I saw myself. Once again, he called me an inspiration. I said, “thank you,” and started babbling on about other stories because I do that when I am nervous. He was amazed by those, and I felt the tears beginning to well up as he offered me the chance to write more for him.
At my therapy session a few days later, I mentioned how I have a problem with these types of compliments. We bantered back and forth about why I thought that was. Was it because of the subject matter they are complimenting me on? No, I didn’t think so, because I hate compliments in general. I mentioned that I thought I suffer from “imposter syndrome,” a new fancy writing term I had picked up.
What is imposter syndrome?
According to Ellen Hendriksen, “Impostor Syndrome is a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It strikes smart, successful individuals. It often rears its head after an especially notable accomplishment, like admission to a prestigious university, public acclaim, winning an award, or earning a promotion.”
My therapist, who also happens to be a writer, looks at me and says, “The term imposter syndrome really just stems from low self-esteem. Maybe that’s it, and you think you don’t deserve the praise because you have low self-esteem.” I thought, why does she always think I have a problem with things I don’t?
First, it was anxiety, which I adamantly denied having, even though everyone who has ever known me says I have it. After much research, therapy, and introspection, it is crystal clear I have GAD. June Shapiro, PhD., says that “The concept of imposter syndrome is better thought of as a close relative of GAD (generalized anxiety disorder).” Damn it all…That got me thinking.
How do I see myself?
When I was a teenager dabbling with make-up, my grandma would say things like “you look like a clown,” or worse, “you look like a whore.” I would clap back and tell her how my best friend had said I looked beautiful! I will never forget her response to this because it was always the same, whether we were talking about make-up, my hairstyle, or the outfit I wore.
Anything that I liked, and handpicked by myself because it made me feel even the smallest bit independent or confident resulted in this type of exchange. She would say how all my friends told me they thought I looked good because they wanted me to look like a fool. After all, it made them look better. I argued with her that this wasn’t true and that my friends wouldn’t lie.
Fast forward 20 years later; I am sitting here wondering if my paying client tells me I am inspirational but couldn’t actually mean it. If I somehow only got this masters degree because they didn’t realize my work wasn’t as good as it should be and they will figure out soon that I don’t know enough to have earned it. On rare occasions, when I do wear make-up and people compliment me, I respond with, “are you sure it looks ok?” While trying not to rush off and wipe it off my face.
I never did believe that people were as terrible as my grandma made them sound, but I did think they would say pretty things that weren’t true in an attempt not to hurt my feelings. These situations always leave me thinking I haven’t done anything right, and any compliment I receive is likely due to the other person’s manners and not my accomplishments.
How do others see me?
One of the final tasks for my degree included writing a personal mission and vision statement. I sent it to the same client and asked his opinion before I turned it in. He said how it sounded a little ordinary for what I am doing. Listening to him describe how he sees the impact of my writing on others was unbelievable.
Whenever my friend, yes, the same one from high school, reads anything I write, she has the most beautiful things to say. Something like: “You took your reader (again) on a very vivid ride through a very traumatic experience and managed to make them still walk away feeling positive at the end of it all.” I laugh nervously and tell her someday I will hire her as my agent because she makes me want to go back and read my work to see what she sees.
Let yourself believe the people who love you
I joke with my husband and my siblings that they only like my writing because they love me. Truthfully, I could probably work on loving myself a little more. If recognition and approval make you feel like a fraud, chances are you could too.
One of the greatest quests of my life has been to see myself the way these people do. Someday, I will get there, but in the meantime, I will continue to say thank you and hope they know how much they mean to me.