Last night I went out for a birthday celebration. No, it wasn’t mine but I certainly enjoyed myself as though it could have been. It was for Dara, the wife of Chuck who was my old high school friend that I got reacquainted with about a year ago, after a 15 year hiatus. There had to be nearly 20 people seated across the long table at the African/Indian fusion restaurant along Kingsway Street. When I arrived I was introduced to nearly all of them, but admittedly I only remembered less than half a dozen of their names. The sounds of boisterous laughter, ching-ing wine glasses and sharing of familiar stories filled the colorful little restaurant, all night long.
Why am I sharing this story with you?
Allow me to back up a bit. You see, I’m an introvert. Sure, at times, I can get into character and become an extroverted crowd-pleaser, but my comfort zone is the introverted guy who sits and listens to your story, nods along as if he entirely relates (which most of the time is true), and during the odd time will contribute to the conversation if the energy is right.
I sometimes get confused between my introvertedness with my low self esteem. Being an introvert, I choose when to speak and when I’d like to contribute. However, if it’s my low self-esteem that’s driving the bus, that’s when anxiety strikes.
I become fidgety and socially awkward, with wandering eyes around the room, feeling disconnected with the conversations. I shut down. I feel judged and begin analyzing what others might be thinking of me. I feel discomfort in my breathing and suddenly my mind no longer pays attention to the social interactions going on, but rather on what my exit strategy is going to be. Perhaps it’s a mild case of agoraphobia, the fear of feeling unsafe and trapped. Or maybe it’s a trigger from my past.
What I’ve learned over the years is that low self-esteem in social situations can be common for childhood abuse and trauma survivors. Starting at a very young age, I was always taught to speak, only when spoken to. If I ever spoke out of turn or was opinionated (which was often), I faced the terrifying consequences of my dad’s sharp temper, roaring voice, and his open-handed slap across my mouth in his attempt to keep me quiet and from believing that my words mattered.
Well Dad, it worked.
Years ago, I explained to my counsellor Guillermo how I feel more uncomfortable around men in social situations and sometimes even at work. I feel judged and insecure by what they might have to say about me. I freeze in my tracks, afraid to say anything witty, funny or even informative because subconsciously I believe that they will release their rage upon me. Guillermo explained to me that these are trigger responses to my past experiences with the men I knew as a child, including my dad and uncles who were volatile and violent.
I must say recovering one’s self-esteem which was taken away during childhood is an incredibly difficult task.
Is it even possible? How does one regain their self-esteem from abuse?
It’s a process that I’ve worked very hard on through the years which includes working with excellent counsellors, recognizing my self-worth and mindful practices to keep my thoughts focused on the present state. The trigger responses are from my past, hence raising my self-awareness to the present helps ground me from feeling those anxious moments during social situations.
However, another way that’s a more in-depth tool to reclaim one’s self-esteem is to forgive the past. This isn’t just passively saying “sure, sure, i forgive everything from my past. I’m over it.”
It’s not quite that simple and quick.
This means taking the long, arduous road of forgiving our abusers. This can be incredibly difficult because of the conflict we hold between forgiveness and anger. It feels almost unfathomable, yet it’s another powerful method to restore our self-esteem. When we bravely begin to learn about the past of our abusers, we begin to find understanding. As maddening as this sounds, this is one of the paths towards forgiveness. Our self-esteem restores when we understand that our abusers more than likely faced much pain as well in their past. Thus the abuse they inflicted on us had nothing to do with our lack of worth, but instead it was a reaction to their own pain. Comprehending this allows our brain to rewire our self-limiting beliefs we have about ourselves and begins the process of restoring our self-esteem. It doesn’t make the abuse right by any stretch, but it puts the events into context. Our forgiveness is not to give anything to them and certainly does not condone their actions, but it is to set ourselves free from anger and resentment that leads to self-loathing. In the process, we learn to forgive ourselves as well.
In the words of Louise Hay, “We may not know how to forgive, and we may not want to forgive, but the very fact that we say we are willing to forgive begins the healing process.”
On January 24th while I was in Atlanta on a business trip, I wrote in my journal:
I’ve noticed in the last several months, I’m suddenly more aware that my self-esteem isn’t as low as it used to be.
I noticed that I’m not very anxious when meeting new people and new clients, even men.
I’m less concerned and worried by what they’re thinking (and I listed out the specific new people I met over the last several months). In fact, I simply don’t think about what they might say or think of me…I’ve just gone in, smiled and enjoyed the present moment! I simply didn’t care!
And last night during Dara’s party, I felt exactly the same way. I’d like to think there’s been some healing going on.