The year was 1997, and I already held the unshakable belief that my same-aged cousin was simply better than me. I didn't see this as a loss, but merely a fact; where she was well-behaved and obedient, I was loud and outspoken; where her bedroom was neat and organized, mine was a minefield strewn with toys and clothes; where I viewed her as beautiful and soft, I felt jagged and out of place. Only a 7-year-old could view the world in such binary terms—I was attempting to piece together my place in it, using another person's attributes as the yardstick by which I measured my own.
This comparison was fostered by the fact that we were not only cousins, but best friends. For all of the ways in which we are different, we're also very much the same—our names start with the same letter, we attended the same school, and we look enough alike that we happily moonlighted as the brunette Mary-Kate and Ashley for the better part of the '90s. Since a young child's fledgling identity is shaped almost solely by outside validation, I was acutely aware of the ways in which I subjectively seem to fall short. I allowed what I believed to be absolute truths mold my embryonic perception of myself, rather than seeing my observations for what they were: opinions.
In some ways, we thought of ourselves as a duo, rather than as individual people with our own thoughts and beliefs—I didn't enroll in the soccer league or attend the sleepover unless she did, and vice versa. We tethered a much-needed sense of comfort and security to each other, happily weathering the ups and downs of life as a team. Our identities were very much formed in conjunction with one another, giving us an inexplicable bond like that of twin sisters, with the same inferiority complex.
The year was 2006, and we'd loosened our reciprocal grip on the security blankets we attached to one another. Though we remained extremely close throughout high school, we began to shed our shared identity, making room for sports teams, individual passions, and new friend circles. We learned to accept and celebrate our differences, rather than secede from them. But in many ways, the seeds had already been sown—the tendency to underestimate myself wasn't just an adolescent phase, but it was a belief system hardened over years of repetition.
"From a young age, we all learn who we are and who we should be as reflected in the people around us, and if we find that other people foster social comparison, then that becomes how we see ourselves," Sherry Benton, Ph.D.,founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, tells MyDomaine. "The mask that we show the world [becomes] the part of us that's important, rather than being able to look inside at who we really are, behind that mask, and accept that deeper part of ourselves."
Another decade would pass before it finally occurred to me that I had attached my sense of self-worth to another person at a young age. For all the ways that this was positive, giving me a built-in confidante and best friend for life, I would struggle to accept the parts of myself that I viewed as inadequate in comparison.
My self-esteem soared throughout the exploratory phases of high school and college. I fully embraced my individuality and grew instrumentally more confident in my own abilities, interests, and personality—dance, writing, and drawing gave me a newfound sense of conviction. But this baseless, self-imposed belief that I was never enough ran just below the surface—a silent undercurrent that quietly cast a shadow of self-doubt on even my greatest triumphs.
"The human tendency is to go out into the world each day and hunt for the evidence that reconfirms the beliefs we already hold," adds Steve P. Levine, MD, board-certified psychiatrist and founder and CEO of Actify Neurotherapies. "We unconsciously select the information that reconfirms these existing negative core beliefs, which is then a direct barrier to happiness and well-being."
The year was 2015, and my cousin and I were now a two-hour flight and an entire world apart. After a decade of searching for this place of happiness and contentment—a place where my insecurities and doubts would stop following me—it finally dawned on me that this place doesn't exist. I came to recognize that this perfectly imperfect, seemingly inconsequential string of experiences is life. So many of us go through it waiting for the good parts to finally arrive, but we find true contentment when we can embrace the fact that life is a never-ending work in progress. Happiness isn't dependent on the absence of hardship but on the ability to accept who we are—every quirk, crack, and flaw, both real and perceived.
"Self-love is self-acceptance. We need to accept who we are, identify the strengths in that, and let those strengths guide our growth as people," says Benton. "It's being able to look at yourself realistically and love and appreciate who you are, with your strengths and your foibles. Accept the things you struggle with. The more you can show yourself compassion and understanding, the more compassion and understanding you have for other people."
Within days, I feel lighter, like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. The problems in my life are still there, but they don't hold as much power. Over time, I've been able to accept and appreciate the fact that I'm more opinionated, that my room may never be clean, and that some of my features are more pronounced. Most importantly, I accept the fact that these things are hard for me to accept. Where I used to chastise myself, I do my best to replace those self-defeating thoughts with compassion and understanding. I'm able to see the beauty in becoming, rather than expecting perfection.
This change in perspective has served as the springboard for two years of self-reckoning. In addition to a year of therapy, I've confided in my close friends and family members, including my cousin, and found solace in journaling to reach a place of self-acceptance. While these are all proven methods, Levine and Benton also recommend the below strategies and ways of thinking to cultivate a healthy sense of self-worth and confidence.
Remember That This Struggle is Universally Human
I often felt alone in my struggle for self-acceptance, but it's arguably the one human experience that connects us all. I found comfort in this fact, allowing this sense of empathy and community to fill me up. "Feeling confused about life becomes a source of shame. You believe that you're different from other people, and it makes you feel lonely and isolated," explains Levine. "But as soon as we remind ourselves that we're not alone in those thoughts, that other people share them too, then the pressure is lifted. If you walked into corporate boardroom in America, which is going to be filled with high-achieving, successful people, and you asked them to write their greatest fear on a piece of paper and hold it up, almost everyone's would say the same thing: that I'm a fraud and I'm afraid everyone's going to find out."
Change Your Internal Dialogue
A steady stream of self-criticism tends to belie the struggle for self-acceptance, and the first step is to become aware of these self-defeating thoughts. "Change your internal dialogue instead of avoiding those thoughts that run through your head. Don't give them so much power," explains Benton. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you observe your more self-critical thoughts, challenge them, and replace them with more positive sentiments rooted in reality.
"In a nutshell, CBT is the idea that your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are tied together, in a series, and so something that influences one influences the rest of them," explains Levine. "If we have these negative core beliefs about ourselves, and if most of our negative thoughts are just in the service of reconfirming these things that we already believe, then the tools of CBT provide a method for challenging those thoughts in a way that the brain will actually listen to. It's essentially applying the same degree of skepticism to our own thoughts that we do to others." Here's how it works:
1. Select one of the negative core beliefs that you want to change.
2. Come up with evidence, not just wishful thinking, but concrete evidence that you truly believe, that shows you a more realistic picture.
3. Repeat these more reality-based notions to yourself over and over again.
"If you do this, and you put it all together, and then you re-rate how much you believe that initial thought, and then rate how strongly the emotion is attached to that thought, it will move to some degree. It's the accumulation of this. Every time you go through this exercise and you challenge thoughts that are tied to a similar theme, you're adding weight to the other pan, and with enough practice, you can tip the scales."
Put Aside Self-Judgment
We all have a tendency to be hard on ourselves, but "it's easier to grow as a person and develop and engage with self-improvement if we've put aside self-judgment," explains Benton. She suggests viewing yourself at a distance or from a place of objectivity, "because most of us wouldn't be nearly as hard on someone else as we are on ourselves," she adds. "Getting some distance and changing some self-talk can help you work toward that self-acceptance. What would you tell a friend who says those things that you say to yourself?"
Both Benton and Levine recommended meditation as an effective tool in cultivating self-acceptance. "Transcendental or mindful meditation can help us practice letting go of that perfectionism and accepting flaws and being overall more accepting of ourselves," says Levine. Specifically, Harvard Health suggests mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation.
"Mindful attention to emotions involves not 'judging' but observing your emotions when they arise," writes Srini Pillay, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "This can lower your brain's emotional response to anxiety and distress. It effectively 'calms down' your amygdala." Loving-kindness meditation, on the other hand, works to change the activity in regions of the brain that perceive and process emotion. Doing so successfully is associated with "greater connectivity within the brain," he adds. "A lack of self-acceptance has been associated with excessive right-hemisphere activity in the brain. Loving-kindness meditation provides a potential way to correct this imbalance."
I now hold the unshakeable belief that you determine your own self-worth. Living according to this mantra is easier said than done, and there are days where I find myself slipping back into old habits. But I'm continuously surprised by the good things that can happen when you simply accept yourself for who you are. I'm able to look back on my perceived inadequacies and view them as some of my most treasured assets. When you allow outside influences to shape you or your opinion of yourself, you're giving up the vitally important power of determining your own happiness and self-worth. I'm happy to say that in many ways, I've reclaimed that power, and in doing so, I'm reclaiming myself.