As an underclassmen, I was very insecure about my appearance and my identity as a whole. Seeking validation to overcome my self-doubt, I found solace in casually hooking up with and sending revealing photos to guy friends who expressed interest in me because I interpreted the attention they gave me as an indicator that I was capable of being loved. Over time, I came to believe that my body was my only asset, and only once I could clearly get other people’s attention did I think I could feel confident and enjoy life. However, the more attention I received regarding my body, the more self-conscious I became, which only heightened my desire for validation.
After experiencing disappointment and degradation, I have realized that the guys were solely lusting after my body and didn’t value who I was beyond the surface. Despite this, I don’t regret what I’ve put myself through because I’ve learned about what I’m really seeking when it comes to connecting with others. But, as a generally sensitive person, I still feel that I’ve been heavily affected, and my perception of love has evolved from idealistic to pessimistic. I wish the emotional consequences of casual sexual activities were more openly discussed, and I want to ensure those younger than myself don’t go through the same experiences. Lacking self-confidence is a normal part of growing up, but I think I should have dealt with those feelings in a different way.
I know the first years of college have a similar hook-up culture to that of high school, and I want to spend those years satisfied with myself instead of seeking approval. I want to be able to have interpersonal relationships that are genuine, and to be able to confidently say that the life I’m living is for myself, not to please someone else.
How can I have healthier relationships with myself and others? Will I ever be able to come to terms with my current regrets?
First, I want to commend you for your courage and selflessness. You’re already taking a huge step towards helping others by sharing your vulnerability. Even after this advice column, I encourage you to listen to, share your insight with, and advise your younger friends who are closest to you — in person. Listen to their musings about love, self-worth and relationships. Offer insight based on your experience, but also allow them to explore. And, when you’re in need of help, reach out to trustworthy, wise friends and family. It might be difficult to expose your weaknesses to many of these people at first, but as everyone learns and grows, you will all be encouraged.
You’re not the only one whose self-consciousness increases as you receive more attention; I’ve noticed that as a common trend around me as well. It seems counterintuitive, but I think it often happens when we tie our idea of self-worth closely to external, fickle aspects of our life, whether they be physical appearance or approval from others. Doing so can make us more prone to disappointment, insecurity and feelings of powerlessness and instability because the validation we seek is, quite literally, only for something on the surface.
Remember that you are valuable and that your self-worth is not defined by others. You are deserving of love — both from others and, most of all, from yourself. No matter what mistakes people make, people can change, and everyone deserves to be given love and support to help this change happen. Though you should treasure and be proud of your body, know that it is not your only asset; your unique character and aspirations are equally as, if not more, special. Hold onto these truths so when people give you feedback, you can accept it gratefully without letting it make or break you. In addition, do the things that make you joyful and proud for yourself, not for others. This should help you feel more fulfilled.
I believe that another core insecurity you may have is trust. Especially after feeling like you’ve been put down or used by certain guys, I’m not surprised that it’s harder for you to trust people. It can be scary. What if others hurt you too?
Learning to trust people can be a long process, but you can start one person at a time. When you meet a new person, keep in mind that he or she probably has fears about your potential relationship too. I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever be cautious — it’s true that not everyone will have your best interests at heart. Nonetheless, I do think that everyone deserves a chance. Just as you don’t want people to evaluate your worth solely based on your past mistakes, many others probably don’t want that either. As you form new relationships, remember what you look for in others and try to embody those characteristics as well. Try to recognize and focus on the positives in people’s characters — maybe even in the guys whom you had bad experiences with. If it’s hard to see positive changes in them, that’s okay. They may not have learned from their mistakes yet, or you might not be in a position to see it. There’s no need to dwell particularly long on difficult memories, but we can learn from our past to improve our current and future relationships.
It’s unfortunate that you had to go through what you did and develop a negative perspective on love, but your outlook can always change and mature. Your idealistic view may have been shattered, but now, you can form a new perspective that is more open, optimistic and realistic. There are many types of love, including familial, friendly and romantic. Identify the non-romantic types of love in your life, such as among your family, friends and mentors. Every relationship is something unique to be thankful for, so treasure and nurture each one. Think about what people’s different love languages are — words of affirmation, acts of service, giving and receiving gifts, quality time or physical touch — and know your own. Give love to others in the ways they best understand, and hopefully they’ll do the same for you. It’s amazing how much simple awareness and actions can make a difference. Finally, even if you have not experienced genuine romantic love firsthand, don’t give up. It is possible; I can identify examples around me and believe that you can too. You will probably be hurt again by other people, but it’s not your fault if people are unjust and cruel to you. Ultimately, time and support from loved ones will heal your hurt, and your opportunity to experience real, loving intimacy may come in the future.
Going into college, there are a lot of things that you can be worried about, ranging from weather to studies to relationships. Trust me, I understand. But as someone once told me, you have nothing to worry about, because everything in the world is either under your control or out of your control. We could try to anticipate everything other people might do, but we can’t prepare for everything that comes our way. At the same time, we can reflect on our past, learn more about our characters and our goals and work our hardest to achieve them. Once we’ve done the most we reasonably can, we should let go and just hope for the best. Some things will happen the way you want them to and others won’t, but in the end, you’ll be okay. You might not understand everything that happens within the greater context, but putting in your best is the strongest, most impressive and most valuable thing you can do.
WITH LOVE: JAMIE
Dr. Moira Kessler, a child psychiatrist at the Stanford University Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, offers feedback to the column writer. She is not providing any clinical services.