Like many other women before me, I have always struggled with finding self-acceptance. Whether it’s been nature or nurture, from a very early age I never really felt like I was worth anything. No amount of education, degrees, accolades, personal or professional successes, not even money, made me gain any self-esteem. Not permanently, at least. In my experience, the presence of my own sense of confidence hasn’t necessarily been static. It has had a certain ebb and flow. And I find that, especially for women, a high sense of self-worth can cycle and be quite fluid.
My lack of self-acceptance had spilled into my work and into interactions with colleagues. Though I may have spent significant time and money on attending continuing education courses, I had always felt significant anxiety about participating in discussions and especially raising questions. Though the old adage goes, “There is no ‘stupid’ question,” for me, the idea of asking a question brought a constant worry: Would everyone realize someday I didn’t belong in dentistry? Would someone one day realize I was too stupid to belong?
Resolution to participate
In the 15 years I’ve practiced dentistry and attended continuing education seminars and local events, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve raised my hand to pose a question. This year, however, I made a new year’s resolution that no matter my level of anxiety, I was going to bring myself into the discussion and participate more. I was going to make myself belong.
Very recently I attended a course which included a treatment plan presentation by a male oral surgeon. When the presentation came to a conclusion and the floor was open for questions, with my heart beating a million times a minute, I stayed true to my resolution and raised my hand as high as I could with a well thought out question. I did this 5 times. And, 5 times, the oral surgeon, having made eye contact with me, called on a neighboring male dentist. At first, I was confused. As the next case presentation ensued, my distress skyrocketed. I became angry and felt slighted. I felt ignored. My hands started to shake, and tears began to gather. I excused myself and left the room. I thought, “What just happened?”
Many times I had experienced discrimination due to being a woman. I’d been treated unfairly by patients and older male dentists. I’d even been called the “B-word” by the dentist who sold his practice to me, 40 years my senior. But, in my 20 years of studying and practicing dentistry, I had never been treated unfairly by a male dentist who was within my age bracket. This was the first; it was odd; it hurt.
Why the hell not!
Once I got home, I couldn’t sleep. I became irritated and resentful. Having gotten up the next morning, I decided that I was going to call the oral surgeon and ask him what happened that evening, why he had ignored me. Let me express how unusual it would be for me to call my male counterpart, a specialist in his field, to bring on a potential confrontation. Within 24 hours, I went from feeling like I didn’t fit in to “Why the hell not!” and demanding my space in the conversation.
I picked up the phone with my heart racing. I’d never confronted another specialist before, certainly not on account of being snubbed. I presented to him my experience and patiently awaited his response. What excuse could he possibly have?
Much to my surprise, not only did he apologize profusely for having ignored me, he admitted that he, himself, was anxious during the presentation. He said that it wasn’t his intention to ignore me, but rather it was possible he was overwhelmed and simply did not notice me. Taking time away from his patients, he offered to answer any questions I’d had. We talked for several minutes. In the end, he asked if in the future, we are present at a lecture again, I could introduce myself so he can apologize to me in person. He admitted to me another weakness he had: not remembering names as opposed to faces.
In Oprah’s words, this was my “AHA moment.”
In the very few minutes that it took me to make and finish the call, I had learned so much. I have used it as a learning experience, and it has affected me in many ways. I was overjoyed at the fact that I had been brave enough to confront the situation and had acted as an advocate for myself. More importantly, I was thrilled to find out that I had mislabeled the oral surgeon. Boy, was I wrong. This wasn’t a sexist encounter, but I never would have known that had I not attempted to gather more information.
My hope for you is that you have the faith to reconsider encounters with colleagues if in a similar situation. Also, it’s worthwhile to think that we may not be the only ones struggling in a situation.
Notwithstanding my experience, there are people out there who will discriminate against women; I have experienced that myself many times, as I mentioned above. There are also people out there who will make women feel small to make themselves feel big. And in those instances, it’s important to rely on our ability to maintain our self-confidence. It’ll work like a shield of protection, preventing ourselves from succumbing to self-doubt that can be brought on by even the most random interaction.
Signs to watch for
There are some signs to look for if you’re wondering whether or not you’ve let go of your own self-worth. The signs of lacking self-acceptance can be as mild as self-doubt or as extreme as self-loathing.
If you can’t get past your own mistake for more than 72 hours… If you can’t forgive yourself, you need to realign and regain your self-worth. Apparently 72 hours is a magic number as far as processing emotions is concerned.
If you’re over-focused on what your friend has or has not done and minimize your own accomplishments, it’s time to practice self-love.
If you look at others and can only see the good in them and the “not so good” in you, once again, follow the formula below to improve your self-esteem.
When you find yourself in a moment of self-doubt, set out an intention for realignment to regain that self-worth. In following this, it will be very important to pay attention to your thoughts and to recognize when you’re degrading yourself or practicing negative self-talk.
If you’re practicing negative self-talk and you’re having a hard time ignoring those thoughts, find a task to keep you busy. Watch TV, try to read a book, clean the kitchen, fold laundry, sing the alphabet song, do anything and everything to keep your mind occupied with something other than self-degradation.
Begin focusing on a positive self-image, looking at your strengths. Write them down if that helps. Remember the times you’ve succeeded. Keep a scrapbook of “thank you’” notes from your patients and friends. Review those. Look at pictures of your kids smiling. Remember the good.
Focus on gratitude and love. Love is a trump card: It beats everything. Stay mindful. Stay in the moment. Here is a trick to keep your mind in the present: It’s called the 5-43-2-1 mindfulness trick. Put your mind on the 5 senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Identify five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel (which can be anything from your feet in your shoes to a ring on your finger), two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This will allow you to stay in the moment, keeping your mind away from negative thinking.
Remember your “why.” Remember why you do what you do and who you are. Empower yourself with joy: Kiss your spouse, tickle your kids (if age appropriate) or play with your dog.
Do NOT compare yourself to others. Recognize when you do, and consciously fight against it. Only compare yourself to who you were yesterday, and recognize your growth from past to present.
Don’t look for approval from others. You’re unlikely to find it, but, more importantly, you DON’T need it.
Struggle is real
Most people, especially women, really struggle with maintaining self-love or self-worth at a steady state. This is normal. We have good days, and we have “not so good days.” When it dips at times, if we can make an effort, we will come to regain it. My “go-to” thinking is this: “I have had a good life. I’ve been well before. I’ve been happy before. And the past is proof that I will be well again. I will regain happiness and self-respect. I will regain my ‘Why.'”
Many times, I have found myself taking a break in the bathroom, overwhelmed with emotions; and for the first time in my many years of existence, I feel like I have found a solution. I have come to discover that as I close my eyes and silently repeat, “I know who I am,” I regain enough composure to at least show my face back in the world. The idea that we need to elevate our self-worth is important not only because it makes life easier to get through, it makes life more enjoyable. It’s important because we have to show our kids, our family, and our friends that life is worth living and that they are worth living for.
The idea that self-acceptance seeps into every part of your life couldn’t be more true. We aren’t always taught this, but there isn’t anything more important than having a positive self-image. Once you realign and find your self-confidence boosted, your composure and poise will be noticed by just about everyone. My final thought is this: Even as much as I have practiced this idea and have returned to self-love, I still know that it’s not here to stay permanently. I expect it, I know it and now I’m prepared for it.