Like everyone, I sometimes struggle with my self-image. Now that I’m in my 30s, I find it’s a lot less about my physical image and much more about my mental image. There’s always that thought that I don’t care what people think of me. I think that a lot of people, once they get a handle on who they are as a person, feel that way. This is true of strangers I meet – what do I care what they think of me? But when it comes to my peers, it tends to matter more for some reason.
I want to be seen as intelligent, witty, valuable. I know that I am these things, but there are always those times where my self esteem struggles. I bring this up because I had an opportunity to witness this yesterday not only in myself, but in someone that I consider to be a very impressive person. It was nice to have the reminder that I, we, are all human and that no matter our station in life we all experience the same emotions at one time or another.
I got the opportunity to be part of a practice focus group for something that’s going on at my work. I always enjoy these types of things because even if it’s just for a practice, or just for ‘fun’, I learn something from it, gain experience from it in at least one way. In yesterday’s case, I walked into a room with my boss and the partner she has that’s helping her run this project, and three other people that were my “peers”. I put quotes around it because at the time that I sat down and looked at those around me I didn’t feel like a peer. I felt like a subordinate. I felt less than, somehow. It was nothing that any of them did to make me feel that way. In fact, I know all three of them to be very kind women, active in the community and caring of the less fortunate with a genuine interest in helping them. Still, I felt small and insignificant. I looked at the three of them and I wondered what I could possibly bring to the table. All three of them have a much higher education level than I do. I was pretty certain that they came from an entirely different background. I worried that anything I said was going to come out stupid. Now, I knew none of them would ever say that, they might not even think it, but in my own mind I felt certain that I would say something that would bring attention to the fact that I was different. I wasn’t as smart. I hadn’t been there long enough to understand what the focus group was really asking for. Something.
It’s funny how our insecurities can creep up like that. Tiny little thoughts that start to snowball until we are convinced that there is nothing to present of ourselves, nothing of value or worth. It’s such an uplifting experience when we get to turn around and realize that it was never true to begin with.
We moved into groups of two, with the two project runners splitting up into each group to take notes and hear a story. It was a simple story about an experience we may have had with one of our clients (often vulnerable, impoverished, disabled or elderly). I shared my story with the group, which they both seemed to very much like. It struck a chord with them in the same way that it had with me, which was why I told it. When we went on to discuss what we thought the company was doing right (or what we thought they could improve on) I went on to say that I thought that the company was good at empathizing with our clients, but that it was perhaps my own eyes I was seeing through. I admitted that I grew up in an impoverished family. I was exactly like our clients for many, many years (something I think I’ll share in a separate blog update), and it was easy for me to put myself in their shoes.
Sharing my background with them spurred us on to a discussion about how different it is between classes, and how great it is that I, specifically, could understand our clients where they felt that all they could do was try. They admitted that, from being firmly stuck in the middle class all their lives, they had no real concept of what our clients go through. I’m not ashamed of who I was, or who I am, which is why I shared my history with them, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have reservations about it. I can only say that I am so glad that I did share it with them. They were impressed, they were excited to have someone that understood, and they validated me and my experiences.
Later in the session, the woman that was in my group (the one that I look up to), admitted that she had been nervous at the start of it, too. She admitted that she had wanted to be sure that she sounded smart to our group leader, and that she had wanted to be sure she set a good example for me. “It’s funny,” she said. “That we all experience that little bit of nervousness in front of our peers.”
At the end of it all, I was glad for the reminder that just because I didn’t finish four years of college, just because I didn’t even get an Associate’s degree, does not in any way mean that I cannot bring something of value to the table. I would even say that, in my group, I brought the most value. I of all people know how impossible it is to shut off that little voice in your head that tries to remind you how useless, how inconsequential, how unimportant you are, but it’s my hope that you consistently fight back and remember that you don’t need the money, the station, the education to be someone important. You are already important simply by being.
Embrace who you are, speak up your ideas, and never let anyone (most especially yourself) make you think that you are less.