I am from a dysfunctional family where I was ignored, criticised and never given love or affection. I learned to be quiet, to never ask for anything – because no attention was better than criticism. My siblings were treated differently. I grew up treading on eggshells and learned that my needs were irrelevant.
Now I am in my late 40s, I don’t see them at all – my sons, when in primary school, didn’t want to see them so that was my main wake-up call.
So a terrible background – I have raised my sons alone with no support (their dad died many years ago). They know their own minds, know what they want from life and are going for it. Which is more than I ever had.
I have now changed career. I have my first mortgage and have joined a walking group, which I love. But deep down I fear I am unlovable, and I struggle setting boundaries and believing in myself.
I have a new temp job. I have the qualifications, but not the experience. It is my first week and it is a wonderful opportunity, but I feel overwhelmed. It is my role to supervise others – when I don’t know what I am doing myself. I am also scared of asking for help – again, my past fear of looking stupid.
I also want a loving, supportive relationship. I have been single for more than 10 years and used to attract selfish men – I want this to change.
I am embracing my empty nest with my changed career and new hobbies, but it has hit home how my past has hindered my life.
I want it to stop doing so. I want this to be my time – how do I get over the “little voice” inside me and have true confidence, like others? I see teenagers with more confidence than me.
I don’t have much financially, so can’t afford counselling.
It’s important to see how much you have done, despite inauspicious beginnings. You’ve raised your children on your own, you’ve changed careers, you have new hobbies, you’ve joined new groups, you know what you do and don’t want and the people you won’t tolerate. That’s not a small amount to be proud of.
But you still lack confidence. And this is not surprising. Growing up is when we should build our self-esteem and confidence but, instead of being told you were worth something, that your opinion and your presence mattered, you were ignored and belittled: the very antithesis to growing self-esteem.
I went to a family therapist, Dr Ged Smith (aft.org.uk), with your letter. He feels there are some conflicting statements in it. “You say you are ‘embracing your empty nest’, but it doesn’t sound like it, and you say you have a ‘little voice’ inside you, but it sounds like a big voice.” Dr Smith points out that the “world is full of people who lack confidence”, which is true – I wonder if you think that everyone else is sussed, except for you. I doubt very much the teenagers you cite have much confidence – few adolescents do. In fact, I doubt any of the people you see around you are as confident or together as you think.
You say you can’t afford counselling and I understand that, but you should be able to access some free services via your GP (there may be waiting lists, so the sooner you go the better). Dr Smith thinks cognitive behavioural therapy may be particularly beneficial to you. “Your [negative] beliefs about yourself need to be challenged,” advises Smith, “and replaced with more positive ones.” CBT helps with the way you think about things. Although it can delve into your past, that’s not really what it’s about: it challenges established behaviour.
“You might need,” says Dr Smith, “to challenge the voices in your head [that make you feel inferior]. You may need to deconstruct them – who do they belong to? The more you can replace those voices with something positive, the longer and stronger the positive thoughts will be.”
Feeling unlovable is something that was hardwired into you in childhood, and that will take some time for you to overcome. Can you look at those who do love you – your children, for example – and challenge this self-belief?
The thing about confidence is that you get it by doing things over and over again. And while I’m not going to pretend everyone you come into contact with will be lovely and supportive if you ask for help, most people love helping others because it makes them feel good.
What does give you confidence? It’s not going to be easy, but you need to try to unhitch yourself from the past, even though it seems to have defined you for a long time. “You need to think,” says Dr Smith, “of when the voices don’t happen, think about the fact that people give you jobs – you must be good. Think of times you did do something well. And what would your best friend say about you?”
Make sure you do something that makes you feel good and builds your foundations, your confidence; just a small thing a day. In time, you will find it easier to build boundaries to keep selfish people away. But do go and see your GP and get some outside (free) help, too.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 9 June 2017.