The Care and Feeding of Self-Esteem

During the workshop I teach in prison on Fridays there is always one woman who says something so astute or so revealing that it momentarily catches my breath.  When it happens, I will approach their social worker after class and ask if I could possibly continue my involvement with them, one-on-one.  The feeling is generally always mutual although it appears that they are stunned that anyone would have enough interest in them to want to sit down and get to know them better.

In most cases, the women have a fleeting and unpredictable stay, either awaiting sentencing, about to be released or transferred to another facility so it is difficult to follow-up.  Now I know to ask how long a woman is guaranteed to be there so as not to gain their trust only to have the relationship end just at that moment in time.

I have recently based my workshop on the concept of labels and judgement.  I start by asking the women, after they’ve only seen me standing in front of them for about a minute or two, how they see me.  I instruct them to throw out adjectives based on first impressions.  I tell them that they can say anything, that it won’t hurt my feelings, as long as they don’t call me fat.  Usually I get a chorus of “You’re not fat, you’re gorgeous,” or something like that. Some of the answers have been incredibly funny and most of them are very flattering.  They tell me I’m pretty, have great style, they will call me hardworking and happy.

A few weeks ago, a woman who didn’t appear to be paying much attention said, “I think you have low self-esteem.”  I latched onto the comment and said, “Tell me what you mean.”

“It seems likes you need to fish for compliments.”

Wow.  She was totally onto me.  We held each other’s gaze for a few seconds and she knew that she had hit the nail right on (my) head.

I have written about the self-loathing I have for my body, how when I do my daily body scan I’m pretty disgusted.  When I see my underarm jiggle I want to cry.  I’ve recently noticed in pictures that my elbows are getting wrinkly and my knees are looking very aged.  When I recently weighed myself for the first time in about two years, I wanted to cry.  The truth is is that like most of us, I only have about 10-15 pounds to lose to be within my “healthy range,” but still the disappointment in myself overwhelmed me.  That number stuck in my head until I lost 7 pounds.  Now that number is stuck in my head.

The flipside is that I possess and project great self-confidence.  I don’t need my ego fed because I believe in myself and the face I put in front of the world.  If someone doesn’t like me or appreciate me I don’t waste my time on them.

After class, I approached the woman and told her how astute her comment was.  She just shrugged her shoulders.  Afterwards I went immediately to find out her name and her circumstances, and how long she would be there.  I’m not allowed to know why a woman has been incarcerated but often she will volunteer the information during class.   I was told that she would be there for a while and received permission to go onto her unit and talk to her.

When the officer told her that someone wanted to see her the other women got all excited and ran to her cell and told her to come out.  She seemed surprised and happy to see me.  We held what will be the first of many conversations, uncovering the many things we have in common including our love of books and writing.  She was very flattered that I asked if I could see some of her writing the next time we met.

This time will be about her, and not about me.  I’m thinking that my interest in her might feed her self-esteem a bit, help her feel less alone in a situation where she has completely isolated herself from the other women.  Anyone who “got” me so quickly is someone I want to know a bit better.  Will I stop the exercise I do, stop the fishing for compliments?  Probably not because we do indeed need a little confidence boost now and then no matter how superficial it might be.


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