Why Can’t I See Myself as Anything but Ordinary?

Large group of blue morpho butterflies (Morpho peleides) as a background with one orange butterfly in the foreground.Some people have difficulty comfortably accepting qualities and capacities about themselves that are notable. They feel anxiety and shame if they even consider they might be special in any way. Fears of being criticized or seen as egotistical or arrogant and worries about being humiliated or made to feel small function to keep these people in check. Risks of competition and the dread of envy can stifle good self-feelings and inhibit relationships. It is too dangerous to come out in the world as anything other than unexceptional and unremarkable.

“I have the idea you didn’t believe me when I just said how smart you are,” I said to Jason as I responded to his skeptical look and apparent discomfort. Still looking uncomfortable, he replied, “You’re sort of right. It’s not that I think that you’re lying, but I think you’re wrong. I know I’m intelligent, but you seem to be implying that I’m especially smart and that’s just not so. I’m not the kind of smart that warrants any special mention.”

Jason and I began to look at his feelings and his need to not be seen as out of the ordinary. I asked about his associations or memories to feeling anxious when thinking he might be special. He immediately responded with a story of when he was 10 years old and came home from school excited about making the soccer team:

“I remember being at dinner with my family and feeling excited and describing how I tried out for the team and made a goal. I was beside myself with joy. My father told me, ‘Calm down, it’s not like you’re a star athlete. Better not be so full of yourself, your teammates won’t like it.’ I tried to hold back my tears. Even now, when I remember this I think about what a fool I made of myself, thinking I was such a big deal.”

I wondered aloud to Jason: “Perhaps the message you heard was not only that you were not remarkable for not making the team, but that if you acted as if you were, peers would react badly.”

Jason responded: “Yes, I remember feeling proud and that I was special and then I got scared my friends could think I was conceited. It made me anxious. I suppose I got a lot of messages that made me feel the things I did weren’t special, that there was nothing about me that was special and I shouldn’t feel special. It was confusing because sometimes I did feel like I did special things. I won a math medal in high school and was a straight-A student in math. But neither of my parents said much about it other than something like, ‘That’s nice.’ I wish I was really smart, but if I let myself believe that for even an instant, I feel ashamed and conceited and would never want anyone to think I could have such high-and-mighty thoughts about myself. I tell myself to stop fooling myself, but I’m never clear about what’s true about me.”

Jason and I worked on his anxiety and his underdeveloped ability to reliably have a sense of himself. He learned to use the world as a mirror to see all the ways in which he is responded to: positively, negatively, and even superlatively. As we worked, it became apparent Jason was frightened to engage competitively in the world. He acknowledged:

“It’s dangerous to do too well. I picked a career in technology where I work pretty much as a loner. I don’t have to put myself out there where others can compare themselves to me. I don’t want to feel their judgments that I don’t measure up. Worse would be if they saw me as very successful and envied me or wanted to tear me down and be better than me.”

When Jason’s father implied his teammates might not like it if Jason was a star on the team, he may have been (consciously or unconsciously) communicating it was dangerous to engage competitively and to be envied. While I don’t know if this was the case, Jason seems to have internalized the idea he is not a person who is remarkable or who does outstanding things. This idea may have developed as a defense against becoming a target of destructive envy and/or of being humiliated.

Lily, like Jason, is a person who suppresses herself by swallowing good self-feelings and by silencing herself in order to avoid anxiety, humiliation, envy, and/or a wide range of bad-person feelings. Lily is in serious conflict about who she is. Not only does she feel clueless about her abilities and talents, but she is especially uncertain about her physical appearance: is she pretty, attractive, fat, sexy? Or is she unattractive, plain, and unappealing? To keep herself safe from unwanted and intolerable feelings (her own and others’), Lily needs to remain ignorant about what she looks like, who she is, and what she feels.

I have been working with Lily for three years. The first time she walked into my office, I recall thinking how perfect she looked: a pretty, 45-year-old woman, beautifully dressed, with a perfectly made-up face and a stylish haircut flawlessly in place. However, underneath this façade was an intense degree of anxiety which she attempted to manage by her powerful drive to be in control of herself and her environment. What became clear early in our work was that Lily’s anxieties were connected with her strong fears about how she is perceived in the world:

Many of us carry messages from childhood that interfere with developing clarity about our identity and with having feelings of self-worth. Fears of self-aggrandizement, competition, and envy arouse feelings of ordinariness and impede emotional growth. The more we can recognize what these messages communicate and reality test their accuracy, the more of an ability we will have to know who we are and grow our multidimensional selves.

“I just don’t know how to think about myself. I want desperately to be liked, to be seen as beautiful and smart. I’m afraid this is going to sound crazy, but I know I’m pretty and smart and I’m also totally sure I’m unattractive and stupid. I can’t trust if I’m likable. It doesn’t take much—a funny glance or an unreturned email—to make me think the worst. One minute I think I’m amazing, and the next minute I feel like a nut case for thinking I could be so great and then I feel even worse for wishing it. My worst fear is everyone will find out I’m a narcissist and an egomaniac. I’ll be humiliated and feel destroyed when I’m reminded of the truth. It has to be a secret. Who the hell am I?”

Lily and I explored what might contribute to how she became a person who is so uncertain about who she is. As I got to know her, it was clear she was not only a classically attractive woman, but she also was smart and charming and quite likable. Why hadn’t she been able to internalize an accurate and positive sense of who she was? Why was it so anxiety-producing to acknowledge her good stuff to herself and to the world? Lily’s thoughts about these questions led to her memories of her relationship with her mother:

“Whenever I think about my mother, I hear her voice saying, ‘Why don’t you put more makeup on,’ or ‘You can’t go to school dressed like that,’ or she’d tell me I should go on a diet or how I should never act as if I knew more than boys. She told me people, especially boys, don’t like conceited girls who think they’re ‘so much.’ I was pretty sure she was telling me I wasn’t ‘so much.’ I believed and listened to every word she said.”

Lily continued:

“My parents divorced when I was 2, and my mother dated a lot but never remarried. I was very close to her. She was beautiful and always interested in her looks. She could spend hours trying on clothes or jewelry. I always got the feeling I couldn’t compete with her. Mostly it was all about appearance. But she never made me feel smart. I remember she once told me I didn’t have to be smart and I needed to work on my looks. I kept working on my looks, but I never got the feeling I got her approval for my mind or my body.”

Lily took on her mother’s view of how she should be and didn’t allow herself to consider what her own thoughts, feelings, and needs were. She learned to dismiss many of her positive self-feelings and think of them as conceit or unfounded. Lily’s need for her mother’s approval had been a powerful influence on Lily’s development. Now she was trying to become aware of her own sense of self so she could form an identity separate from her mother’s definitions. One day, Lily came to her session with great excitement:

“I kept wondering what was in it for my mother to have me think about myself so negatively and believe I should never feel or express good things about myself. I have this new idea maybe she was competitive with me! I think it is true. I was looking at pictures of me. I was pretty—a pretty little girl and a pretty teenager! Unbelievable! I don’t think she wanted me to know that. As long as I thought I wasn’t a pretty or desirable young girl, I didn’t feel like one and couldn’t act like one. I think she might have envied me.”

Lily and Jason are working on noticing the positive and appreciated ways in which they are seen. Experiences such as compliments, salary increases, smiles, and invitations are registering with new meanings. The anxieties of “being full of myself” are diminishing as Lily and Jason are better able to tolerate discomfort while developing an acceptance of their more-than-ordinary selves. As they continue to grow their unique and valued selves, issues of competition and envy continue to be addressed.

Many of us carry messages from childhood that interfere with developing clarity about our identity and with having feelings of self-worth. Fears of self-aggrandizement, competition, and envy arouse feelings of ordinariness and impede emotional growth. The more we can recognize what these messages communicate and reality test their accuracy, the more of an ability we will have to know who we are and grow our multidimensional selves.

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Hunter

    Hunter

    March 3rd, 2017 at 7:30 AM

    No matter how hard many of us try it is still difficult to believe the positive praise that we hear from other people. It isn’t that we are just trying to get more compliments, as I have been accused of in the past, but it is really that I don’t see I suppose what other people see in me.
    I am working on that some with positive affirmations and trying to be more mindful of my successes versus my failure, but this is a long held habit of mine that is not the easiest to break.

  • Layton

    Layton

    March 5th, 2017 at 7:36 AM

    There will always be issues for those of us who experienced rough childhoods.
    The biggest step that any of us can ever make is making a decision to take a a step out of our past and definitively into our present and future.
    I have let myself for too long be defined by what I WAS
    I am now ready to discover who I AM

  • trevor m

    trevor m

    March 6th, 2017 at 11:21 AM

    I naturally like most parents want my kids to achieve and be the best that they can be, but not to the point where they feel like they are always having to seek out praise and admiration. I think that parents do their kids a disservice by always patting them on the back for every little small thing that they do because when you don’t do it one day they think that they have somehow failed you.
    It isn’t that they have failed you, but not every single moment deserves praise I guess. We have done this to them, made them feel like they deserve to be so special when really most of us are just plain ordinary and there isn’t anything wrong with that.

  • Norah

    Norah

    March 7th, 2017 at 10:47 AM

    more annoying to me are the people who don’t think that they EVER do anything wrong, like they have a little too much confidence in themselves.

  • Maggs

    Maggs

    March 7th, 2017 at 10:57 AM

    most of us are “ordinary”
    I don’t see a problem with it

  • Jackson

    Jackson

    March 9th, 2017 at 6:59 PM

    Great article! Just a suggestion, as others have mentioned, there is nothing wrong with being ordinary, and I don’t think you should be using that term. It seems to me these people have a feeling of inferiority, not ordinariness. Ordinary people accomplish great things all the time, and the average person has a lot of good qualities. The problem is not that we want to feel special or above average, but that we want to feel like we are good enough and that we belong, and when other people put us down, we assume they are better than us somehow, and that makes us feel lesser than other people (since we have a idealistic perception of others and about what it means to be average or ordinary). If we feel that we can’t even measure up to this basic level, it leads to low self esteem.

    I for one believe that the issue lies with bad parenting– some may argue we are spoiling kids by validating them too much, but I disagree. Obviously there needs to be discipline and punishment when a kid goes out of line, but I don’t think its too much to ask to give praise to a kid when it is deserved, to encourage them to continue to do good things. That is the foundation of a healthy self esteem. At the very least, parents shouldn’t be putting down their kids for being proud of themselves, let alone being envious of your own kids (what a narcissistic psychopath!) These are lifelong wounds that are difficult to fix, even today after many decades I struggle with bad childhood experiences and trying to build positive thoughts and attitudes. You can praise your kid without spoiling them, its called using common sense, and I wish more parents would practice it. Also I’d like to say, I don’t think this generation of kids is any more spoiled or damaged or worse off than any other generation. They’re just more honest about their problems and shortcomings whereas previous generations tended to cover them up or deny them and then take it out on their kids (perpetuating a vicious cycle). Maybe if they had higher self esteem (which is NOT the same as arrogance) and parental validation they wouldn’t end up like that.

  • Kat Eagan

    Kat Eagan

    March 10th, 2017 at 8:52 AM

    There is no rule book for being a parent, so I will not blame mine for the comments they made to me/us. I am the eldest of their 13 children raised in a sarcastic, strict Catholic family. I think religious institutions are more at fault for how parents parent. My Dad called me, ” just another mouth to feed”, Stand in line, let everyone else go first, you would be so pretty if you lost weight, when God was passing out brains you thought he said trains and you missed yours. The list goes on and on. But, they were loving and encouraging too. I loved my parents but these really affected me. People tell me I am extremely creative and talented but I don’t believe it ;). I am 62 lol.

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