Years ago, I chipped a tooth. I don’t remember how it happened, but it’s a small chip on a lower tooth, so it’s not especially prominent. When I got the chip fixed, my dentist told me that the repair would probably break off every few years and I’d need to keep replacing it. He was right.
I’ve had the repair redone a couple of times already, and it broke off again a few weeks back. I’ve been too busy to get back to my dentist, so I’ve walked around every day lately fearing that people were staring at me and pointing fingers behind my back.
A few days ago, I was talking with a couple of friends at the office and I mentioned that I really needed to get to the dentist to get this terrible chipped tooth fixed.
Neither one of them knew what I was talking about. Even though we were sitting there talking — sitting close together — neither one of them had noticed. When I pointed it out, both seemed genuinely surprised that I was concerned about something so tiny.
And now I’ve been thinking uncomfortably ever since then about why I’m so worried about it — and why I’m so concerned that others are judging me.
I grew up in a family in which image was everything. It’s more accurate to say that living up to my father’s standards for how we should look and act and sound was everything. If it were something which my father didn’t think was important, it was ignored. But he was paranoid about how people saw us when it came to the things he thought were important.
We could never leave the house in sloppy clothes. We overdressed for most everything. Up until the time my sisters got to roughly middle school, they had to wear dresses to school every day. We weren’t allowed to wear things as casual as t-shirts to school, even though that was normal for everybody else.
My father often embarrassed me in public by stopping me in front of everyone and making me tuck my shirt in — several times, if necessary — according to his exacting standard or comb my hair so that everything was in perfect place. He didn’t care who was around to see me going through such things. He drilled it into me that I had to look perfect at all times.
I don’t go to those extremes today, but I’ve realized lately that those standards are still internalized. I still feel as though everyone is looking at me and judging me. If my hair isn’t cut and combed properly, if my clothes aren’t perfect, if my entire outer presentation isn’t perfect — I fear that people are judging me and laughing at me.
I’ve realized that I still feel the shame that he programmed into me about such things.
That doesn’t mean I’m really living up to those standards anymore. While our office has been remodeled and there is construction nastiness and sharp corners all around my work space, for instance, I’ve dressed the worst I’ve ever dressed for work. It’s been pragmatic, but I feel as though I’m doing something terribly wrong.
I’ve talked with you before about my issues with perfectionism — about how I leave some things horribly imperfect because I know I can’t make them perfect at the moment. It’s as though I go in the opposite direction as far as I can, as though I’m saying to the world, “You can’t hold me responsible for not doing this perfectly. I’m not even trying, so you can’t think I’m failing.”
I’ve been asking myself in the last few days why I still do this. I could call it a lot of different things, but ultimately, it’s because I don’t have quite enough self-esteem to feel good enough about myself in the face of what others might think.
It was a bit of a shock to see it from that point of view. A person with enough self-esteem wouldn’t care what others thought. He would be concerned merely with being himself and moving toward his own goals. He wouldn’t have this kind of fear about other people’s judgment.
And I started thinking about the need that so many of us have to be seen well by other people — to be successful, to be liked, to be loved, to be admired. Many people I know are like chameleons. They change as they need to change in order to be successful or pleasing in the eyes of their current audience. These people are essentially liars — about who they are — and the lying starts with themselves.
I still see myself as an upper middle class person. I don’t have the income anymore to match that perception, but I eventually will have it again. In the meantime, I have an image in mind about what I should do and be — what image I should project to others — and I am terrified of not successfully living up to that image.
When I’m honest with myself, I realize that there are things about my life which embarrass me, not because they’re objectively bad, but because they don’t fit the image of the person I used to be when I was making more money and was far more successful.
I still see myself as that person. I want others to see me as that person. And I’m terrified when people learn things about me which don’t match up with that image anymore.
As I’ve thought about this in the past few days, I’ve realized with shock that this is simply because I don’t have enough self-esteem to be happy with what I am no matter what. I am trying to live up to the standard of my old life from 10 or 15 years ago — and I’m certain people are judging me as not being good enough.
What I’m brutally truthful with myself, I realize that I’m scared I’m not good enough. I don’t even know what that means, exactly. I’m just scared that you won’t see me as smart enough, sophisticated enough, wise enough, well-dressed enough, successful enough — somehow not good enough for you to love me.
I don’t know why I equate those things, but I’ve realized that I do. And I hate it.
The people I was talking with a few days ago — the ones who seemed surprised at my fears over the chipped tooth — are married and are worth quite a bit of money. Not filthy rich, but very comfortable. Maybe a few million dollars. They could spend whatever they wanted and not really notice.
After I talked about my chipped tooth, both of them mentioned similar little things in their teeth which they hadn’t bothered fixing — things which were small enough that I’d never noticed in them, but things which would have made me panic about myself.
The truth is that I’d like to have perfect teeth (as I always have had) and I’d like to always appear perfect in public. I know I don’t necessarily always present myself that way now and I’ll never achieve that standard, but I still believe I should.
And the only reason for that is that I’m still trying to live up to a bizarre standard of perfection which was programmed into me as a child. I still don’t have enough self-esteem to simply do what’s convenient and reasonable for me — and not worry about what others think.
I don’t want to start dressing in sack cloth and ashes. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for me to want to look decent in public. But I should have enough confidence in myself that I could walk into an office in rags and still feel that I had dignity and confidence that came from something intrinsic inside me.
I’ll get this tooth chip fixed. I’ll keep getting it fixed every few years for the rest of my life. I want to look my best. I want to present the right image for the world. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that.
But I wish I could develop enough self-esteem that if the day came that I couldn’t present myself as I’d like, that I’d still feel good enough about myself — instead of being terrified that people are judging me and laughing behind my back.
Balancing the pragmatic needs of human society with the need to feel healthy self-esteem isn’t always easy. I don’t always know where the balance is. But I do know that I should be able to walk around with a tiny tooth chip without being terrified of your judgment.
I need more confidence of the sort that comes from the inside. That’s not always as easy as it sounds.