The usual insecurities. ‘I could never please my mother. I did everything she told me to do’

Tenderness and freedom

‘My mother was cold, she bred me rather than raised me’, says 53‑year‑old Dorota, who says that low self‑esteem has caused her to slowly give up everything that was important to her. ‘I was constantly told that I could have done something better, and I was compared to others. Ever since I was a kid, I felt like I wasn’t good enough. Eventually, I convinced myself that I must give others what they expected of me. My needs have gone off the radar’.

In sixth grade, Dorota’s mid-year marks were mostly C’s and she was at risk of not passing maths. What she remembers most from that time is her gutted mother. By the end of the year, she had straight A’s and B’s and was proud that she had improved so much. She waited for praise, but her mother, seeing the certificate, said, ‘Couldn’t it be with distinction?’. ‘I remember it vividly. Something snapped inside me that day. I thought I might really be good for nothing’, confesses Dorota.

After high school she wanted to study zootechnics. She passed her finals and – secretly – her university exams. She didn’t tell her mother until she got into the agricultural academy. But again, instead of support, she heard criticism. ‘My mother said I didn’t realise how much it costs to study in another city and asked me what my plan was, who would support me’, she recalls. ‘I didn’t go to that university. Instead, I chose a post‑secondary course at a mechanics and printing school complex and became an optician’.

Even though she is now an adult, she still hears her mother’s voice in her head and she still feels she could be better.

‘I got married to spite her, I wanted to show her that I could build a family, that there was someone who loved me’, she says. After her husband’s death, she was alone for a long time and now lives with her second partner in Ireland. ‘I have no needs any more. In the past, I would dream of a well‑read man, and I have one who can barely read. The person I’m with is dragging me down on the intellectual level. Before we became a couple five years ago, I used to go to the cinema and theatre regularly, I had a monthly ticket. At first, Jarek would go with me, but he would sometimes fall asleep during the performance. It was embarrassing’, says Dorota. ‘I have given up these pastimes and now we just stay home. I don’t know why I don’t go alone. I got into this relationship because I believe I have nothing to offer. I am not comfortable in it, but if I end it, I will really hurt Jarek. And it’s not his fault, so I just figured: too bad’.

Due to low self‑esteem, Dorota has also written off her professional life. She works in the production department of an interior design company. ‘I could aspire higher, but I keep thinking that they are younger, better educated, bolder. I’m afraid to go to a job interview and embarrass myself. I am a master of finding solid and plausible excuses for my fears and my failing to act’.

Her circle of friends is also getting smaller. ‘I’ve let some of the friendships go because I don’t meet the criteria. I used to hang out with a married couple – happy people in a long-lasting relationship. My relationship has not lasted long and it sure isn’t a good one. So what can I offer them? I decided to back out’, she says. In relationships with people, but also in every other area of life, she always finds fault in herself. ‘It was my choices that led me to where I am’.

And she’s at a point where she’s not fighting for her needs even at a basic level. She gives an example concerning food. ‘I like vegetables, fruit, salads. My partner eats differently, so I cook for him and adjust. I’m giving up my space piece by piece’, she admits.

She’s been in therapy for two years now. It started by accident – she went to the doctor with pain in her hands, and he suggested seeing a psychologist. ‘I agreed at once, but I was thinking about my hands. And he was suspecting depression’, says Dorota.

Blending in with the team

‘I work in the city office because of my insecurities’, says Marta, 31. ‘Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with being a clerk, but I never planned such a career path’.

She majored in sociology and found work at a marketing agency a few years after graduation. ‘It was a rapidly growing company, I worked there for two years and during that time the number of people in our team more than doubled’, she says. ‘I really liked it there. One new project after another, lots of creative work, trips, brainstorming. I thought this place was made for me, that I would never be bored there and that I could have a career there. But that was only as long as I could blend in with the team. When I began to be expected to be more independent and, above all, more proactive in client meetings, it all went downhill.

In fifth grade of elementary school, Marta started to dislike her body. Once, in biology class, during an oral answer, she heard her classmates sitting behind her comment that she was fat. They would then repeat it often during recess and after school, too. ‘Even though I was just a little bit chubbier than the other girls, the word stuck to me so much that I still can’t detach it’, she confesses. ‘I’m 163 centimeters tall and I weigh 57 kilos, but I still see myself as a 13-year-old girl whose figure is analysed by her peers from the back of the class. When I worked at the agency, I would relive this situation at every client meeting’.

The worst part? Presentations. The moment when she had to stand in the middle of the room and discuss strategy or bring clients around to an idea. ‘I used to shake in my shoes. Not out of fear that I’m ill‑prepared or that I don’t have the required expertise’, she says. ‘I was paralysed by the eyes turned on me, by the fact that I was the centre of attention. I was obsessing about what all these people thought of me, whether they thought my thighs were fat or my belly was not flat enough. I would analyse how to avoid standing sideways to others. It was exhausting. And I would always end up performing badly because with all my attention focused on my body, I would let the substantive part slide’.

Marta admits that the same thing happened while working in a team. When she had to share her ideas via e‑mail or make a visual presentation, she did great. In more spontaneous forms, she felt a block. ‘I loved brainstorming, but only when I listened to others. I don’t think I spoke up once. And throughout the meeting, which usually lasted up to two hours, I was stressing over the fact that I might be called to answer’, she recalls.

All of her doubts were dispelled after a meeting at a client’s that wrapped up a major campaign. She had to deliver the presentation, because her boss was abroad and Marta spoke the most fluent English out of the whole team. ‘I put on a red jacket to boost my confidence, but when I took the floor, it dropped to zero. I don’t remember much of those 20 minutes. The end result was that the client did not renew the contract with us’, says Marta. She wasn’t fired, nor did anyone reproach her, but she admits it was at that moment that she felt she had come up against a brick wall. ‘I guess I was waiting for a signal like this. During those two years at the agency, I confirmed my belief that I didn’t belong there because I wasn’t bold, open or expressive. After that presentation, I became certain of it. After a month, I resigned and returned to my hometown’.

Thanks to her father’s connections, she got a job at the city office. Now, she sits behind a desk in a three‑person room and has no contact with the public. ‘I thought I would feel comfortable in such an environment, but that is not the case at all. I miss my old life very much. It’s been three years since I left the agency and I keep wondering if I can still turn it around. For now, I’ve decided to go to therapy. I start in two weeks’.

Why even dream

Kasia, 46, chose to be alone because she feels inferior to others and she lives under the impression that she is constantly being judged by other people. She is also never sure that she is doing something right. Because of her insecurities, she gave up pursuing their passions. And more recently pursuing her dreams, too.

‘I could never please my mother. I did everything she told me to do. The room was tidy, the notebooks were kept neatly. And she would come, shred them and make me rewrite everything from scratch’, recollects Kasia. ‘I tried my best not because I longed for her approval, more out of fear because she beat me regularly. My older brother, too’.

Her passion was swimming. She took part in competitions, took a course in paramedics. She also loved music. She secretly learned to play the guitar in the church catechesis room. ‘I wanted to develop myself, but my mother told me to go to a vocational school and then to work and start earning my keep’, she recalls. Kasia got her school diploma in tailoring, and at the age of 19 she ran away from home and entered a convent. She didn’t stay there long, however, because she developed a tumour in her ear. She recovered after a year in hospital, but was not accepted back into the convent. ‘They said it was my job to serve God and people, not the other way around’, she says.

So she graduated from high school extramurally and then took a course to become a health care assistant. Today, she works at a hospital. ‘I still feel like I’m not cut out for a lot of things. I fulfil all my duties, I do my best. But as soon as I hear my colleagues whispering to each other, I immediately assume that they are talking about me – that I messed up and that they are about to tell on me to the ward sister’, she confesses. ‘Recently, I was supposed to bring a patient in from a procedure and I took the wrong bed. The ward sister got angry, and I spent the whole afternoon thinking how I could have made such a mistake. It seems insignificant, but I can scold myself for that sort of thing. There was a time when I would hurt myself’.

Kasia tried therapy. She received a referral for group therapy but she quit because she didn’t feel comfortable there. She also went to an individual session once. ‘I had trouble getting myself to open up. The psychologist told me to come back when I decide to speak’.

She never started a family, and that’s what she regrets the most. ‘I always wanted a husband and happy children, a family in which we would all take care of each other. But it was hard for me to build a relationship because I hate being touched’.

In March, she was referred to a sanatorium. The first thing she thought about was: ‘What can I do to avoid sharing a room?’. ‘I obsessed about it for several days. But in the end, I had to cancel the stay anyway because they wouldn’t give me time off at the hospital’, she says. She has only had an employment contract since February, previously she worked on commission. She confesses that asking HR for leave was a great challenge for her. ‘Every time I have to go to the office, I can hardly cope. I find it terribly difficult to even call’.

A few years ago, she sang in a miners’ choir. She quit when she moved to Germany, where she also worked as a health care assistant for several years. Now that she is back in Poland, the conductor has been persuading her to return, but she hasn’t agreed yet. ‘I didn't think I was good enough’, she says. ‘I don’t know if I would be able to settle back in. The number of people frightens me. I keep worrying that they’re going to think I’m an idiot’.

Asked about things that give her joy, she lists only one. One that has nothing to do with her. ‘I’m happy when something works out for my niece. I try to help her’.

Kasia is 48 years old and lives with no dreams. ‘I had them when I was younger. Now, whenever I dream of something, I immediately think that it is not worth it’, she says. She also never fantasises about not having insecurities and going through life with confidence. ‘I can’t imagine myself bold. I would have to be born again’.

Something wrong with me

‘Ever since I was a child I thought it was wrong to have your own opinion, because then no one would like me or want to be friends with me’, says Milena, 37. When she brought an A minus from school, her parents focused on the minus. ‘I never felt good enough’.

She would sometimes ask her classmates whether she was pretty because she was never complimented. She disliked her hair and bushy eyebrows and convinced herself that she had a humped nose. While the insecurities related to her appearance passed fairly quickly, those related to intellect and building relationships persisted much longer.

In high school, the English teacher said that Milena would never learn the language because her handwriting was bad. ‘I knew this argument was absurd, but I let myself believe her and then I really started to struggle with English. At university, the English teacher qualified me to the lower group. I was angry that I didn’t get into the more advanced one, so I didn’t really engage in this class. The professor failed me’, Milena says. ‘I dropped out of college because of that. I wondered why she was picking on me, what was wrong with me’.

By coincidence, she moved to the UK shortly after and has been using English on a daily basis for 15 years now. She went back to college in the UK, but chose another major. Instead of public administration, she went for dietetics and genetics, which is something she’s genuinely interested in. She is getting other areas of her life in order, too. ‘Only recently have I come to the conclusion that I have wasted too much time worrying about everything. Memories and beliefs from my childhood began to accumulate and two years ago I went through a total crisis’, she confesses. She cut herself off from the world for almost a year, she didn’t want to talk to anyone or go out. ‘I thought everyone was my enemy and wanted to use me. When I helped someone at work, I hoped for recognition, I hoped they would like me more. But that didn’t happen. With time, I grew tired of being warm‑hearted and helpful to everyone, and resented others for not returning the favour or at least saying thank you. And for not seeing my suffering. I felt more and more angry’.

At that time, she also cut herself off from her friends and acquaintances. ‘I burned bridges, I didn’t explain anything to anyone. I haven't been able to rebuild most of these relationships’.

Things weren’t much better in college. When working on group projects, Milena had the impression that no one was listening to her. ‘I was convinced that my ideas were rubbish and my English poor. It seemed to me that everyone was ignoring me and that I didn’t know how to speak properly. Eventually, I stopped speaking almost entirely. It was only later that I noticed what a belligerent, offended attitude I had’.

She contacted psychologists, but they all ruled out depression, and she still felt bad about herself. ‘I started reading a lot of psychological literature, I took up affirmations, I participated in coaching’, lists Milena. ‘One part of it was looking for harmful beliefs from the past and turning them into positive ones. I also learned to look in the mirror and talk to myself in my mind, and I tried to stop blaming the world for everything. And I started to feel better’.

It was also after coaching that she ended a seven‑year relationship with a man according to whom she was doing everything wrong. ‘He claimed that I was fit for nothing and could only see the tip of my own nose. And at the time, I wasn’t thinking about myself at all. I believed what he was saying and it hurt me a lot, but I would tell myself that after all, I had a place to live, something to eat, and he drove me to different places when I needed it’, she says. He didn’t support her in anything, and when she was blue, he brought her down even more. ‘I was a waitress at the time, I was looking for an office job. In interviews, I was constantly told that I didn’t have experience or the right qualifications. I felt hopeless’, she says.

Today, Milena is a certified nutrigeneticist with a master’s degree from a British university and runs her own business. It was only recently that she realised that she had always sought appreciation from others. She spent years giving up things that were important to her for fear of failure. ‘Now, I feel good about myself’, she admits. ‘I stopped thinking that people were wishing me ill. And life is much easier’.

I changed the names of some of the heroines at their request.


Author: Izabela O’Sullivan

Illustration: Marta Frej

The text was published on on 7 June 2022