By Georyana Santos
As I take a moment to try and visualize the wonderful images that a college student might typically associate with the term ‘spring break’, many scenes fill my head—for example, clear, hot, sunny days, beaches, close friends, and road trips to cities where I’ve never been before. If I had to associate all those images with one feeling, it would be happiness.
For me, the weeks leading up to this particular spring break could be illustrated by us- ing every possible antonym to happiness that exists in the human dictionary.
On February 6, 2015, I experienced something that was far from the definition of the word “happiness”—my first anxiety attack. I was rushed to the emergency room by my parents at 12:10 AM, and the only thing I could remember thinking as I was trembling with uncontrollable fear was that “I’m going to die today.”
Enduring irrepressible sweating, unmanageable shaking, and invaded by dark, defiant thoughts, I felt terrified, as I have always feared death. As I rode to the hospital, my consciousness reminded me that every individual would have a particular day when they would leave this earth, sooner or later, and internally I felt that February 6th was mine.
That night, I was given one pill by the doc- tors, which made me fall into a deep sleep, and I was sent home at 3:00 A.M.
For the next two weeks, I felt like I was pushed alone and unarmed into a cage to fight a battle with a very large, very vicious tiger. Symbolically, that tiger was my mind, and its claws were that of anxiety. Its teeth were the many sleepless nights, countless doctor visits, ineffective prescribed medication, continuous visits to the ER, and psychologist appointments that were slowly eating me alive inside. Hopelessness, uncertainty, and the constant return of the anxiety attacks haunted me.
For the past 18 years of my life, I have suffered from depression, social anxiety, extreme psychological fears, and the most unforgettable destructive factor that led to my anxiety attacks: low self-esteem.
As I grew up, I felt inferior in comparison to others. I was passive and submissive. I let others take the utmost advantage of me and felt unworthy. My low self-esteem and anxiety stemmed from various factors, but the primary cause was feeling that I was never good enough.
After almost three weeks of my parents trying to resolve the situation and not being able to locate a psychiatrist, they decided that the best option was to send me back home to the Dominican Republic. For the next two weeks, I was surrounded by the unconditional love and support of my family. While I was hospitalized, I agreed to do one week’s worth of therapy sessions with a very specialized psychiatrist. In these sessions, the brutal emotions and thoughts that I had kept deeply internalized finally erupted out of me with force equivalent to a volcanic eruption. However, in that week, I came to rediscover the light that I had feared was lost forever.
During one of my therapy sessions, my psychiatrist decided to lend me a book very close to her heart. As she slowly withdrew the book from the mini-library that occupied the space behind her desk, my eyes scanned the letters on the front cover: Los Seis Pilares de la Autoestima written by Nathaniel Branden, which translated to The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.
My psychiatrist looked me directly in the eye as she spoke. “I want you to read this. Even if you read one page a day, that will be sufficient enough for me. The goal is that you capture the essence of this book so that you can implement the concepts discussed within it into your life. This will not be accomplished all in one day, but it will be a process that will surely require ef- fort, and most of all, patience.” Patience. The characteristic I felt I had the least of, I thought to myself, remembering all the dark moments where my mind overwhelmed my body and soul with feelings of anxiousness and incompetence. “Trust in me,” she said. “This book will help you immensely.”
And so, I believed her.
Before I continue, I want to let the reader know that this piece is not intended to be a book review, but rather a highly personal story that I hope can illuminate and inspire others who might be going through a similar situation. Nathaniel Branden, the author and psychotherapist who was best known for writing a collection of remarkable books on the importance of high self-esteem, has allowed me to grasp essential life concepts that have gone a long way towards lessening the anxiety I feel on a day-to-day basis. Sadly, I cannot discuss every element from the book needed to overcome anxiety, but I will say that this book is an excellent must-read. It served as a strong source of support during one of the toughest experiences I’ve been through, and I’m confident that everyone else can find something to gain from the author’s profound message.
— What is Self-Esteem? —
Branden describes the basic definition of self-esteem as the confidence to trust in our mental capacity to think cognitively and in our capacity to confront the basic challenges of life. It is the confidence to believe that we deserve success, respect, and happiness.
A good level of self-worth is associated with independence, flexibility, intuition, reality, the ability to accept and adapt to new changes, and the humility to admit to your shortcomings.
Undoubtedly, it is clear to see a low level of self-esteem is associated with all the contrary aspects: excessive fear of the unknown, passivity, and inferiority. Unfortunately, for the past 18 years, every single one of those feelings and characteristics applied to me.
— Respect —
Ever since I could remember attending pre-school, I was known for being the quiet, reserved, and nerdy girl. Even though I was kind to others, I let people take advantage of me. I did everything in my power to please everyone. I feared rejection and others’ perceptions of me. Now, looking back, I realize that if genuine happiness was my objective, I was far from achieving it.
Consciously, I knew that this was a domino effect. If I didn’t respect myself and then show that self-respect amongst others, it would make it easier for others to manipulate me. If I accepted this manipulation and abuse, I would ensure that people could do anything to me. How could I have ever expected others to respect me if I didn’t even respect myself first?
— Fear and Self-Sabotage —
Undoubtedly, self-sabotage is a component of low self-esteem that is strongly associated with fear. The mind can be a highly powerful tool for those who know how to use it wisely, but it can also function as a tool of self-destruction.
In the midst of turning pages and interpreting truthful words, I realized the harm that I had done to myself throughout all these years. When I should have had the will and power to stand up for myself, I spent those moments hurting internally in silence.
My mind and emotions held me as an encaged prisoner because I gave them the power to. I let them dictate my actions and prevent me from going after the goals I profoundly yearned for. Psychologically, my act of self-sabotage had formed an unrealistic and deceptive self-image. The self-loathing that came with this perception led me to experience a high level of continuous anxiety, constantly waiting for the explosion that ultimately came.
— Self-Love and Acceptance —
High self-esteem is not making the person next to you feel inferior, nor is it acquired through or defined by popularity. When we try to build self-esteem externally through the words and actions of others, we become addicts and victims of approval.
That’s why the only source of lasting self- esteem is internal.
Ultimately, self-esteem is an intimate experience. It does not concern others and their perceptions of you. It only concerns you.
Before concluding, I would like to thank my God, my wonderful psychiatrist Dr. Ivelisse Acosta Fernandez, Dr. Mauro Canario, Dr. Flor de los Santos, Andrew Skurow—my significant other, and my wonderful parents and family who showed me nothing but love and support throughout these past few weeks. I love you all unconditionally.
Writing this piece, I realize I am now more empowered. I am not the girl I used to be—timid, unspoken, and reserved. I am happy to say I speak out ten times more in class now than I used to. I do not repress my feelings anymore. When I walk, I hold my head up high and walk with appropriate posture. Every time a negative thought invades my mind, I automatically block it and replace it with an uplifting one.
When I look into the mirror, I don’t see an introvert who doesn’t believe in herself anymore. I see a beautiful woman who has the capability of being a leader. I see a woman who has the power to influence many of those who believe they have lost the light, just like she thought she did.