Who doesn’t want to feel capable, respected, admired, and loved? At an important juncture early in my career, these feelings promoted a positive sense of personal power and a belief that I had infinite potential. My feelings of confidence and high self-esteem were sustained by co-workers who encouraged me to blossom as I basked in the light of their good will.
What changed? I met Mary in graduate school. She had a positive attitude and her spirit was infectious. She exuded confidence and high energy. No one could be depressed, down, or self-critical in her presence because she believed not only in herself but also in you. Greeting everyone with a smile and a kind word, Mary was always sought out as a listener or study partner. When the feedback we were getting from our professors reduced our self-esteem in every conceivable way, all of us in our graduate cohort needed Mary and loved being with her because she validated us.
Mary was at least ten years older than the rest of us. She had an old-school marriage where she was responsible for everything related to domestic life, and a full-time job at a junior high school where she needed combat pay for the war she fought every day.
I loved being in Mary’s company and thought it would be nice to see her even more often than in our classes at the university. When a position opened up at the college where I worked, I thought Mary would be perfect to join our team. I told my boss about her and encouraged her to apply for the position as a counselor. I championed her candidacy, but she didn’t need it. She blew away the review team and became my colleague.
We needed another counselor because students’ needs were beyond our capacity. There seemed to be an epidemic of students coming to the counseling center with symptoms of depression. We were overwhelmed. Mary was so effective with students who presented as being depressed that she quickly developed a reputation among the faculty and staff who made student referrals to the counseling center. The counselors also began to consult with her on particularly troublesome cases. Mary became known for her skills and, once people met her, they became fans and friends.
I didn’t know what was going on with me, but I began to spend less and less time with Mary and apparently, according to Mary, rejected her attempts to continue the warm relationship we had before she joined the staff.
One day, Mary came into my office, shut the door, and sat down. I didn’t know exactly what form this confrontation would take, but I knew something like this was bound to happen. I was quite uncomfortable. We both sat quietly without talking for a long couple of minutes. Finally, Mary caught my eyes, held my gaze and, speaking softly as if talking with a small child, asked me, “Gwen, what are you afraid of?”
Of course, I didn’t think that I was afraid of anything. But when I reflected on what had been happening and how I felt, I came to grips with the fact that I was afraid that if Mary were loved and respected to the extent that she was, there wouldn’t be enough for me. Before Mary joined the staff, my light shone brightly, and now all the light seemed to be on her. I felt diminished.
What did I learn? I learned that without the external validation that I was capable and had potential, I doubted myself. Past successes as evidence of my competence and effectiveness were not enough to overcome the unacknowledged fear of losing what I saw as positive personal power. It was this direct question from Mary about my fear that brought me face-to-face with my real weaknesses.
I needed external validation of my capabilities and effectiveness. I felt that there was a limited amount of love, respect, and admiration, and if Mary were getting so much of it, there wouldn’t be enough for me.
After that hard realization, I began to habitually investigate my feelings through reflection to see what other lessons I could learn about myself.