I learned some things about myself, too: what I’m good at, what I’m not so good at, how I react under pressure, and how I manage stress. But there are a bunch of other positive habits instilled by general military discipline that we come to take for granted. Here are just a few.
I used to have the world’s worst self-esteem. No matter what I did or said, there was that mocking, derisive voice in the back of my head telling me that I was pathetic, I was a burden, and why did I even bother to try? I was obsessed with perfection and I hated myself for each slip-up. Now, when I open up and express my insecurities, people seem surprised. I’ve become so much stronger and more confident. But it happened very slowly. Over the past few years, my life experiences have allowed me to overcome three essential fears – ones that I think everyone deals with, to different extents.
FEAR OF BEING UNATTRACTIVE
I cut off all my hair a little over a year ago. I did it because I thought it would look fierce and it would make my daily routine easier (and I was right on both counts). I’ll be honest, though: when I saw my hair being hacked off, I was struck with terror. What if I look horrible? What will people say about me? Will they make assumptions about my sexuality? Luckily, once you start lopping off inches of hair, there’s no going back, otherwise I would have stopped my stylist right there.
Women in particular are taught from a very young age to amount their self-worth to their beauty. I see a lot of girls, especially ones who are new to the Navy, relishing the attention they get from guys. They love being desired and feeling attractive, and, actually, there’s nothing wrong with that. Once you let it dictate your self-worth and your behavior, however, is when things get tricky. What if I had stuck with my long hair just because some guys didn’t think I was cute anymore? What if I had continued to have a bun constantly affixed to the back of my head just to fulfill some parochial understanding of what a girl should look like?
Cutting my hair taught me three things:
- My opinion of how good I look is the most accurate and useful.
- Sometimes I do things for myself without any regard for what others think.
- I have qualities that are vastly more interesting than traditional beauty.
The last point was especially freeing. There is so much more to you than even your worst insecurity. You can have three arms and still have a razor-sharp wit that leaves everyone reeling. You can have birthmarks or scarring and still create art, music, or writing. No matter what you look like, you’re always going to be someone’s favorite person, and I think that is worth a lot more than being physically appealing to many people who, in turn, only see you as the sum of your attractive features.
It’s okay to be attractive. It’s also okay to be unattractive. But, if you’re very concerned with your attractiveness to others, please also concern yourself with your other wonderful qualities as well. I think a well-rounded, interesting person is the most attractive of all.
FEAR OF BEING UNLIKEABLE
I was never important enough for anyone to waste their time disliking me. Growing up, I usually kept to myself and was friendly even to those I didn’t care for. People might have thought I was weird or boring, but those struck me as pretty neutral assessments. It wasn’t until I joined that Navy that people began to dislike me for no reason.
This has happened a few times: someone will confide in me, “So-and-so says you’re a bitch.” And, each time, I’ve had to ask, “Who is so-and-so again?”
I wasn’t being petty or dismissive; I hadn’t interacted with these people enough to remember who they are, never mind to make any judgments about their character. That they had already formed negative opinions about me was a new and alarming experience. My first reaction was to be as pleasant as possible at all times to all people. But that was very exhausting and, sorry to say, dishonest. I experimented with different temperaments, sometimes deliberately and sometimes due to other circumstances, and found that people continued to say mean things about me no matter what I did or how I acted. So I gave up. Now I just act like myself.
Here’s an example: I stopped smiling for no reason. Being warm and ebullient makes someone instantly charming and likeable, but it never felt authentic to me. I felt like I was tricking people into liking me. I don’t consider myself cold or mean – not in general – but I’m definitely reserved and introverted, and trying to pretend otherwise was very difficult for me. It is so much more relaxing for me to maintain a neutral or “serious” expression on my face than to be cheerful and pleasant. It might make others a little less comfortable around me or more reluctant to interact with me, but the peace that I feel when I’m not putting on an act is worth it. I’m not often bubbly, but I’m almost always happy, precisely because I’m being true to myself.
There is a distinction I want to make, though. There is a huge difference between, “I’m going to do what I want and if people don’t like it, it’s not my problem,” and, “I’m going to do what is authentic to me because I recognize that I can’t be liked by everyone all the time.” The first attitude rejects any personal responsibility for the effect your words and deeds have on others, which is immature. The second attitude, I think, allows space to accept social consequences without affecting your self-esteem.
FEAR OF FAILURE
The Navy made this one very easy. I fail every day, in big and small ways. I say the wrong thing and get in trouble. I try to perform my job independently and get corrected, publicly, and have an example made of me. I put a lot of time and effort into a project only to be told that it’s garbage. Three years ago, the slightest expression of displeasure would have left me paralyzed and unable to function. Now I’ve been yelled at so many times that it doesn’t affect me anymore.
The only way to get better at accepting failure is to keep failing. I think this is inevitable as life goes on. What once terrified me is now a source of amusement; instead of hiding my shortcomings due to embarrassment, I openly share them with others in a way that I hope is both amusing and instructive. Talking about how I messed up usually makes it seem pretty trivial. And, usually, that’s because it is!
Getting over a fear of failure not only boosted my self-esteem, but it made me much more willing to pursue opportunities for which I don’t feel completely ready. The Navy loves trial under fire, and some of the best learning experiences I’ve had were from jumping in head-first, doing what I could, and hoping for the best. I’ve become more eager for new experiences and responsibilities, even if I don’t expect to be any good at them, and I’m often surprised by how well I end up doing. I wouldn’t know if I didn’t try. No one expects perfection, and trying my best is almost always good enough.