Growing up, my dad always told me that the definition of maturity is being able to get along with everybody. Through school, travels, and work, I’ve garnered my confidence with that truth in mind. If everyone likes me and I’m friends with everyone, it means I’m doing something right. Combined with the “Generation Validation” effect among privileged circles of young people today, I have become quite attached to hearing other peoples’ approvals in order to persevere.
Yet such an attitude can lead to “contingent self-esteem,” which is “self-esteem based on the approval of others or on social comparisons.” In a paper on Contingencies of Self-Worth, researchers write, “in domains of contingent self-worth, people pursue self-esteem by attempting to validate their abilities and qualities. This pursuit of self-esteem… has costs to learning, relationships, autonomy, self-regulation, and mental and physical health.”
People talk a lot about how Peace Corps leaves them more resilient. For me, becoming more resilient means chipping away at my need for validation. It even means being okay with having people doubt me. I’ve been able to avoid this task in every other venture of my life, where I’ve had grades, teachers, mentors, letters of recommendation, annual reviews, and consistent feedback to let me know exactly what I was doing well, and where I needed improvement.
While I don’t have the same formal validation here, I still feel a surprising amount of informal accountability. This might be an outcome of a Peace Corps that is more connected by technology than before. No part of me feels like I’ve said bye to the outside world for two years. No part of me feels isolated.
Sticks and Stones
As I adapt and find a role for myself here, the only negativity I have faced comes from the administration that oversees the institution Peace Corps connected with to establish my site. The people working in this administration do not live in my community, but rather, in the nearby town. They oversee activities in the women’s association in my community, where I have not yet begun concrete work.
“Ma chufna walu minnik,” (we haven’t seen anything from you) the administration director told me, before I left for vacation with my family. He proceeded to discuss with his supervisee whether or not I was lazy. I apologized, and promised them that when I got back, I would start aerobics and technology classes.
Three weeks later, I’ve started a little aerobics but not technology. It just doesn’t make sense to me to start something right as Ramadan is beginning, one month before the association closes for summer. I’d rather put a lot of time and effort into planning a six month long curriculum and gathering a cohort of people to come in regularly. I don’t want to start a class just to stay I tried.
Even as I seek validation from the Peace Corps approach, as well as the real and trusted friends I have made at site, the words of the administration are always echoing in my head – ma chufna walu minnik. Emphasis on the walu (nothing). I dread seeing those two individuals, and I dread what they’ll say to me. Their perception of me as lazy or inept crushes me more than any other words of praise, or love from anyone within my actual community, lifts me up.
It seems simple: “no one can make me feel inferior without my consent,” et cetera et cetera. But the blunt truth is, the administration’s perception of me as lazy taps right into my own preexisting insecurity that I lack the initiative and skill to get work off the ground.
I already oscillate between beating myself up for not trying to do more, and wanting to learn, be patient, and make sure that when I do something, it’s worthwhile and in partnership with others.
While my instincts push me towards the latter, I have social media and the Peace Corps community that act as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, my friends in Peace Corps provide support, comfort and validation. On the other hand, Facebook plays into the whole “social comparisons” part of my contingent self-esteem. And I always think about how people (including myself) talk about previous volunteers that didn’t do anything or were always out of site. I don’t want to be a “bad volunteer.”
When I arrived in Morocco, I was excited to finally, finally stop justifying to other people why I came here. But over eight months later, I still feel like I'm on a continual quest for justification and validation. As I’ve mentioned, being a volunteer in a community where you don’t have a carved-out role is a constant practice in questioning your “purpose.”
In this case, vulnerability is not strength. When one person says one negative thing about my presence here, it shatters me. Instead of motivating me to do anything better, it makes me want to disappear even more.
Indeed, it’s exhausting to ensure that every person I know here has a positive impression of me. It’s hard to maintain a perfect reputation in any community. Every hour I spend at home, or day I spend out of site, I beat myself up mentally. Every time someone in my community asks me, “fin ghaberti?” (where’d you disappear to?) I get defensive.
Reframing This Problem
As Ramadan approaches, I plan to fast to observe the holy month in earnest with my community. But absent a belief that God is commanding me to fast, I’m finding my own internal reasons to do so. So as I fast, I’m going to focus on it as an act that is not for the immediate approval of others, but instead, a test of patience from myself, for myself.
I want to get to the point where I don’t need the approval of others as motivation to keep going. I want to cultivate an internal self-esteem that’s not based on a fragile, always-hungry ego. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie alludes to in a book on parenting, “too many women worry about being liked.” This is damaging, she says, because “it’s not your job to be likeable. It’s your job to be yourself. Someone will like you anyway.”
So Dad, I still believe that maturity means being able to get along with everybody. But I might be learning relatively late in life that “getting along with” is not the same as “being liked by.” And just as making the difficult choice to join Peace Corps was an opportunity to define my commitments, choosing to follow my own path present someone else’s disapproval can be an exercise in faith for my own approach.