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The Benefits of Being a Big Frog in a Small Pond


Those of us who struggle with low self-esteem might not like ourselves very much. But, because we're alive, we like other people and other stuff. As scathingly as we might view our reflections in mirrors or our performance at work, a few things out there in the world still bring us unadulterated joy.

No matter how harsh I've been to myself all day, no matter how much I've regretted a certain morning's dialogues, let a crow land near me and I am rapt. Transported by its sleek black muscularity, its knowing eyes. Transformed. Make it a raven and I might treasure this moment all my life.

My favorite animals are the ones that most other people love to hate. I care little for horses but could stand for hours watching skunks.

One thing I've noticed about those of us who struggle with low self-esteem is that we tend to love outliers. Oddballs. Freaks. We embrace what most others disdain, discard and dismiss.

My favorite clothes are thrift-shop clothes. My favorite restaurant is a college dining hall. My favorite vegetable is Brussels sprouts.

Consciously or not, we gravitate toward things for which we'll have little or no competition. This is one of our low-self-esteem workarounds. Because we're so certain that we'll lose any competition in which we engage, we actively seek dregs. In wanting what others reject, we need never excoriate our worthiness for those desired things. No one else wants this? No one? Are all of you absolutely sure that none of you ever in any way would possibly want this? Then OK. It's mine.

Sure, someday we might bring ourselves to believe: Hey, there's enough out there for everyone.

Maybe. Someday.

But for now, we know:

When we aim low, when we've got what we want all to ourselves, we always win.

And while we might not raise our children to cultivate this small-pond-large-frog attitude, it has saved us. It has allowed us to identify our joys and access them directly. Unencumbered by the fear and shame that often occlude our desires, we feel them with an epiphanic childish purity that, for our kind, is excruciatingly rare.

In choosing what others reject, we Small Ponders attain a secret benefit: We come to see ourselves as rescuers, discoverers, nurturers, artists, optimists. We are the ones who find jewels in what others deem trash. We sometimes feel a strange inchoate gratitude beaming from what we have been kind and smart enough to save, polish and cherish.

Making the authentic best of the ostensible "worst," seeking out the ignored and obscure, we Small Ponders stumble onto miracles. My current favorite music was recorded in the 1940s, before I was born, in Shanghai, to which I have never been, by singers of whom no one I know has ever heard. My favorite alcoholic beverage, consistently ranked the least popular in surveys, is gin. Recently sampling the world's costliest version, Nolet's Reserve—fifty years in the making, $700 per bottle—I encountered a magical fairytale elixir. And my husband is the most glorious waiflike wallflower who ever summoned the nerve to telephone a girl he barely knew and invite her to a free concert because he didn't have a dollar to his name.

Wanting what everyone else wants evinces a certain confidence: I deserve what we all agree is the best! But, for the confident, it's easy.

Wanting what others reject requires courage.

So many things and people out there in the world—the unappreciated, the unsung—would love for us to love them. We, the Small Ponders, know how.

S. Rufus is the author — under the byline Anneli Rufus — of several books including Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself (Tarcher Penguin 2014) and continues on the path of addressing self-esteem.

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