I feel completely overwhelmed.
Where do I even begin? Over the last year and a half or so, I have been on an incredible journey of self-discovery and improvement. At first, I didn't know what was happening. It started out incredibly gradual and effortless. I was focused on a diet that my friend and I were doing, but then, in support of that diet, I started making improvements to adjacent areas of my life and that snowballed to the point where I was a completely different person inside and out within just a few months. I was physically much healthier and I was mentally and emotionally stronger and more aware.
At some point I noticed all the changes that I had made in such a short amount of time and I panicked. I felt as if I was running down an ever-steeper hill and I didn't know how long I'd be able to keep my feet beneath me. I decided to take a break for a bit and stop pressuring myself to improve. I lost some progress and my life, for a time, went back to how it was before all my work. It was horrible. I don't know if I was always that miserable and unaware, or if the knowledge of how my life could be made anything less than that unbearable by comparison, but either way, after about a month, I couldn't take it anymore and I went back to my new self.
Since then I've made some major self-discoveries and have been trying to work on growing in those areas. The biggest of which is that I have a very muted sense of my own identity and almost no self-worth or self-esteem to speak of. Because of this, I latch on to people, become possessive and jealous, and tend to do whatever it takes to gain people's approval and validation.
Living with the knowledge of this problem and my striving to correct it has been the theme of the last six months of my life. It has been overwhelming and exhausting. I've read dozens of books, I've spent a lot of time reflecting, and I've made changes. I've worked hard at this. I've worked SO hard (As I write this, I am realizing for the first time how much effort and dedication it has required. I don't think I've ever given myself credit for that). And I've worked alone because I'm the only one who can truly solve this. But at times, all the effort that I put in just made things worse for me. All I saw were my deficiencies, my weaknesses, and my inability to change them.
I feel as if I'm in a catch-22. I know I need to start doing things on my own and to stop doing things because of other people. I know I need to start valuing myself so that I no longer need the validation of others. I know I need to become stronger and self-reliant, but I feel too mentally and emotionally weak to do this on my own. I sometimes talk to friends or family about it, but there's two problems with this. One, the conversation tends to turn into me seeking validation for my efforts, and two, when they help, it only makes me feel more useless and weak because I feel as if I needed help.
All of this culminates in the fact that I am exhausted and overwhelmed by my thoughts, by my emotions, by my constant introspection, and most of all, by my relentless quest for self-reliance.
I don't want to go back to how I was again. It was nearly unbearable. But at the same time, I don't know how much longer I can keep this up.
I can see that you're very hard on your personal growth. I can understand the fear of sliding back into the state that you were in the past. I can also tell that you're putting a lot of pressure on yourself. It seems to me that you're pushing yourself because you feel inadequate and don't want to feel that way anymore. You want to be strong and self-reliant.
From what I can tell, the pressure you're putting on yourself to become stronger is having the opposite effect as intended. You're being incredibly critical of yourself and that is damaging your self-esteem. You need to be supportive just like your friends and family are. You need more compassion in your life and when it comes from you, your self-esteem will start to grow.
You should also try to focus on the fact that for the first time, you realized how hard you're working on yourself. Give yourself credit for how much effort and dedication you're putting into this life-long endeavor. It's not your friends that changed you. It's not your family. That was all you! Sure, they supported you, but you need to realize that at the end of the day, it was your efforts, your decisions, your actions, and your dedication that brought about change. No amount of advice, guidance, or support can ever take that away from you.
Self-esteem is built between you and yourself, just as esteem for someone else is built over time. Take a look at all your efforts and growth and respect yourself for it. Build a respectful relationship with yourself. Over time, your sense of identity, your self-esteem, self-respect, and sense of self-worth will naturally grow. This will take time, but it doesn't have to be overwhelming.
When you focus on your idealistic and unrealistic goal of this incredibly strong, independent, completely self-reliant version of yourself, it's impossible to see anything but how far you are away from it. All you see is your failings and your deficiencies. Instead, build a strong, healthy relationship with yourself. Conduct your life in a respect-worthy way. Be true to yourself. Be compassionate, love and respect yourself for you who are. Not who you want to be. That's how you build a nurturing relationship with your friends and it's how you can build yourself up and be your own best friend.
Remember to be kind to yourself in the coming months and years. Like most things, this will be a process. It will take time. This is not a problem that can be "solved." You will grow, but there will always be something you can learn, something you can improve. So, your goal of solving this doesn't make sense and striving toward something that by definition cannot exist is a sure way to become overwhelmed.