How we can slowly lose our sense of self-worth.
When I was a child, I had this pretty little picture book called The Lovables In The Kingdom of Self-Esteem by Diane Loomans.
Despite the beautiful illustrations and clearly positive message, I can still remember thinking at around eight years old, Sheesh, what a hokey book! Seriously. “I am lovable! I am lovable! I am lovable!" Those are literally the magic words that open the gates to the Kingdom of Self-Esteem.
My eight year old self thought it was dumb that there was even a place called "the Kingdom of Self-Esteem." I suppose I expected a little more nuance and better allegory? Well...
Nearly 30 years later, I still think about that damn book. And about how naive I was at the time... oh, just so blissfully unaware. Whenever I read the story back then, I actually wondered how someone could have low self-esteem. I didn’t understand how it happens.
Which means back in grade School, I still believed I was lovable. I didn’t even question my worth. Of course, I was attending an extremely nurturing magnet school. It helped that no matter what was going on inside my dysfunctional home, I felt valued by my teachers and I looked forward to school each day.
I can’t tell you exactly when things changed for me. It was more of a gradual progression over the next four years as I made my way into junior high. That’s when my relationship with my mom became especially rocky and I started to struggle more socially — or become more aware of my social struggles, at least.
But in the summer before fifth grade, my best friend, Jay, was killed along with one of his older sisters. They were both trying to save a younger sister caught up in an undertow at a local lake. I rarely saw friends outside of school and no one ever called me on the phone until that particular August. One of the most popular girls in school called to ask if I had heard about Jay because she’d seen it on the news and knew we were friends.
This was back in the early 90s, so I couldn’t just look it up online. I waited to watch the news myself for another blurb and found a newspaper to confirm the story. Then I read about how my best friend Jay Xiong drowned on August 9, 1992, just three days after my ninth birthday.
My dysfunctional home life ultimately meant that my school and home were completely separate. So I wasn’t able to really talk to anyone about Jay’s death. I wrote about it, and when school started, I tried to write to Jay’s other best friend, Matt. We rode the bus together, and Jay used to ride with us too. Matt read my note on the bus, crumpled it up, tossed it to the ground, and I thought he looked like he might cry. We never spoke again after that.
Time kept moving, but I wasn’t quite the same.
The other morning I read a story by Lane Carrigan that really resonated with me and led me to prepare this piece. In it she mentioned being so hard on herself as a kid that she used to hit herself for a perceived failure.
The truth about me sucks
It reminded me that I used to hit myself as I child too. For me, it was always an anger thing. In a fit of self-loathing, I didn’t rage at anyone but me, and I felt like I deserved the punishment.
I’ve never told anyone before about the hitting because I was afraid whoever I told would think I was crazy. Whenever I hit myself I knew it wasn’t “normal.” Now I wonder if telling a therapist would have helped me get the right mental health diagnosis faster. My intense anger has always been well-hidden, and self-directed. But it’s still incredibly destructive.
In my mind I had a “safe” way to let out my rage. I could slap, slap, slap my face all in an instant and it hurt, but it did no lasting damage. So I thought.
Hitting myself when I was alone in my room was a staple coping method probably from about age 10 to 18. I believe it stopped only when I graduated from high school and no longer had a room to myself.
But slapping my face was replaced with negative self-talk. Whenever I got angry, I was stupid. I talked to myself about how much I hated me. Ironically, it’s much harder to kick negative self-talk to the curb, and it requires a good deal of (sometimes hokey) self-esteem magic.
Later when I was in middle school, I discovered that the girls who were a grade below me didn’t even like me back when I was eight. Back when I felt unquestionably good about myself. They weren’t fond of the attention I received from our teachers and groaned whenever I was pointed out in school assemblies or concerts.
Apparently the art teacher showed off a lot of my projects to the other classes and I had frequent solos in band so while I felt good about myself and valued in school, the attention I received contributed to others’ self doubts.
Thinking about self-esteem, I realize now that it’s a combination of the things we soak up about what others say or do near us when we’re young, along with the way we treat ourselves. And as we reach adulthood, it becomes more of a question about whether or not we’re leading the kind of life that makes us feel proud of who we are underneath all the surface issues.
It's all over the news that anxiety and mental illness are on the rise in the US. We're all talking about it, but not really talking about it, if you know what I mean.
In light of all of this recent coverage about mental illness, I really want to hear more conversations stated about improving our sense of self-worth and how to practice better mental hygiene.
I want to have honest conversations about how we might lose our way. How one day as children we love who we are and then another day we wake up as grownups we don’t even like.
Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about some hard to swallow truths since talking about mental health is my jam:
- Success Isn't Everything
- Not Selfish, But Sick
But I also don’t want to forget to talk about what else we all need right now, things like hope:
The True Story About Why We Give Up
If you’ve been following my work on Medium, you know I’m pretty crazy about Mister Rogers. In fact, when people talk about what the world needs lately, I’d like to order at least a few dozen neighbors like him. Because what do we really need?
"The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.” -Fred Rogers
Were truer words ever spoken? So many of us find ourselves grown up and locked into the daily grind but going nowhere fast. And I don’t think it has to be that way. Medium gives me a great deal of hope that more people are waking up. More people are talking about the realities of mental health battles and approaching them without shame.
Now I’m beginning to wonder if we’re entering a new era of writing. Where writing means something once again beyond tired blogging designed to sell a product or service. Like we’ll finally quit pushing content for something much better--connection. Connection to the words we write in our stories, connection to the readers who are inspired by our words, and connection to our fellow writers as we inspire each other.
I’m excited, because I see that more writers are becoming increasingly honest in the stories they write. Many of us are passing up perfection for whatever is genuine and relatable.
And I have to say that now at 35 years old, the things that used to embarrass me at eight, fourteen, or even twenty are now the things I love. Messages about self-esteem. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Daily positive affirmations.
“If I had my child to raise all over again,
I’d build self-esteem first, and the house later.
I’d finger-paint more, and point the finger less.
I would do less correcting and more connecting.
I’d take my eyes off my watch, and watch with my eyes.
I’d take more hikes and fly more kites.
I’d stop playing serious, and seriously play.
I would run through more fields and gaze at more stars.
I’d do more hugging and less tugging.” -Diane Loomans
As the mother of a small child, self-esteem matters to me now more than ever. Not just my self-esteem or my daughter’s, but yours too. The self-wworth our neighbors, our leaders, and even celebrities. Because genuine self-esteem isn’t lip-service or conceit. And no, it’s not whatever blown up bizzaro world ego that Trump’s got.
It’s a real and positive force which ripples out into the rest of the world.
Isn’t that childlike sense of self worth getting back for ourselves, our kids, and our entire world?
No need to be embarrassed--say it with me: “I am lovable! I am lovable! I am lovable!”
Looking for more?
- I Don’t Want You To Fix Me
- A Diary of Unsolicited Advice From Men
- When Everything Is Only Pain
Am I... Lovable? was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.