A text-heavy entry this time. I was thinking about how lately, when people talk about the negative, critical voice in their heads, it feels like something that I once used to be core to my identity, which is now foreign or alien to me. Kind of like a childhood frenemy who you now have no feelings for, who you haven’t seen in 20 years and who would evoke no emotions, good or bad, if you actually did see them again.
For as long as I remember, I’ve had horrendous self-esteem. It’s bizarre to me, considering how much my parents love me and treated me kindly while growing up. During a trek with my father up a grassy mountain in the neighbourhood, he told me something I’d never forget — 「〇〇は自分を過小評価する癖がある。それを直そうとした方がいいよ。」Literally translated, “You have a tendency to undervalue yourself and your achievements. Try to fix that.”
I remember listening to those words, and feeling both filled with sadness and almost bursting into tears because I knew he was absolutely right; I had a highly distorted, low view of myself for as long as I could remember, but it was so badly distorted I had no way of what healthy and appropriate self-esteem really looked like.
I’ve kept a diary since I was 12 or 13, and the entries always fluctuated between two topics: one, I was so in awe of this beautiful world, I loved my family, I was so grateful for my life and home and family where I was. Two, I was the worst. I was stupid, ugly, fat (I weighed 105 lbs, always fluctuating between 96 and 110 lbs), destined to be hated, cursed to be the bullied at any moment in class, so flawed and pitiful I deserved to die a violent self-inflicted death.
If “being uncomfortable in one’s own skin” had a face, it would be mine. For most of my life through ages 6 – 32, I was always on the verge of tears at how inferior I was to everyone else in the world, even when that was objectively, manifestly untrue. My grades were good, so I wasn’t stupid. I’d won French speech making competitions, published stories, and held some kind of job at various workplaces (museums, hotels, restaurants) every year since I was 13. And yet because I was socially anxious, I thought I was doomed to isolation.
Where did this pathologically low self-esteem even come from, as someone with a fairly privileged and never subjected to parental abuse? How did that problem, which appeared to arise out of nowhere, keep me entangled in its branches like some parasitic tree, well throughout the early years after meeting my husband?
There was only one possible cause for the problem, and it was bullying throughout primary, secondary and high school. Unlike my family situation, which was as blissful and stable as anyone could hope, my school life was pure, relentless hell. It was almost comical how devoid of good memories my entire education has been. As the lone Asian kid in my class for most of those years, all it took was one kid in grade one to start asking uncomfortable questions:
“Why is your hair like that?”
“Where are you from?”
“Why are your eyes so weird?”
Soon, that one kid turned into everyone piling on:
“Ew! What’s that food in your lunchbox?”
“Why are you so short? You’re a shrimp.”
Those uncomfortable questions soon translated into kids forbidding me from sitting at the same table as them, kids refusing to be partnered with me for gym class, boys acting aggrieved and insulted if I was assigned to dance with them.
In retrospect, I played an active role in my own trauma. The smart thing to do when being bullied was to fight back. To build my self-esteem by mustering up courage and talking to other students. But I was far too proud and sensitive, and decided to reject my classmates with the same disdain they showed me.
Instead of putting myself out there and socializing to combat their prejudices, I assiduously avoided them; the fact that I was running from my fears made me ashamed, and more anxious of social situations, and corroded all the self-esteem that my parents had tried so hard to instil in me. To the six-year-old me, it was a waste of time to try to be accepted by them—my only salvation was to get away to a bigger city in university, and that turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I didn’t feel I could breathe in class until my first day on campus.
There are health impacts tied to poor self-image. By eighth grade, my sense of self was so distorted that just because one of my parents’ friends declared I was “obese” for my height (45kilos/100lbs, 5’1) and that I should really aim to be 40kilos/88lbs to look normal, I became determined to whittle my body fat down through relentless exercise and dieting. For whose approval? I still don’t know.
I’m not sure how eating disorders work for other families, but growing up with home-cooked meals where food was a big part of expressing love (we weren’t huggers), refusing to eat was never an option. That’s why despite recognizing that what I was doing was wrong, I became a full-blown bulimic in my early teens. I harboured an irrational, fanatical hatred for my “chubby” body which was in fact, if anything, slightly underweight (I’ve been fully recovered since the end of university after realizing there were better things to do than wrapping measuring tapes around body parts).
Today, I recognize that body-hatred for what it truly was: an inverted narcissism, beating myself up over body fat that literally nobody else cared about, probably not even the “family friend” who told me I was fat. As someone with anxiety and non-existent confidence, however, I clung on to every piece of criticism in my inbox, and made efforts to reach whatever standard was deemed necessary to escape further scrutiny. My heart aches when I hear about young girls being made to sit on a washing machine by their toxic boyfriends, who would order them to lose the fat in every part of their body that jiggled while the machine was on. Even though they appear completely idiotic, in an earlier time, that probably, definitely would have been me.
I slowly started to change my self perception after meeting my now-husband. He never said anything specific that really helped boost my self-image, but did things like seek out my opinion and check in with how I was feeling. In the early years of our relationship, I was completely unable to even register my opinions/wants, being wholly obsessed with figuring out what he wanted, so we could just do exactly what he wanted and avoid all disagreement.
Only after realizing that he actually valued hearing my thoughts, and that disagreement didn’t mean the end of our relationship, I became more articulate about voicing them. When my views clashed with his, I no longer reflexively amended my opinion to match his, and learned to enjoy our different points of view.
Finding a therapist who actually connected with me also had a huge plus. To be fair, he was about the 8th therapist in total who I’d spoken to, but all the others made no tangible difference in my negative pattern of thinking. I had actually enlisted my new therapist for my husband, but he helped me work on my anxiety for a whole year, until he observed that there was simply no more issues to be worked on anymore. He helped me confront my past and helped me reframe it so that I was no longer a helpless victim, but more of a survivor who still ended up becoming a functional adult despite a hellish stretch of school years.
Lastly, I got over myself by meeting people who had far bigger problems than I ever did. So what if I was bullied? Try being homeless. Low self-esteem? Surely it wasn’t as bad as spending your entire childhood in a religious fundamentalist cult. Something my mother always said saved me from going down dark paths: “You’re the protagonist. Act like the protagonist of your story.” A small remark from my father halted my descent into eating disorders before I went much lighter than 90 lbs — “Your body is meant to function. It’s no good to just look skinny if your body can’t function properly (at this point I hadn’t had a period in several years; I was shaking from hunger at various points of the day).
These days, when I hear those old self-critical, negatives voices within my head (a rarity these days), I don’t take them to heart and react to them the way I used to. It’s a bit like “new phone who dis”saying — those awful messages of self-doubt feel like they’re not even intended for me. The harsh, self-critical words don’t hurt my feelings when they come up because I know they’re unwarranted, exaggerated, not rooted in reality.
I just take those words and hit “spam/block number” in my heart, putting it back into the void where it belongs.