Along with being unable to accept compliments, there was also this long held concept of being less than and inferior to others, which began early on for me. I struggled in so many ways to match the speed, ease and ability of my classmates that I saw it as a flaw in my very character rather than strictly my ability. It defined me to the core, this idea of not measuring up. That even if I managed to improve, it seemed to matter very little because someone else was still better. My focus was all about how I compared to others instead of establishing my own track of development.
You’re supposed to pay attention to your interests and abilities to recognize talents as those might influence future areas of study to pursue and a potential career path. How do you successfully accomplish this with a negative view of yourself? Yes to a degree I saw that writing and creative writing were more strong suits. But it wasn’t enough to completely draw confidence from it or to see it as an actual talent. I still felt misunderstood for preferring to write in a notebook rather than trying to talk with others.
I twisted most of the compliments I received, convinced that people were just trying to be polite or telling white lie because they felt sorry for me. And with this internal, self-defeating attitude, you can tear yourself down pretty far. I didn’t need extra help in this area. So the emotional and sometimes verbal bullying/antagonizing that I received in previous years just reinforced this feeling of being inferior and incompetent, unworthy.
So I put on the happy face as best I could at school. Tried not to let people know certain things bothered me. I wrote about the masks I saw other people wear, but remained completely oblivious to the one I put on every day.
I wanted to learn, but I definitely felt strongly misunderstood. I wasn’t sure how to really contribute in class. English and literature were interesting as a means of self-expression and seeing how others used it to express themselves, but I struggled a lot with analyzing and interpreting others’ work. I could parrot back lists and concepts that were discussed in class but doing my own analysis or weaving in an opinion of what I thought a character was trying to accomplish, I second guessed that. Usually convinced I was wrong.
And because I felt insecure, I automatically felt I was being judged for it. Even though many of the things I worried about, no one called me out on specifically. It was one more burden I put on myself. I received a few direct comments of criticism about my height and the clothes I wore (jeans that weren’t long enough), but that was mostly in middle school.
For the most part, though, in high school, I didn’t get that kind of criticism. I still felt it was there, an assumed opinion. Probably because I felt awkward and uncomfortable, I was convinced that everyone else could sense the fear and negatively judged me for it. They may have noticed, but the judgment I felt was probably built up anxiety over my own assumptions.
This isn’t to say that I felt this way every second of the day. That’s not true. There were certainly times of happiness, times of being comfortable with myself and with others. Times where I was able to vocalize ideas and share my thoughts and that I wasn’t scared to speak up. But more often than not I felt uneasy in social situations.
Going through a computer class in ninth grade and being forced to learn how to type without looking at the keys and to complete error-free typing tests, I became quite adept at typing. Yet I thought nothing of this as a skill because everyone took the class. (Again, I have no idea why I thought that owning up to a skill for myself was linked to others.) Since then, I’ve had a strong connection with the keyboard. And just like physical writing helps me express things when I encounter obstacles with verbal communication, typing also frees me up. I don’t encounter the same burden when typing. There’s much less hesitancy to type and share things honestly compared to verbally saying the same things. (Here’s an awesome article about why introverts have a hard time putting thoughts into words.)
Didn’t parents notice?
With my autobiography, there were some self-deprecating comments that were meant to offer humor, such as describing the day I was born as when the insanity began. But I didn’t sugarcoat everything. I admitted to being depressed. One of Mr. Kremin’s questions in the margins included: Didn’t Mom and Dad notice? Sure they did. But I think most of it was viewed as adolescent anger, hormones and my inability to handle that. I went to psychologists and years of therapy and counseling sessions. We tried different medications. I don’t remember what specifically we focused on in counseling, but we never got to the root of the problem. If we did, I would have learned about my sensory problems much earlier.
Last fall I began working through The Self-Esteem Workbook by Glenn Schiraldi. He describes a scale for self-esteem. On the left is “self-defeating shame,” in the middle is “self-esteem” and on the right is “self-defeating pride.”
“People with self-defeating pride are trying to be more than human. They are arrogant, and narcissistic, which means that they think they are better and more important than others as a person. Their view of others is vertical, or comparative, which is to say that to be on top means that others must be below them. Self-defeating pride is often rooted in insecurity.”
“People with self-defeating shame, or self-defeating humility, believe that they are less than human. They view people vertically, and see themselves as the dust of the earth. They hold an unrealistic and unappreciative opinion of themselves.”
“By contrast to the above views, people with self-esteem believe they are neither more or less than human. Knowing their faults and rough edges, they still are deeply and quietly glad to be who they are (referencing Briggs 1977). They are like the good friend who knows you well and likes you anyway because they recognize the goodness, excellence and potiential that coexist alongside imperfections. People with self-esteem view others as equals, on a level or horizontal plane.”
I clearly fell into the self-defeating shame, self-defeating humility end of the spectrum, and Schiraldi’s categories offer a decent starting point. You have to be able to identify where you are before you can take steps toward improving that behavior. But I’m working toward a more proper outlook of myself, toward actual self-esteem. This writing process is helping me achieve a healthier balance of knowing my weaknesses but seeing my strengths as well. And slowly I’m working toward seeing myself as equal to others instead of less than.
It’s only in the last few years that I’ve really made progress in improving this self-view. So descriptions of high school and college and beyond are riddled with this struggle of being proud of who I am, appreciating what I have to offer and recognizing the strengths.