Friday, March 22, 2013

On Self Esteem

Self esteem was in short supply when I was growing up.

Not that anyone was out to crush us. We just didn't have an environment where there was such a thing as self esteem, much less a sense of self. I'm not sure if my parents thought of us in those terms -- as individuals with individual sense of selves. To them, we were children -- viewed as a unit, perhaps more or less interchangeable, with roles to play and futures to fulfill. Of course, they knew us as separate people, with distinct personalities, but I don't know if they necessarily thought of us as contained beings ripe enough to possess inner lives worthy of consideration. We were beings in the making, nascent and malleable, billowing with potential and room for improvement. Their job was to help us ripen, prevent bruises and defects, and deliver us for perfection in the hopes that such painstaking preparation would help us weather future storms.

When I was younger, I remember my mother scrutinizing me for potential defects. In middle school, I walked slightly pigeon-toed. My mother walked alongside me, block after block, reminding me to point my toes straight. Over and over again, she made me walk along the divide in sidewalk cement to use as a guide for my misaligned feet. Her reminders were incessant, and I remember feeling harangued. Just leave me alone, I muttered. It does not matter. But to her, it did matter. It was her job as the mother to correct my defect. She focused on the potential of a corrected defect; all I heard were the words that I was somehow defective.

Another defect I had was my right eyelid. When I chewed, my eyelid flinched ever so slightly with my jaws. My aunt noticed it when I was a child, and my mother zoomed in like a moth drawn to the light. She stared and stared while I ate. Try chewing this way, she encouraged. No, try it another way. To no avail. She gave up when she realized that the movement was involuntary. My only choice was to chew less, which I tried to minimize under my mom's watchful eye, or to chew with my head down. Once in my early 30s, my mom called me out of the blue. She wanted to know if I wasn't seeing anyone, couldn't get married because of my eye. I laughed at the time because the idea seemed so absurd. But to this day, I feel self-conscious and flood with shame when someone notices.

When I was younger, I often felt inadequate. I didn't have much going for me. I stood a good foot taller than most kids in my class. I reached puberty early. I had oily skin and hair. And on top of that, I had a mom who had no problem pointing out my defects.

Now that I'm a parent, I can understand some of those concerns. You want your child to fit in, to belong. To not be that child with a blaring "difference" who could be rejected by a society of primitive beings we all have to learn not to be.

I can see how she was coming from a place of fear. But I can also see how we approach the world from radically different points of view. When faced with a "difference," you can teach your child to accept the difference -- in herself first. To love herself. To build within your child an inner reserve of self esteem and confidence so that she can face the world, and in turn, force the world to make room for her. But to do that, you have to accept that difference first, and you may be more inclined to accept that difference if you see that difference as an intrinsic part of your child. Because you believe that the body (and mind) is a holy temple.

Alternatively, instead of accepting the difference or defect, you can reject it. You don't accept it as an intrinsic part of your child, and you do whatever it takes to eradicate it. This rejection may come from a place of shame, but it may also arise out of concern for your child's welfare, out of fear that your child may be spurned. And it is far simpler to "fix" your child than to fix the world. But this approach can also be viewed optimistically, as a sign of tenacity, that anything can be conquered if you try hard enough, if you work on yourself. Maybe if you were raised in a society as rigid and as socially conforming as South Korea was in my mother's youth, you may see no choice but to conform your child. Because that is the best way to maximize the chances of your child's success.

I can't help but wonder if I would have received her efforts to "correct" me with a better attitude if we had been raised in Korea. Back there, blunt criticisms are unleashed without any attempts at nicety, and it is not uncommon to be told openly that you are fat or unattractive. Maybe if we too had been raised with the same standard of socially acceptable communication, we would have developed the same armadillo skin that could have helped us weather the criticisms and seen them as something constructive, as she intended.

But it wasn't just this. I think it was my parents' ambitions for us that, ironically, did greater damage. My parents had three children, but one dream for all of us. They wanted us to become doctors or lawyers, some kind of professional. It was their idea of security, of fulfillment. It was the best they could imagine. Their children would have money, an earning potential that could never be taken away. And we would have the respect of others, a degree to elevate us in the eyes of others.

Their dream, however well intentioned, had little to do with any of us. Although none of us showed any inclination to become a doctor or a lawyer, they failed to see this in their zeal. My parents tended to disregard our individual traits that didn't align with their prospects for us. And when we showed promise in any other field, whether in playing an instrument or showing our creativity otherwise, it mattered little. Of course they humored us by attending the annual holiday concert, but we were quickly made to understand that excelling in those areas held no value. It was as if they took their pruning knives and lopped off those traits they deemed undesirable in the hopes that we would tend in the direction they set out for us.

But I don't know if we ever recovered from their efforts to shape us. We felt the pain of having parts of ourselves shunted. The implicit message we received was that those traits were neither worth having nor knowing, but to us, they felt like they contained the seeds of our inner essence. It felt like a rejection in the deepest sense, as if they were telling us that we were not worth knowing, not at our core. And it felt like a failure -- their failure to see us for who we really were. And to this day, I can't help but wonder if those thwarted parts were the very things that could have helped us define ourselves, helped fulfill our destiny.

Our sense of rejection created a cascade of issues that none of us children ever addressed, or at least not really well. Suppressed of our distinguishing traits, I think we felt interchangeable -- and hollowed. We became fiercely competitive with each other, even though we never acknowledged it. But we expressed it in the way we always compared ourselves to each other, in the way we resented each other. And we lived with the seed of fear that we could never measure up, that we would never reach the standards that others set for us.

It's hard for me to blame my parents. They were no more ambitious for us than most other Korean parents we knew. If anything, my parents were more easy going. They never sat us at the piano for hours with a stick in hand. They never made us practice for hours. They never prohibited other activities at the exclusion of the one they chose. They were moderate, but even so, they followed the prescribed methods of their time and culture. And they believed, with all of the best intentions, that they were creating the best environment to optimize the future of their children.

But no matter the good intention, I see our upbringing through the American lens, where acceptance is touted as the higher road, and self-confidence, the key to one's success. And through this lens, I am sensitive to the scars my siblings and I bear and what I interpret to be markers of low self-esteem. We are quick to anger. We have a tendency to read into comments, to scour another's words and to find offense in them. To take things personally. To get our feelings easily hurt.  All of us are a little needy -- in need of more attention, more affirmation, more affection. And I don't mean to oversimplify things by pinning everything on the parenting we received, but it's hard to argue that there isn't some connection.

I think of the difficult task of parenting. You could have all the best intentions in the world.  You could plan and hope for the best. You can clothe and feed your child, wipe off that snot, break your back washing laundry by hand day and night, run to the doctor in the middle of the night with desperate fear of that abnormally high temperature as your baby cries and screams at the top of her lungs in your ear. You can refrain from eating that bowl of rice you hunger for because your child wants it, and you limit yourself to the scrapes left over from the last meal that your child rejected simply because he wasn't in the mood to eat the rest. And you can worry in a way you've never worried about another human being, not because something horrific has occurred, but simply because you understand the ever-present dangers of this world as well as the frightening vulnerability of your little person. And you are determined to do whatever it takes to protect this child.

You could do all that, year after year. But the world changes on you. And the standards of parenting change. Your now grown children see the world through a different set of eye, a different measure of approval. And your parenting cannot surpass the boundaries of culture or time. No. You do what you believe to be right at the time, but what you believe to be right is a product of your own upbringing, your own culture, the beliefs of your time. You do the best that you can, and pray that your children will one day have the ability to reflect, the maturity to understand, and the inner resources to appreciate. 

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