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How "Low Self Esteem" Labeling Hurt One Student's Confidence

by The Beta Female

For most of my life, I have been accused having low self esteem. Throughout childhood and adolescence, friends frequently implored, "Geez, why do you cut yourself down so much?" I believed them, and worked tirelessly to improve my self esteem to seemingly no end. Only recently did I decide that I do not have low self esteem and likely never did. This groundbreaking realization came much too late, though, and the damage has been done. It will be no easy task to untrain the nonsense that was taught by counselors, life coaches, and self help books an an effort to make me more of an "optimist."

Elementary school was my earliest realization that this low self esteem thing didn't hold water. To this day, my mother wonders if something going wrong with either of her two children somehow could be traced back to a parenting error. She had always tried to praise us and encourage us, and I agreed that she hadn't done anything that could ever be construed as wrong other than maybe the usual annoying motherly things like picking at my hair, suggesting more feminine clothes, and telling me to stand up straight. That couldn't possibly be the cause, I thought. I told her that I was sad because I liked myself just fine, but wondered why nobody else did.

What a critically important realization. It amazes me how, even at such a young age, I was adept at discerning the difference between causality and correlation. I don't even know how I knew. I just seemed to immediately be able to critically assess situations, pick out weaknesses in arguments, and detect the presence of logical fallacies. I knew my own weaknesses and had clear goals of how I would improve them. I attempted to write my own books starting in 3rd grade, mostly inane Mary Sue fiction and lyrical poetry, but nevertheless I would fill journals with these things. Occasionally I would write confessional pieces on the events of the day and my thoughts on life, sometimes addressing myself or the diary directly. No other children I knew at the time did things like this and I hid it from them for fear they would think I was weird.

I was frequently bullied in school. Looking back, I am not surprised. I was physically weak and uncoordinated, shy, book smart, and deeply intellectual. I wanted to be left alone so I could learn things – in other words, I was an easy target. In an attempt to escape bullying by a particularly catty group of girls, I reported them to my teacher, who then said, "Well, what do you want me to do about it?" She sent me to the guidance counselor and told to "get a thicker skin." I was counseled to be less of an easy target. The girls were not reprimanded so they went on behaving as they always did, perpetuating social Darwinism, and I went on struggling (and failing) to climb up to a safer place on the social food chain.

My parents, who were both educators themselves, always suspected that because my bullies were frequently black students, the teachers were reluctant to punish them directly out of fear of being accused of racism. Additionally, the particular group of girls mentioned above who tortured me from first to eight grade usually got away with it because they were attractive, popular, confident, and knew how to kiss up to adults.

At the tender young age of thirteen, I went to the guidance counselor and got a brochure from her on self esteem. It seemed that the criteria everyone based their "diagnosis" on was this perceived excessive self criticism. And why did they perceive that I was excessively self critical? Because I was realistic rather than bubbly, naïve, and superficial like other little girls. I had set goals for myself and knew what I wanted to change in my life to realize my dreams. Part of having a grand plan for your life involves recognizing and sometimes articulating your own shortcomings. I guess I was supposed to think I was going to be President Doctor Barbie Super Hero Mother instead. Perhaps such a delusion would have lead them to believe I was developing normally.

I am convinced that everything else on the list of symptoms of low self esteem (defensiveness, hypersensitivity, neurotic guilt, perfectionism, and floating hostility) was a direct result of constantly being told I was too negative and had low self esteem when I didn't. Knowing that I thought I was fine and being constantly told I wasn't undermined my sense of who I thought I was. It is obvious to me now that if I thought I was fine, but teachers and classmates told me I wasn't, that it would create some psychological distress. I now believe that defensiveness, hypersensitivity, neurotic guilt, perfectionism, and floating hostility are also symptoms of emotional abuse.

Adding insult to injury, in addition to being told I had low self esteem, I was frequently told that I needed to stop caring so much what other people thought of me. However, I had a difficult time training myself to stop listening to other people's opinions of me because I was convinced that my own assessment of myself was wrong. It is frequently said that no one makes you feel inferior without your permission, but when you're a young child with a narrow frame of reference, sometimes you just don't know any better.

My grade school years brought some of my first experiences with a particularly potent type of delusional thinking called "motivated reasoning." It seemed like every K-12 school counselor and teacher I encountered in the 80s and 90s was an amateur shrink trying to make some amazing discovery about a child. I had an elementary school guidance counselor accuse my parents of child abuse and asked me "if my daddy had ever touched me in inappropriate places," which of course was radically untrue and brought me to nearly suffocating levels of tears the first time it was asked. It was a thought that had never crossed my mind, and my extreme reaction only further solidified the suspicions that lead so many school psychologists to think that the problem was on my end. They blamed me for having some kind of defect of attitude, or a bad family, or a mental disorder, rather than blaming the anti-intellectual climate of the Florida public school system that left me feeling like an unsatisfied outsider.

When bullies systematically humiliated me, I would be moved to a new class, a new desk, a new schedule. Sometimes my teachers did nothing at all because they weren't paying attention. Political correctness and the self esteem movement had dug in it's claws, so it was not fashionable to punish bullies. Consequently, I became fearful of social interactions where there would be no reliable adult supervision and spent most of my seventh and eight grade years hiding in the library bathroom or faking sick and sleeping in the nurses office for as long as I could get away with it. I lament the time I lost that could have been spent learning things while my young mind was still developing. That window is now mostly closed and I find myself struggling to learn as an adult because the fundamentals of performance oriented subjects like math did not get a chance to take hold.

At the end of eighth grade, just before I was about to enter high school, I would receive threatening phone calls multiple times per day from bullies saying that their older brothers and sisters were going to beat me up as soon as we got to high school. Rather than calling their bluff, my parents decided to send me to Catholic school instead. I finished there without physical bruises, but the emotional bruises had only yet begun to form.

I'm convinced that there are more kids out there like me who, when measured against the vast superficiality of the world, appear to be too analytical, too self critical, and too introverted and therefore, need some kind of intervention to put a stop to all of that crazy contemplation. They grow up with a stunted intellect and poor self confidence that can take years to undo – years that could have been better used for practical things like refining talents and learning interpersonal skills by which to propagate the fruits of their labor.

I imagine that if the bullies who tormented me had been adequately punished, either through suspension, public humiliation, or otherwise removing them from the temptation to torture unsuspecting victims, I might have grown up having more trust in authority figures and more faith in justice itself. If it was, over time, made socially unacceptable to be a bully, maybe the climate of my school aged years would have been more conducive to my personal growth. Maybe I would never have appeared to have depression or low self esteem and I would have been free to be myself. Imagine how much less taxing on my poor nervous system it would have been. I often wonder if the anxiety I feel about work performance and social interactions would be less had I been able to develop my identity on my own terms.

I carried my distrust for authority figures into adulthood. When I became ill with ulcerative colitis, I failed to accept that my doctors had my best interest in mind. Their arrogance, and their tendency to hastily judge my personality and intelligence when I had justifiably strong emotional reactions to feeling sick and worrying if I will ever feel better probably reminded me of being judged as a child by teachers in a similar way. This mistrust for authority is likely what lead me blindly into the clutches of alternative medicine. I was primed by mistrust for authority to seek out the fringe, and after falling helplessly into it's arms, the fringe performed the coup de gras on my confidence.

Escaping this vicious cycle meant rediscovering my own worth and using it as a motivation to take control of my life to the best of my ability. As I move through the stages of life, fewer and fewer people seem to see me as having low self esteem. Perhaps I got lucky that I was able to find friends who embrace both the intellect and the spirit without judging either.

Anti-intellectualism was not limited to the schools I attended as a child. I now see that it is a widespread problem throughout the United States, and perhaps other parts of the industrialized world. It is shameful with all of what we have at our disposal to propagate useful information, the average person still mostly uses it to look at porn, politics, and funny pictures of cats. In some ways, I am what one of my friends calls a "Luddite" – a person who rejects technology. At least, when compared to my gadget-toting peers. I resent social networking, smart phones, and anything with a touch screen. I'm even beginning to think that laptops are a racket. But, what I hate most of all about this post-modern technological era is the short attention span, affinity for sound bytes, and simple explanations built upon false certainty. Maybe human beings have always been this dumb and communication technology is not to blame. Nevertheless, it doesn't make it any less annoying when slogans become the most acceptable use of our language, in lieu of thoughtful, reasoned, diverse discussions that are sometimes long and cannot be explained in the "quick and dirty" format without leaving out important details.

The problem with always expecting "quick and dirty" explanations for things is that it short changes higher quality, more well rounded information. We are learning to tune out everything that we don't like or don't have the energy to comprehend. Written communication is mostly skimmed rather than read and spoken communication is required to be borderline theatrical in order to get people to listen. If we rule out everything that is too long, too slow, or too plain we will probably miss out on a lot of valuable things. Similarly, if intellectual students are accused of having a mental disorder, their mouths have been shut before their hearts have a chance to open.

For example, it has been an imperative of science for a long time to develop more popular appeal, but the burden should also be on the public to learn how to properly interpret science, especially science reported in the media, so as not to be duped by snake oil salesmen and refrigerator salesmen alike. Ignorance may be bliss, but only when there are no problems to solve. Bullying comes from this type of ignorance and teachers are part of the problem if they do not learn to identify the symptoms of ignorance. Nerds are abused because being smart is seen as not being any fun.

Recently in the lab, my boss came in and asked how I was doing. I was still in the process of learning a new technique and pointed to some tubes in the incubator and asked, "You want me to run these out on a gel, right?" She looked annoyed and said, "What do you think?" I hesitated for a moment and said, "Yes." And she said, "Well, then why did you ask me?" I told her that I had a poor memory and needed to double and triple check my next move in order to make sure it was the right one. She replied with, "Well, you did know the answer to that question. I don't mind questions, but only to those to which you do not know the answer. You need to learn to rely on yourself for these things. You DID know what you were doing."

In order to do what it is that I love, I need to confront my anxiety over performance. My poor nervous system was rattled to pieces during my school years and rebuilding it has been an immense challenge. I fear math and musical performances alike because I still do not trust my own assessment of my abilities. I immediately assume that any confidence I have in myself is actually overconfidence. I worry constantly about being blind to the truth about myself. I ask people if they are mad at me all the time, even when I have no evidence to the contrary. My boss, even after only knowing me a few weeks, hit the nail on the head. I need to learn to trust myself.

Easier said than done.

by The Beta Female


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Posted in: Commentary by SoulRiser on September 9, 2011 @ 11:58 AM

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