It was one of those neighbourhood barbecues. Eighteen people with heaped plates, fighting their way through sausages and sauce. A little four-year-old girl in a leopard-skin bikini was doing the rounds. Not talking, just approaching each person in turn with eyes pleading and arms raised in the lift-me-up position.
“Not now, dear, I’m eating,” was the only answer she got. So she made her way around the group a second time. Still nobody was interested. So finally she left.
A few minutes later, a guy exploded across the patio, dived into the pool, and surfaced holding a small, limp body in a leopard-skin bikini. Mouth-to-mouth failed. She was dead.
A few of them sat later in stunned silence, remembering the tug on their arms and wondering what might have happened if they’d picked up that little girl.
It turned out she’d never known her dad. Her mum was living with a new boyfriend who had promised to marry her – if she’d get rid of the kid! It also turned out that the little girl had almost drowned four times in the previous two months. The first time she fell into a pool, it was an accident. But it won her instant attention and love, and she learned quickly. Over the next few weeks, she played the same trick three times – and it always worked.
On the day of the barbecue, when nobody would pick her up, hold her or talk to her, she tried the only solution she knew.
She jumped into the pool to wait. And drowned …
There’s probably no disease that destroys people as effectively as being unwanted. None of us can stand the awful knowledge that we’re not needed. We may not openly plead for love and attention – but we’re often just as desperate. We may not jump into backyard swimming pools – but we often get out of our depth in other ways.
If you don’t like yourself, if you feel you’re worthless and of no use, then you’re a prime candidate for problems. Some of them will be in your body – sicknesses your doctors can’t find any causes for. Some will be in your mind – depression, loneliness, anger, guilt. Some will be in your behaviour – things you do that make no sense, like getting all tongue-tied when you talk, like putting yourself down in front of others, like constantly picking on those you love most.
And at the root of it all is your ‘self-esteem’ – how you see yourself, feel about yourself, value yourself, care about yourself.
Three thousand years ago King Solomon observed, “What a man thinks is what he really is.” In other words, if you think you’re hopeless and can’t cope … you probably won’t. If you think you’re dumb and always mess-up … you probably will. But if you think you’re worth something, if you think you can be something or do something … you’ve got a very good chance of being or doing just that.
When your self-esteem is healthy, you can say: It’s good to be me. I know I’m not perfect, I’ve still got work to do in some departments, but I’m okay and I’ll get better.
When your self-esteem is low, however, your thinking dives off in the opposite direction: I’m useless. Everyone else can do things better than me. I’ll never make it. If people really knew me they wouldn’t like me. I’m no good …
Now sure, we all have days when we’re tired, when everything piles up, when dark clouds of self-doubt roll in and we’d like to resign from the human race. That’s life … that’s normal … and we’re all in the same leaky boat.
But rating yourself a ‘loser’ again and again and again is a rut you can get stuck in forever …
UGLY WORDS, UGLY BELIEFS
If you’re wondering where self-doubt comes from, think back for a moment. Do these words sound familiar?
- “Don’t be so stupid!”
- “When are you going to grow up?”
- “After all we’ve done for you …”
- “You’re just like your mother!”
- “You never get it right, do you!”
- “How come you make a mess of everything?”
- “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”
Most of us can probably remember words like these from our childhood … and they probably weren’t intended as put-downs. But if they’re repeated often enough, they can sink into our minds and leak down into our hearts – until eventually we BECOME what those messages tell us.
“I was five years old when I realised I was ugly,” reports one 36-year-old. “And I’ve never been the same since …” That awful message twisted his entire personality.
The truth is, we’re not born with good or bad feelings about ourselves – we learn them. Those beliefs we have about our ugliness or uselessness or dumbness or unlovableness are driven into our sensitive little heads by other kids, by teachers and relatives, by brothers and sisters and – though they may never mean to – by our parents!
Meet Karen. She’s 50, married, and the mother of four young adults. Her parents still lived in England. And, although they didn’t know it, they helped condemn their daughter to decades of suffering.
No, they weren’t monsters. It was just a lot of little things that piled up …
“I remember bringing home my school reports and Mum not reading them. It was always, ‘Put it over there, I’ll get to it in a minute’ – like it wasn’t important. But it was very important to me. And written on nearly every report was the comment: ‘Karen has no confidence in her own ability’ – which was totally right!
“We lived in a house that didn’t have hot water. And I remember the teacher coming up beside me in class and – with everyone listening – saying, ‘Look at those dirty fingernails! When did you last have a wash?’ I felt so ashamed.
“That word sums up my childhood: ashamed. My father loved teasing me about my nose, for example. I don’t think my nose is so peculiar – yet he gave me a complex. If I was drinking anything, he’d say, ‘Get your nose out of the cup!’ – and laugh at me. It was just his little joke, but adults can sometimes be cruel.
“For a long time I would never turn sideways to people – I would try to face them so they didn’t look at my nose. It sounds stupid, but I felt inadequate. And I carried those feelings with me for years,” says Karen wearily. “I didn’t feel I’d grown to be a complete person. I didn’t like myself. I couldn’t communicate with people, because I didn’t feel accepted and understood in my own home.
“When I was 17 I joined an amateur drama club. I went along to rehearsals and I learned my part. It wasn’t anything big, but I enjoyed the build-up. It was a really exciting time in my life. But the night we put on the show, none of my family turned up!”
Karen’s voice seems to shrink to match her feelings. “I wasn’t important enough for them to come and see me …” she whispers.
WANTED: POSITIVE PARENTS
Being a mum or a dad is a 24-hour-a-day challenge with endless demands on our time and energy, especially when the kids are small. Even the best of us can get pressured, pooped and cranky – and those ‘down’ feelings tend to rub off on the little fellows at our feet.
Yes, there are times when we need to be negative. It’s no good murmuring tender encouragements when Tim is yanking Sarah’s hair. But when we major in correcting our kids and telling them off, instead of enjoying them as people … we can give them the feeling that they’ll never get it right.
And here’s a scary fact: by the time our kids hit school they’ve already learnt what to expect from others, what they’re good at and not good at, what sort of people they are.
They pick up these clues from the expression on our faces, the shrug of our shoulders, our actions, our words, our touches. If the message they keep getting is that they’re not all that great … THAT may be the message they carry with them to the end of their days.
In their book ‘Created For Love’, Kiwi counsellors John and Agnes Sturt urged parents to remember the four A’s:
- my parents look at me, and I know I’m loved
- they spend time with me, which means they’re interested
- they listen to me, and I feel heard
- they touch me, and I feel good about myself
- I’m valued for who I am, not for what I do or don’t do
- I know I’m a valued member of my family
- I’m praised for who I am as well as what I do
- I feel confident that I’m capable
- I’m loved no-matter-what
- I know I’m special.
Loving unconditionally is not easy. But, thankfully, we parents don’t have to be perfect. Kids have a built-in bounce-back that allows us to make mistakes at times – providing the overall ‘feel’ in our home is right …
Karen was determined not to repeat the mistakes that had screwed-up her own life. “I didn’t want to be one of those parents who complain, ‘We did everything for him and look what’s happened – he’s doing drugs … or he’s out on the streets … or he’s knocking old ladies over …’ I wanted to be on the right track to start with, because it’s too late to wonder where you went wrong when they’re 14 or 15 or 16.
“When kids come home from playschool with their pictures, that’s the time to build up their self-esteem. I always tried to admire their artwork and say, ‘It’s wonderful! Look at the colour. You’ve done that bit so neatly. You’ve spent so much time over it …’
“I got my husband to put up a big
pin-board in the kitchen, and that’s where all their pictures and cut-outs went to be admired. We had an ever-changing art gallery – and the kids loved it!
“I wasn’t a perfect parent. And I’m not saying I didn’t make mistakes. I remember when our first daughter turned 15, she wanted to have her ears pierced – but I had a hang-up about that. My father would never let us girls wear make-up or jewellery. And pierced ears were for the gypsies! So I said, ‘No, no way! That’s awful!’
“Well … she went off and had her ears pierced despite me! Yet she wasn’t normally the sort of girl who would defy her parents. Eventually I realised this was very important to her – and I shouldn’t have been so rigid. It was a good lesson for me.”
ACCEPTING THE THINGS WE CAN’T CHANGE …
Those labels put on us in childhood – or the labels we put on ourselves – really can stick! But do we have to spend the rest of our lives with them dragging us down? Surely we change?
Well, yes … and no. There are some things about ourselves we can easily fix. A bottle of bleach will make a brunette into a blonde. The right make-up can turn an ordinary face into an eye-catcher. Smart new clothes can transform the way you look.
But it’s tougher – much tougher – to change your self-image, the way you see you. Those ideas about yourselves were learned – remember? And it’s not easy to unlearn them … or learn better ones.
The key is found in the prayer of St Francis of Assisi:
God grant me
serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
It helps, for example, to make two lists:
• List #1: things I CAN’T change: my height, my face, my family, what happened in the past …
• List #2: things I CAN change: my job, house or car, the way I react to people or treat my friends …
Q: What can you do about something in List #1, something you CAN’T change?
A: Accept it. Stop wishing you are what you aren’t and never will be. Stop blaming someone or holding grudges. Stop kicking yourself, punishing yourself because things didn’t turn out different.
Accepting means no longer fighting. It means forgiving those who hurt you. It means letting go of angry or inadequate feelings and making peace with yourself, deep inside.
Accepting, forgiving, letting-go: these goals aren’t arrived at quickly. But the rewards make it worthwhile … as Karen found out:
“For 14 years I felt bitter towards my parents, and had deliberately stayed away from England. I kept in touch with letters, out of duty, but I wouldn’t ring them or anything. My husband kept saying, ‘Take a trip back and see them.’ But I’d make excuses – ‘We can’t afford it. The kids are too small.’ I just didn’t want to go.
“But I began to realise that although their negativity had ruined my life… it was really nobody’s fault. And I was only hurting myself with all this resentment. So I decided to go back and see them.
“It was a huge step for me. I was absolutely terrified. I didn’t know how I would face them or what I would say.
“But, in the end, it was wonderful! And, as it happened, we didn’t talk about any of this. After all, the problem was mostly in my head. I don’t know how they felt about it, but it was no longer important to find out. I simply went back, my father just opened his arms, and I gave him a big hug. That was it!
“I bridged the gap, accepted things as they were – and found I could let go. What’s the point of holding on – you know? And that really began a healing process inside me …”
… AND CHANGING THE THINGS WE CAN
Q: How about List #2 – things about yourself that you CAN change?
A: Bring them out in the open – and for that you’ll need courage.
“For a long time I couldn’t face going into the lunchroom at work,” says Karen. “It’s something that 99% of people don’t even think about – but to actually go in there and face everyone used to scare me silly.
“However, one of the things I’d been learning is: I can be ordinary. I can do what good, ordinary people do. And I can avoid what good, ordinary people avoid.
“So one day, as I was about to pick up my cup of tea and go to my little room away from everybody, I began to think, ‘Why do I do this? Why do I behave like I’m some sort of criminal?’ And at that point I decided, ‘I’m not going to go and hide. I’m going to go into that big room and I’m going to sit down at a table and eat my lunch.’”
Even now, five years later, Karen takes a deep breath. “So that’s what I did. I picked up my cup of tea and I walked into that crowded lunchroom and I found a seat. I put my cup on the table, kept my eyes down, got out my lunch and … looked up to see who was watching.
“There wasn’t a single person in that room who was looking at me or had even noticed I was there! Yet it had cost me so much – my heart was pounding and my face was scarlet! I felt so nervous doing something so ordinary. It was a case of forcing my muscles and limbs to act right, despite my feelings.
“I decided that day I would never, ever go and sit on my own in the corner again. And I never have!”
Karen was in her 40s when she finally confronted the hang-ups that had pursued her from childhood, robbing her of her confidence and self-esteem. And today she’s living proof: the happiest people aren’t those who have no problems. They’re those who’ve learnt to live with themselves, who’re able to say, “I’m okay. I do some things well, some things not so well. I’m still under construction, but I am making progress.”
Another young woman shared a similar story: “When I was at school everyone made fun of my fat legs. They used to call me ‘tree stump’, and I would often cry myself to sleep at night.
“As I grew older, I laughed with them to cover up. And as a young adult I just knew that no-one would ever want to go out with me.
“But when I was at Teachers College I met Mark. I liked him from the start. I felt really comfortable with him. And when he asked me out I couldn’t believe it! He never made one single reference to my legs. But I did – constantly – you know, looking for reassurance.
“One night Mark took my hand and said, ‘I want you to quit knocking yourself. God gave you good, sturdy legs. They give me a solid feeling, and I like them.’
“I could only cry …
“A week later he took me home, and when I met his mother I wanted to cry again. She’d had polio. She wore a shoe that was built up, and she walked with a limp.
“I looked at Mark and he looked at me … and I think I loved him right then like nobody had ever loved a guy before.”
Do you want to grow confident kids? It’s not that hard. Just take every opportunity you can to give them the ‘thumbs-up’. And while you’re at it, teach them the most wonderful secret of all: God doesn’t make junk!
Like the whakatauki (proverb) says;
“Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu”
(Despite being small, you are of great value!)
KEEPERS OF THE VINE