Sunday, January 29, 2006

The merits of poor self-esteem: Part I

My mother, bless her labyrinthine heart, saved every scrap of writing and artwork I produced in elementary school, or at least she had saved every scrap until I moved out for college. Then, somehow, everything managed to fit into a single box in our garage. Some time between college and med school, I went through the box. It held no surprises for me -- I had been through it several times before, looking for answers that I hoped would be more palatable than the obvious ones I'd known from the beginning. Nope, nothing new. I saved the interesting stuff and tossed the rest. I kept my first grade report cards, quarter by quarter showing a teacher initially enchanted by me, ultimately exhausted. I kept a small folder of stories bound with three brass brads. And I kept another brad-bound folder from first grade, this one titled MY FAMILY. The frontispiece consists of a family portrait, hand-crayoned by yours truly. You know the type -- family in the foreground, names pencilled crudely under each, house in the background, smoking chimney, yatta yatta yatta. The smallest figure's legs are fused in one column, he's armless, and his head sits atop his body, an undifferentiated lump. That's me. I imagine any post-Benjamin Spock child shrink would have had palpitations over that drawing, and he would have been right. I was one fucked up kid. And look at me now.
Yeah, admit it. You missed that photo. (My son says, "You know, it's kind of obvious it's faked." To which I say: "What? What? What's fake about it?") I'm grappling for some image or memory to convey how self-hating I was as a kid, but you know something? So much of it was internal. I don't have it in me to be self-destructive, so I can't cough up any stories of drug abuse, insanely reckless behavior, or failed suicide attempts. Mostly, I stayed depressed. Fred Delse, my med school mentor I told you about in this post on ego boundaries, once said that it was nearly impossible to diagnosis major affective disorders in kids. I don't recall if he said, "It's impossible because they're all sick," but that's what I took home from that conversation. I thought: It's okay that you spent your whole childhood wishing you were anyplace but where you truly were. Other kids were undoubtedly more screwed up than you. Not surprisingly, I did have one addiction, schoolwork. I aced everything I touched. My one kernel of self-worth came from the knowledge that I was at the head of the pack. I earned this bit of self-esteem; I didn't have it foisted upon me by teachers eager to praise my every artistic, literary, or spoken turd. I clung to it like a life preserver, and in the end it did, indeed, save me.
Sometimes I worry that my son's childhood is too happy. I feel a little better after yesterday's brouhaha.
The fiction writer in me cringes. Show, don't tell, remember? But I can't show you, not while my parents are still alive and capable of reading my blog. Irrational as it may sound, my father's command to me in first grade still carries weight. I had blabbed to my first grade teacher. At our first open house, she asked my parents about the stories I'd told her. My dad denied everything, of course, but when he got me home, he laid down the law. Don't ever, ever talk about what happens in this house. So I can't show you. Some of these things you'll just have to take on faith. Besides -- when have I ever lied to you? But I'm still cringing. This is not effective writing.
I'm not here to whine about an unhappy childhood. In fact, my second choice title for today's post was, It's never too late to have an unhappy childhood. I never would have become who I am today if I hadn't been fueled by a ton of self-hatred. I couldn't continue being who I am and doing what I do if I didn't still have that hatred burning inside me, constantly requiring appeasement. My worst enemy is my best friend. And I am resolute in my belief that a groundless "high self-esteem" is a bad, bad thing. Tomorrow: Sociologists agree with me. D.


Blogger THIS! Christine said...

Hmm, can't say that my childhood was all sunshine and roses, but on the other hand neither was I abused either sexually or mentally (or no more than anyone else with five older siblings to cope with who all think you're a spoiled brat). There was always food on the table, clean clothes to wear, and a warm bed to sleep in.
So my family weren't exactly the warm supportive Cleavers (whose were?). Like you I lost myself in school and the social life to be found there. Unlike you I didn't excel, did just enough to pass. Drove my teachers insane. Also, unlike you I never suffered from poor self esteem, (probably a product of being the youngest), depression at times, yes. Helplessness most of my teens just biding my time until I could get out. But in the big picture it wasn't a hideous upbringing.
Many children have to deal with so much worse.


1/29/2006 09:59:00 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Doug. I had a pretty bad childhood ... dad left, two bad stepfathers, was abused, I was ugly as a mud fence and no friends ... yikes, wish I could say I made up for it by being smart :-)

1/29/2006 10:41:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Hah! My point exactly, X. You needed that poor self-esteem to excel.

You're right, though. I'm sure many kids had far worse crap to deal with than me. I don't claim to have had a sensationally bad childhood, but I was glad when it was over, and I don't miss it one bit.

1/29/2006 10:44:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Crystal, I've read your stories. Don't play coy ;o)

I have an agenda here (can you tell?) My main point is that high self-esteem isn't necessarily a good thing, nor low self-esteem a bad thing. I'll undoubtedly overstate the case before this is all over, just to rile people up a bit.

My other point is that I'm trying to find something good in all of this. Attempting to make some sense of my life -- again.

1/29/2006 10:50:00 PM  
Blogger THIS! Christine said...

Are we going to get into a 'nature or nurture' discussion?


1/30/2006 12:49:00 AM  
Blogger mm said...

Doug, I know a few people with high self-esteem and nothing to base it on. Man, those are people I'd like to kick in the head! No matter how miserably they let the team down, they go away convinced they were stars. Maybe it's their parents I'd like to kick in the head.

1/30/2006 03:56:00 AM  
Blogger Darla said...

My main point is that high self-esteem isn't necessarily a good thing, nor low self-esteem a bad thing.

Interesting idea, Doug. I think I'll discuss this with my teenager the next time he complains of having low self-esteem. Now if you could just give me a good reply for when he complains about his hair, maybe he could find something else to complain about--I'm desperate for some variety here. :-)

1/30/2006 07:03:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Maureen, oh yeah, I'm getting to that ;o) Turns out high self esteem correlates with some of the damnedest things.

X, I'm a nature + nurture kinda guy. I think they're both important.

Darla, remember that baldness is passed from the maternal grandfather down to your son. Which is an awfully good thing for MY son. How about yours?

1/30/2006 07:11:00 AM  
Anonymous PBW said...

My family has a running joke about the story of my life being sent as an idea for an episode of Fear Factor. It immediately gets rejected as "too risky."

To me despression is like standing and letting the world urinate on you continuously and believing that's all you're worth. There are no umbrellas for smart, depressed people. I'd find a catheter that doesn't hurt the world, shove it in, and channel it somewhere else.

1/30/2006 09:03:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

I'd find a catheter that doesn't hurt the world, shove it in, and channel it somewhere else.

LOL. Sheila, you are such a nurse sometimes.

1/30/2006 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger Mark E. Hoeschletter said...

It all comes down to Love, Doug. You must love others, but equally important, you must love yourself.

1/30/2006 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger Lyn Cash said...

My first childhood was pretty wonderful. It's the second one that fucks me up. I'm hoping that old age will smooth out all the wrinkles I've created over the years.

1/30/2006 04:44:00 PM  
Blogger Anduin said...

Wow, Doug, this was a deep post. I had a crappy childhood too, but not as bad as some have had it. I didn't have the benefit of being as smart as you though. That seemed to come later in life for me.

I'm looking forward to reading about how low self-esteem can be a good thing, because I have plenty of that to go around. Thanks for sharing.

1/30/2006 08:09:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Thanks, folks. Anduin, that makes two yes votes. I wasn't sure whether this would go over like a lead balloon (hah! I almost said lead zeppelin).

1/30/2006 09:29:00 PM  
Blogger Darla said...

Darla, remember that baldness is passed from the maternal grandfather down to your son. Which is an awfully good thing for MY son. How about yours?

My dad's got all his hair, so the admonition for my son to enjoy his hair while he's still got some won't work.

I probably shouldn't have pointed out the little gray streak my son has right in front, but I think it did distract him from the unruliness of his curls.

1/31/2006 03:35:00 AM  
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