Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sticks & Stones - A Followup - Pt 1 - Self Esteem

My post Sticks & Stones from June 30th really struck a chord with folks.  It's currently the fifth most read post of all-time on my blog. 

Today I received a comment that struck me:

Why is it so hard to believe a compliment someone gives us,and so easy to believe the hurtful things other can say? I admittedly have Self Esteem problems. I have severe depression and a tendency to self harm (generally more mentally than physically) I beat myself to a pulp all the time. I don't need anyone else to do it for me. How do I stop letting it effect me?
This comment set my mind off in several different directions (and based on how long I typed on the second direction, it will clearly also, set me off on several blog posts, too). 

The first, which I replied to her in the comments section, was specific to the incident she was referring to.  A blog post that she had written had sparked a firestorm of response, and a lot of it, as you can see above, was clearly hurtful.  She was surprised to have received such a reaction. 

The second direction was this issue of self-esteem and our role in this hurtful dynamic.  I will admit that whether something hurts us often has a lot to do with us. A friend of mine recently described to me an incident where she felt bullied and I admit I scratched my head when she first described the situation and what had happened to me. But part of what made her feel bullied wasn't completely what was happening to her at the time, but who she was as a result of her experience that she brought to that moment.  And fortunately, she was able to step back and recognize this and not be further hurt by the confusion I expressed.  ("Um, so what exactly did they do? That's it? So? Why did this bother you?")

When our parents taught us that little thing about "Sticks & Stones" they were trying to teach us that we have power over what hurts us.  That really, the only thing that can hurt us, that we don't have much power over, is sticks and stones.  But the words we can develop an immunity to, in theory, and not let them hurt us.  Sounds nice in theory, but in practice, as I discussed in the last post, it doesn't quite work out so well.  However, in this post, and in the next (few? couple? not yet written) posts, I hope to help develop an understanding of why these things hurt and perhaps a strategy of how we can work on making them hurt less.

How much of this is tied into our self-esteem and our image of ourself? 

Generally, I like to believe that I have a pretty good sense of self, and I hope that this translates into a healthy self-esteem.  I know who I am and I am comfortable with who I am.  I know I'm not perfect, and I'm happy with that.  I know that I am human.  I know that I will make mistakes.  I know that I will hurt people, even though, for the most part, I try very hard to be supportive and not hurtful.  I know that I do the best I can, and I try not to beat myself up too much about the things where I fall short where I want to be, and instead, try to learn from those experiences and do better next time.

But as a kid, like so many of us, I was often a new-comer, and often insecure in my new surroundings.  I was short (okay, still am), geeky (okay, still am), and different from the others solely by the circumstance of being someone new.  When I moved to the neighborhood where I spent most of my childhood, I was five years old, and the kids who lived in the 'hood had know each other all their lives.  I was a stranger to them.  Later, when I went to a new school that taught K-12, and I entered in the fifth grade, I was new to these kids as well.  I learned, over the next eight years, that many of us came and went, so over time I was no longer so unique.  But it was tough being at a new school, and being different. 

I see, as an adult, that I brought my own insecurities about being different into these situations.  I do NOT think the results would have been any different because kids are kids are kids, and I would have been teased regardless of my own insecurities. 

In third grade, though, I had a different experience.  I was sent to a new start-up pilot program.  There we were all new.  It was the first year of the program.  There we were all the same because we were all new and we came from different parts of the county to be in this program.  I imagine we eventually formed some cliques, although my memory is hazy, and frankly I think those "cliques" were less exclusionary circles and more groupings of people who had interests in common as would happen, naturally, in any social setting  - particularly those free of other barriers.

My school history and history of being teased is in many ways a long sidebar, but it's informative to me about the situations where I was hurt as a kid, and in evaluating, now, when I am hurt as an adult.

With our significant others, sometimes we have buttons pre-installed.  Something our parents used to pick us on, our siblings, our previous significant others, or areas where we already feel insecure.  Having someone whose opinion matters to us pick at these areas and push these buttons can trigger a reaction that may be stronger than the situation, objectively, might warrant.  It is sometimes difficult for us to step back and separate what emotional response belongs to the past, and what belongs to the present. 

I used to joke (although it really wasn't funny, and I often wasn't laughing) that my ex-wife had land-mines.  She did.  She had emotional land-mines that I would inadvertently unknowingly step on and trigger a huge reaction and response.  On occasion - particularly early on - we would be able to diffuse them, and sometimes, those land mines would then become a future joke between us.  But we weren't always so lucky.  (And this, again, is why I'm single...)

When I realized I was gay, I was very fortunate to have been raised in an open minded and somewhat supportive family.  My mother wasn't too terribly surprised, and my father merely worried that life would be harder for me.  But there was never a question for me, fortunately, over whether they would still love me.  I know others have had a much harder "coming out" process, and again, faced ridicule, disownment, subjected to teasings and beatings in school, and all around horrible time of it.  I do realize how fortunate I am.  But I also realize this is why any attempts to insult me, upset me or put me down because I'm gay really are fairly ineffectual.  As you read in "Isn't Dyke Derogatory?" for me, personally, the answer is "no". 

You can't hurt me by calling me gay or a dyke.  I am.  I am comfortable with it.  Westboro Baptist Church can tell me that God hates me, but I am secure knowing that isn't true.  Those words don't hurt me.

But this doesn't mean that there aren't words that can hurt me.  Part of what was hard about my ex-wife's barrage of complaints about me and to me is that there were some half-truths in among them.  So I had a hard time sorting out what really belonged to me, and what belonged to her.  It wasn't until she accused me of having an affair with a man, which at one point she actually did, that I began to be able to step back and realize much of what she was saying wasn't about me.  That I, unfortunately, was an easy punching bag for her to lash out at because she was so unhappy with herself and her life.  (That's very simplistic, but for now, given the length already of this post, let's just go with it).  Five years later, I have a little more insight into what DID belong to me with that accusation, but it was so ludicrous at the time, that it let me step back and not take what she was saying to me as personally as I had been.

Self-esteem is certainly, then, a factor in whether we let words or insults from others hurt us.  If we don't like ourselves, or a part of ourselves, or we're unhappy with a part of ourselves, and they hit that button square on the nose, it taps into our own insecurities about that aspect of ourselves and hurts.  Sometimes that is what they intend to do, and sometimes, though, it's inadvertent. 

So, my conclusion in this first part is that yes, our self esteem and our insecurities plays a big part in whether something someone else says hurts us. 

In the next few posts, I hope to address other factors that contribute to when something hurts, what we do to ourselves, and answer the question posed "How do I stop letting it affect me?"

I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some insight that I hope will help.  Comments and feedback is always welcome.  Stay tuned!

Cllick on this link to check out Pt 2 - Beating Yourself Up