Recently, I received two compliments from two women I admire and respect (my BFF and my taiji teacher), and I was really taken aback. For some background, I grew up believing that I was a toxic presence who had to earn my right to live on a daily basis. I believed that every day, I started with a negative number (never could ascertain what that number meant, exactly, but it wasn’t good), and I had to do good enough to get to zero and have no effect on the world around me. Then, I would go to sleep, and the counter would reset. Why? Well, that’s a story in and of itself.
Part of it was childhood trauma. Part of it was being Asian in a very white world. Part of it was family dysfunction, and part of it was culture expectations taken to the extreme. In Taiwanese culture, it was heavily frowned upon to say anything even remotely positive about yourself lest you look as if you were bragging. In the white cultural, I was ugly, weird, and a freak. I’m still a freak, but that’s beside the point. In my family, I was taught that my only worth was what I could do for others, and I had no intrinsic value in and of myself. Add to that a deep depression and an impressionable brain that twists everything into a negative, and it’s not surprising that I ended up firmly believing I had to earn my right to live.
In addition, I had all these elaborate rules as to what counted as a positive, and it was extremely hard for me to make it to neutral. I don’t think I ever did, actually, because I rigged the game in such a way that I was bound to fail. When I talk about it in the past tense, it’s clear to see how ridiculous it is, but at the time, it felt as real as the sun on my face. I was miserable because I was constantly failing, and I just wanted to die. I spent much of my childhood well into my thirties wishing I had the courage to kill myself.
I hated myself. I couldn’t find anything about myself that I liked except my hair and my intellect (though I saw the latter as a curse oftentimes). I couldn’t believe that anyone would like me for any reason when it was obvious that I was pure toxicity. I’m not saying it was reasonable or rational, but it governed my thinking for longer than I care to admit. I truly thought I was a worthless human being (while at the same time having an exaggerated sense of the impact I had on others around me, which is common with people who have low self-esteem), and I was miserable every day of my life.
Then, sometime in my thirties, I slowly started shedding this idea. I’m not sure how or why (probably because of taiji and therapy. I attribute most of the positives in my life to taiji with a shout-out to therapy), but a few years ago, I realized that I no longer had that mindset. I didn’t think I had to earn the right to live, but I wouldn’t say I had a healthy self-esteem, either. I still didn’t like myself, and I still didn’t like what I saw in the mirror (literally and figuratively), but at least I wasn’t actively thinking of ways I could passively allow myself to die.
About a year ago, I realized that I didn’t have chronic crippling depression any longer. Again, I don’t know how that happened or when exactly that happened, but it was like a breath of fresh air to realize that simply getting out of bed and brushing my teeth was no longer considered an accomplishment, but simply something to tick off my to-do list. In the past six months or so, it’s moved back in the negative direction, but it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be.
I wanted to explain all this as a preface to my statement that I was blown away by the two compliments I got from my BFF and my taiji teacher. The former was about the way I handed a life situation and how she was impressed by it. The latter was about how good my Sword Form looks, and my Solo Form, too. Both of them came out of the blue, and I had no idea what to say in response. I still am not comfortable with compliments, and my immediate reaction is to deflect or make a joke. I immediately feel like a fraud because I can’t fathom why someone would compliment me.
The former is something that I’m not sure is worthy of being complimented, and more to the point, my BFF is one of the most amazing women I know. I know she loves me, and we get along on a molecular level in a way I haven’t found with anyone else. I’ve often said we could go years without talking (not that we would) and then pick up where we left off. I envision us thirty or forty years from now in an old folk’s home, shaking our canes at the other residents and making jokes. She’d be more positive because she’s the yang to my yin, but we’d have a grand old time.
When she lived here, we had many fun adventures together, and I still recall fondly the time we got drunk, went dancing, bought White Castle sliders, then walked around Lake…Harriet? Lake of the Isles? Lake Calhoun now Bde Maka Ska? Look, we have over 10,000 lakes, and it was two decades ago, so we’ll just say it was Lake Harriet. We walked and talked and ate sliders. Then, we had to pee, and it was very late at night, so we just peed in the lake (don’t do this. It’s not cool). But, we are not equipped to pee like that and very drunk (me more than her), so I ended up peeing on my shoe. It was hilarious at the time, though not so much in retrospect.
The thing I loved about it, however, was that I was able to break through my self-imposed restrictions and just enjoy myself. She does that to me, and I love her for it. We’ve talked about people who immediately nay-say any suggestion you make, and she said she hated joy-killers. I’ve told her that she is a joy-bringer in my life, and I’m eternally grateful for it. One year for Christmas, she gave me a traveling mug that says, “You can not imagine the immensity of the fuck I do not give” in all caps. I use it every day for my tea. This year, she gave me an embroidered Christmas ornament that says, “Zero fucks given”, and even though it did not have a card with it, I knew she was the one who sent it to me.
She sees the best in me and the me I wish I was, and it’s hard for me to believe that she actually thinks of me in that light. Not because of anything on her side, of course, but because my brain still thinks on some level that I’m not worthy of compliments.
As to the compliment from my taiji teacher, it really made me feel good because one, I’ve worked hard on my Sword Form and my Solo Form, and, two, I really respect her taiji prowess. She is not going to lie about my taiji, so I know I can trust what she said about it. I really appreciate that she can see the hard work I’ve put into my taiji, especially in the past year, and it’s nice to have some external validation.
Even though I can’t quite believe they seem me in such a light, at least I didn’t outright dismiss it, either, as I would have in the past. I consider that progress.