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.