Defining Myself Through Others

I’ve come to realize that as much as I’ve grown and gained, I still seek approval from others, albeit to a much smaller extent than before. This approval is how I define my self worth.

It’s an old, bad habit.

I can trace this habit back to my parents. I would always do things to try to win their approval, only to be met with a comment about not being good enough, or unsupportive silence. Their constant criticism led to low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy. Yet another example of how they mindfucked me.

At this point, it’s just a knee-jerk reaction. Remnants of my old, insecure self creeping up. I know that one day, I’ll be able to break the habit completely.

Until then, I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of you.


  1. Most Chinese parents think compliments would breed complacency in their children…thus the unsupportive silence. It’s a cultural thing, much like most Chinese (of the older generation at least) don’t usually display physical affection.

    I tend to treat criticisms (even malicious one) as inspirations, they lead me to ask questions and find answers. And I think it’s most important not to develop the negative kind of defensive mechanism when faced with criticisms, as they tend to shut others out, and shut ourselves in.

    Rather than defining myself through what others think, I’ve learned to not define myself at all, not because it doesn’t matter what others think of me (it does matter), but simply because there’s no need to define myself. Remember what Taoism says about the shape of water?

  2. From what I’ve read of you, I know that you’re an amazing, intelligent, conscientious, sensitive and genuine person.

    I don’t think it’s just limited to Chinese, as Joe stated above, but to many different families in different cultures across the board. My family did it to me, and we’re Pilipino.

    Criticisms make me angry at first, and get me riled up, then indignant. But lately I’ve learned, it’s the criticism or validation that I give myself that matters the most. Once I decide to be done once and for all with a negative “knee-jerk” reaction, I’m back on my way into happiness.

    I hope you’ve begun to think of yourself as the person I’ve described you, because you are. And in the end, the only opinion that matters about you is the one you hold of yourself, eh.

  3. Hi, I’m a mom of a few intelligent boys. Not only the parents, but also children around an intelligent boy (or girl) project their feelings of inadequacy onto the intelligent child. They don’t do this on purpose. There was a boy in the classroom of my son who would say every single day that my son was stupid. Tragically, it was the other way around. My son would never do this, call others stupid. Every child has potential.
    I pointed this out to my child and also had a talk with the other child. It helped.
    I’m not a perfect parent. I criticize too, but I try to do the best I can.
    The problem is very clear now I have the children on other schools. They are more positive and we have a much better relationship. I don’t need to have a criticizing relationship that much anymore. I don’t have to work against the demotivation caused by school.
    What I mean to say is that there are mechanisms that are to do with the systems parent-child-school.
    The new school not being perfect either, but more in the right direction.

  4. @Uncle Joe — I completely understand your explanation of compliments breeding complacency, something I realized but didn’t include in the post. Personally, I think that’s a very unhealthy way to raise a child. While it’s certainly made me hard on myself and given me drive, it’s done more harm than good.

    I suppose that in general, I do treat criticisms like inspirations. However, criticisms coming from your parents are a much more difficult thing to accept. A mother and father, to me, should make their child feel as if they will be loved unconditionally. My parents always seemed to say that they would only love me if I could appease them in a certain way, and I would never appease them. So I was unloved.

    I’ve only recently begun to not define myself at all, and it’s not easy, but it’s certainly getting better. I agree that it’s the proper way to see oneself. Water is a great analogy.

    @MaeKo — Perhaps it’s something in the Asiatic cultures. You’re right about the criticisms/validations we give ourselves being the ones that matter. I understand this in my brain, but not yet completely in my heart. While you’re able to move on quickly, I’m left with hollow depression.

    Thank you for your kind words. I’ve definitely gotten better and regained a lot of lost confidence, but there are a few lingering feelings of inadequacy every now and then.

    @Odile — While I agree that many people project their feelings on others, I don’t think my parents acted the way they did based on this. As my Uncle Joe has said above, it’s a part of the culture.

    I don’t believe there are any rules to parenting (or life, for that matter). What works for some kids, even for oneself, may not work on your own children. It’s a parents’ responsibility to pay attention to individual needs, because every child is different. However, this means transcending what we “learn” in our cultures, or any other such mechanisms, as you call them, and being able to give a child what is needed. My parents failed in this regard, and thus failed as parents.

    A whole bunch of good, thought-provoking, comments.

  5. If parents or situations would have been different, the feelings would be hung on something else. Even if the feelings are absorbed culturally, as the “only” “evident” option, and are a result of mirroring, it’s still a stage of self-awareness and others-awareness. The agent is always unconscious choice of self.

    Since living blaming self is unviable, better for scapegoat to be something or someone outside yourself, not as constant as one’s own bones until all the intensity of emotional flare flattens. But that point took a decade more to come to.

    Feelings of inadequacy is just a stage of development some or all people people go thru until a person can be self-assured, more self-reliant, self-autonomous, accepting at the core who they are and dismissing from their core those echoes in the head from when there was less Self developed yet. I suppose tangental to what Joe was saying.

  6. Interesting lyrics of an old song “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills and Nash :

    You, who are on the road,
    Must have a code that you can live by.
    And so, become yourself,
    Because the past is just a good bye.

    Teach your children well,
    Their father’s hell did slowly go by.
    And feed them on your dreams,
    The one they picks, the one you’ll know by.

    Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
    So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

    And you, of tender years,
    Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by.
    And so please help them with your youth,
    They seek the truth before they can die.

    Teach your parents well,
    Their children’s hell will slowly go by.
    And feed them on your dreams,
    The one they picks, the one you’ll know by……..”

  7. I really appreciate Joe’s comment about elders believing compliments would breed complacency. I had never thought of it that way. No wonder I see that kind of thing in so many of my Asian family experience!

    But I think the key here is that you aren’t in an Asian setting, where you’re raised to always feel part of the community, part of your classmates, part of your family, as underlying support. In our North American world, we grow up without that, as the emphasis is on our individual achievements.
    And that’s why I think it hurts so very much to use this critical or unrewarding pattern on children in our culture. As kids, we grow up not quite knowing that we fit in any way — we keep looking for that right way. We struggle hard to know what we are as an individual amongst others as individuals, and when we aren’t supported for our attempts, we truly feel we’ve failed. That’s devastating and warping for a kid.

  8. @Pearl — I truly feel that I’ve become self-assured, more self-reliant, self-autonomous, as you put it. These feelings of inadequacy are like a phobia of spiders. Completely illogical. I think it’s a childhood scarring that has created these deep-rooted feelings in me, because they affect me even though I know they’re not true. It’s gone beyond a stage.

    @Uncle Joe — I wish I could feel like the words of this song applied to me; if only my relationship with my parents was so deep and complex, but I don’t feel as if it is. There is no dimension to them. They were simply bad parents.

    It must sound like my feelings are incorrigible. Perhaps they are. The only thing I’ve gained is the knowledge of what not to do to my kids, and often it feels like the price I’m paying isn’t worth it.

    @xibee — You’re completely right. I was trapped between cultures, and this created disillusionment in me, but more importantly, my parents didn’t know how to raise me. Actually, I can tell that they adapted to this culture relatively well, immigrating to Canada in their late teens, and were much less strict than other parents. However, this doesn’t matter, as it wasn’t enough to make me happy, or even secure.

    Maybe I was an especially needy child. Can I be blamed? No. Can they be blamed for not raising me correctly? As creatures of their cultures, no. But they have consistently made me suffer and that’s what matters, because that’s what I’m still going through.

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