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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