What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Rude, weird, and selfish.
Those are the thoughts 12-year old Dhruv had. As children, we’re raised to believe that there are only two kinds of people in the world: good and bad. Not only are we strongly encouraged and rewarded for being “good”, but we’re equally reprimanded and punished for being “bad.” Before you start to paint the picture of a sullen, quiet, and troublesome boy with no vigor for life, let me stop you. I had a wonderful childhood: I was highly energetic and cheerful, loved making new friends, played with toys, actively participated in the classroom and outside of it, and I did not create much mischief at home or at school. But there was another side to me too. I was quite bossy (if we didn’t play my choice of game, you could consider playtime over), I would get angry if things didn’t go my way, and I was quite sensitive. Whenever my parents (rightfully) corrected me for doing something out of order, I would shun them almost immediately and proceed to throw a tantrum. Similar behavior was exhibited if I was denied a new toy, books, or treats of some kind. But what was interesting to me was that I was very aware of my behavior. I knew I shouldn’t be so controlling, short-tempered, or inflexible.
Granted, I was a young child, barely old enough to understand the complexities of human behavior but still. Often, I would contemplate why I was the way I was. Why was I such a bad person? Why was I so dominating? Why did I get angry so easily? But at the root of this contemplation was the feeling of being misunderstood. I felt as if I was trying my hardest to change and be the “good son, brother, and friend” that everyone “expected” me to be. This feeling was only aggravated by my reclusion into my cocoon of safety and escape. I would frequent this cocoon whenever my sister and I had an argument or if I had fought with friends. But this seclusion only served as temporary respite. I would eventually have to combat these difficult emotions and thoughts head-on. Instead, I continued to harbor this antagonism and distorted view of myself until it couldn’t be bottled up anymore. Rude, weird, and selfish. It’s frightening to see that this is what I thought of myself. I was only a child! But what’s striking about this is how deeply entrenched my negative self-view truly was. These patterns would only be reinforced with the passage of time, and day by day, they would find an increasingly solid foundation in my mind.
From the time I could write, I began maintaining a diary. I saw my sister do it, and like any younger sibling, I followed in her steps. What diary I purchased, what pen I used to write, what bookmark I would use; all of these factors were to be considered before I undertook my hobby of journaling. How I wrote in my diary mattered too; everything simply had to be perfect. So, after incessant pleas to my mother, I was finally allowed to purchase my first diary. I still remember it distinctly: it was colored in a beautiful mixture of yellow and green hues, peppered with goofy drawings, and most importantly, it had its own lock. If I were going to be writing a diary, my eyes were the only ones that would be allowed to view it. (Perhaps, this was my way of locking the world out of my life). Every night, after a tiring day of play and study, I would crawl under my sheets and start writing religiously, detailing the most noteworthy moments of my day. I used to love scribbling away in my diary as it allowed me to inculcate reflecting, observing, and learning something new at the end of each day.
Usually, my writings in the diary would consist of nothing more interesting than what toys I played with, or the names of new friends I made. However, there would be some days where I would speak oddly profoundly for a kid my age. There would be times when I had lost my temper, and I would vent in the diary and admonish myself for behaving so poorly. Almost instantly, I would begin belittling my good qualities and placing the spotlight on all my flaws. Even if the aggrieved had forgiven me, I could not forgive myself without thoroughly cursing myself. This would continue well into my teenage years, and it is something I find myself doing still (although I wouldn’t use those three words to describe myself any longer).
I distinctly remember an incident from a time I went on an adventure camp at the age of 12. In fact, that is where I wrote those three words about myself. It was summertime: after a tough exam schedule, I finally had a break, and my parents decided to send me to an adventure camp so as to allow me to experience nature, independence, and time away from gadgets and video games. The camp remains to this day one of my fondest memories as it was my first time away from home, I learnt how to ride a mountain bike, made tons of new friends, and learnt to appreciate the beauty and solace that nature is embellished with. Every night, after a grueling day of activities and hiking, we were asked to summarize our experiences and do some journaling. I thought of this as convenient for I had been journaling my entire life. That is where I first verbalized my low view of myself.
It has always been clear to me that I have low self-esteem, but I found it exponentially easy to rationalize and understand once I figured out what thinking patterns were underlying my negative self-talk. At this age, I did not suffer from depression, but the seeds for it had been sown and were bound to ripen as I grew up.
Minimization and magnification (I’m going to refer to it as m&M) is an unhelpful thinking style where you diminish (minimize) your own attributes while enlarging (magnifying) other’s positive qualities. m&M is widespread in today’s times, especially with social media where people post about all the good things in their lives, leaving you wondering why your own life is so uninteresting. Think about it: has there ever been any time when someone’s complimented the way you look, and you’ve dismissively said, “Oh, you’re just being sweet?” Or a time when you’ve seen someone’s talent on display and spiraled into an existential crisis about what you’re good for? (It’s okay, we’ve all been there). Unfortunately, as easy as it is to indulge in this kind of thinking, it is equally corrosive. Doing so causes you to not only harness negativity but also quash any possibility of positivity. You allow yourself to transform even happy memories into sad ones.
This is exactly what I was doing at camp: stripping away any good I had to offer, and instead building up everything others had that I didn’t have. This futile exercise fueled feelings of sadness, frustration, insecurity, and occasionally jealousy, within me – all the ingredients in the recipe for disaster. In such a situation, it was impossible for me to be the real me, and I suppose that is where my angst at being misunderstood truly stemmed from. Now, a little child is hardly equipped to deal with this alone, which is why I believe the turning point in my behavior came only when I began to open-up to my mother and sister. Having an outlet for your emotions makes a world’s difference to your well-being, and I’m truly fortunate to have that. However, I realized if I were to feel better in any way, I would first have to change this pessimism that I harbored within me. Fortunately, as I’ve grown and understood myself and my unhelpful thinking better, I’ve realized just how much of an impact my low self-confidence was having on my psyche. I began working at it consistently, and instead, I indulged in positive self-talk. It is not easy but dealing with emotions isn’t meant to be. It’s easier to allow yourself to wallow rather than push yourself to confront unpleasant thoughts, but how boring would life be if it were so easy?