Self-esteem

This week I watched a documentary about the history of a certain institution in BC that took care of developmentally disabled people. Although watching this type of video is quite routine in my line of work, this one was particularly poignant, striking my heart and staying with me ever since. The story followed a young man who was severely disabled. At the time of his birth in the 1960s, his parents were told that he would never walk, never talk, never be able to do basic human functions beyond that of a baby and that, in fact, he would die before the age of five.

By the time he was a teenager, his parents were ecstatic that he had survived beyond their expectations but they still treated him like a baby – feeding him, carrying him, toileting him as if he were an infant. And then, one day, as his mother carried him back to the institution one of the nurses stopped her saying “you can’t carry him, he’s just too heavy for you” and showed her how to help him walk by placing him behind her so that he could hold on and mimic her steps.

Although it was a slow and painful process, the moment was a defining one: her expectations of what her son was capable of exploded to encompass the unimaginable. She then set out to teach him the “impossible”.

By the time he was a young adult, not only was he able to feed and toilet himself, he was living on his own with a reduced level of care. He never did learn to walk on his own, though, since his mind, if not his body, was already imprisoned by the earlier often articulated expectations.

Reflecting on this, I think about how expectations have shaped my own life and perceptions of who I am and what I’m capable of. Since as far back as I can remember, I always believed that I could do whatever I set out to do, and accomplish any goal that I dared to dream. From the beginning, this was the message that I was given by my parents and everyone else who loved me, and it has fundamentally shaped the way in which my life has unfolded, helping me to take risks and achieve successes that many along the way told me were impossible.

Equally true, however, is the fact that as a child I was often given the message that I was difficult to love, requiring extra effort on the part of those who did love me. As an adult entering relationships, this expectation had already entrenched itself into my unconsciousness, making me desirous of finding love but partially disbelieving of the possibility of it for myself. And so, when I met my ex-husband, I fell into his arms, not so much because I loved him but because he appeared to love and want me as I was. In the end, although the relationship broke, what had healed in me was the deep-rooted belief that I should accept anyone who was willing to love me but was less than I needed and deserved. In essence, I had finally developed a sense of self-
esteem that allowed me to value myself as I am.

As I try to untangle how all of this fits together, I realize that as a parent, one of the greatest gifts that I can give my son is a strong sense of self-confidence so that he can dare to dream big, take chances, and go against the odds, with the expectation that he can achieve whatever he sets his sights on without fearing the risk of failure. And, on the flip side, to set the expectation in him that he is someone of worth, who deserves to be treated well and loved for the less than perfect person that he is, so that he surrounds himself with people who will bring out the best in him, reinforcing his best qualities while allowing him to accept his weaknesses with grace, flair, and affection. For, ultimately, it is these intertwined parts of self-perception that will create the foundation by which he sets his own expectations of who his is, what he is capable of and worth, and the measure of happiness and success that he will achieve throughout his life.