Losing my complete sight at the age of two, I wondered for a good part of my life what am I really capable of. What is my sense of self-worth. Learning to foster my sense of self-worth has been a life-long journey for me. And I am certain that this journey is yet to complete.
Growing up in Vietnam, I got messages – implicit or explicit — from a very young age that blind individuals are helpless, useless, dependent and ultimately not very worthy. As a child, I remember encountering some blind people begging and selling lottery tickets on the street in Vietnam. When I went to a school for the blind in Vietnam and studied there from the ages of seven to nine, I remember many of the blind students in that school were abandoned by their families. Their parents dropped them off at the school and disappeared from their lives. As a child, I often felt pitied by others whenever they realized that I was blind. They would often comment “Oh poor girl. She is very pretty. Too bad that she is blind.”
Perhaps up until I was about thirty years old, I often felt anxious, disempowered, invisible, unimportant and ineffective. Certainly my life did not change overnight when I turned thirty. It had been a gradual process. I remember I often felt awkward, uncomfortable and anxious in social situations. I wasn’t confident that people would enjoy being with me or interacting with me. I didn’t know what I had to offer to people. I also often assumed that people were prejudiced against me because I was blind. From time to time, I felt discriminated against. More importantly, I didn’t see how I could learn to perceive my blindness as a unique gift in my life. I didn’t have a clue what were to become of me.
I didn’t know that one day I would become a psychotherapist, empowering many others and helping to transform their lives. I didn’t foresee that one day I would speak to hundreds of people sharing my life story with them. And certainly, I didn’t know that you would be reading what I have to share in this writing. More importantly, I didn’t know that I would feel happy, fulfilled, empowered and optimistic that I do today. I didn’t know that my life would one day be filled with love, joy, support, rich learning, meaningful connections and more.
As I will get married to the man I love in two months, I have been reflecting on what factors have had a positive impact on my self-worth. What has helped me to build my self-confidence so that I can be passionate and confident in what I believe in, what I dream of, and ultimately what I have achieved as a result of these dreams and beliefs.
I strongly believe that one important factor that has had a positive impact on the development of my self-worth is my family. Although everyone in my family has annoyed me or frustrated me at one time or the other, they nevertheless have represented a very solid foundation of my sense of self-worth. As long as I can recall, they have consistently helped me to feel loved, cared for and special.
When many parents of the students at the school for the blind neglected them and left them with the staff at the school, my parents believed in taking me home everyday so that I didn’t have to suffer staying in the school’s residence. They believed that the food provided by the school wasn’t good enough for me.
Every morning, my dad would get up early – around seven o’clock, got me a good breakfast, and then drove me on a scooter to school, which took about forty-five minutes to get there. He would also buy me lunch so that I didn’t have to eat the unpleasant lunches provided by the school. And every evening, he would come to pick me up and bring me home. If he was busy, he would always send one of his workers out to get me home.
Many Asian families, including Vietnamese families, often believe that having a disabled child is very shameful. One of the beliefs in Buddhism is that you get what you did in your previous life. Hence having a child with a disability is believed to be a curse in the family. For this reason, many parents either hide their children with disabilities, or view them as their least favourite children.
A friend of mine told me that his parents would ask him to go hide in the bedroom whenever guests came to their place. My friend is blind and his family was ashamed of him.
My maternal grandparents’ family is another example. My maternal grandparents had six daughters and four sons. Among two of their sons, one had Down’s Syndrome and one was deaf. They were my grandmother’s least favourite sons. I remember that the son who had Down’s Syndrome was often neglected and ignored. He was seen as a nuisance. I can still remember him as a very gentle and quiet boy who was hanging around his house aimlessly. Ironically my mother and my grandfather were the only ones who always made sure to care for him. He died at the age of eighteen.
Another uncle of mine was deaf. He too was also not my grandmother’s favourite son. Whereas my grandmother doted on the other two sons, giving them money, encouraging them to do what they wanted in their lives, my uncle who was deaf got none of these things from my grandmother. I however have some very fond memories of this uncle. He showed me lots of affection, even though we couldn’t really communicate with each other. With him being deaf and me being blind, we didn’t understand each other’s languages. Yet the affection was mutual between us.
Unlike my grandparents, my parents have taught my sisters from a very young age to love me and care for me. When my mom was very sick on the boat during our escape from Vietnam, she reminded my older sister, Amy, to take care of me if she died. When my mom was aware that my future would be very bleak as a blind person growing up in Vietnam, she was determined to take her children out of the country, risking our lives. As she later on explained “I wanted to find light in the dark, find life in the threat of death.” If it weren’t for my mom, I wouldn’t be here today. When the pirates were invading our boat, sexually assaulting some women, robbing our valuable possessions, my mom would hold me close to her to protect me. She tried to make me very small and invisible to shield me from the pirates’ touch.
I never felt I was an embarrassment or a shame to my family. They have always made me feel that I am a unique and special person. Unlike my friend’s family who hid them from guests, my parents often seemed proud to introduce me to their friends and acquaintances. They were quick to tell others about my talents and uniqueness.
When we lived in the refugee camp in Indonesia, my mom and my older sister, Amy, always tried to make my life as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Amy would bring home water that she carried from wells that were far from home. In the blazing heat of Indonesia, She would iron my old ragged clothes so that they were not so wrinkly for me to wear.
My mom didn’t like how I had to use the public bathroom and toilet, which were often very dirty and smelly. So when she got some money, and with the help of others, she wanted to build a simple bathroom and toilet for us to use. During the four years living in the refugee camp, I couldn’t go to school. So my mom would teach me some of the English that she knew. She would read to me so that I wouldn’t be bored.
As a psychotherapist, I have provided counseling to hundreds of individuals. One of the phenomena that I am often puzzled by is the compromised sense of self-worth that many of my clients have. One of the commonalities that I notice these clients share is some form of abuse or neglect in childhood. They may have lived in fear because of the physical pain that their parents or caregivers inflicted upon them. These individuals may have experienced neglect or some forms of emotional abuse, such as name calling, constant putdown, abandonment, and so on. These individuals may have also been sexually abused or violated in their childhood. As a result, these individuals’ sense of self-worth is either very low or severely damaged.
Later on in their adulthood, they somehow inadvertently repeat the abuse cycle by ending up with very abusive partners or spouses. Or they constantly encounter people who disrespect them or take them for granted. Or they struggle a great deal in their career because they are not sure what they are truly capable of, what their highest potentials are. In general, these individuals are feeling unhappy, unfulfilled, empty, lonely, dissatisfied and are not at peace with themselves. They may be quite successful in some areas in their lives, such as their career or their social lives. But ultimately, these individuals feel as if something very important is missing. That there is an ever emptiness that they often feel that no amount of materials can fill that void.
If you realize you are one of these individuals, ask yourself are their any unresolved issues that I have with my family or in my childhood that may be in the way of my happiness and peace? Is there anything I could do today to clear away those long-standing emotional baggage’s that have accumulated from my upbringing? If someone has wronged me, what can I do to undo their impact on me and my life? For as long as you have anger towards someone, whether it be one of your parents, or a sibling, or a relative, that person continues to have power over you and your life.
If you felt hurt, abandoned, betrayed, neglected or unloved by someone in your family, honour those feelings. Acknowledge those feelings with deep compassion and understanding. Then when you are ready and the time is right, give yourself the permission to slowly begin to let go of those feelings and gradually heal from the scars of your childhood. Allow yourself to release the toxicity of those feelings from your mind and your heart.
However, if resolving these issues on your own is too overwhelming for you, seek help from a therapist. Wounds that are untreated, particularly those which were caused by your family or in your childhood, can form deep unhealthy roots for your emotional tree and will continue to spread until the tree dies from the impact of infectious unhappiness, emptiness or dissatisfaction. Such unhappiness and emptiness may lead to addictions, very unstable relationships, poor career choices and, at its worst, suicide.
If you are a parent reading this, remember how your love and encouragement are so important to your children or child. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to buy your children expensive toys, take them for expensive outings, get them brand-name clothes or things alike. What’s most important across times, generations, cultures and religions is your relationship with your children and the love that they feel you have for them.
Different parents have different languages of love. Some parents are very good at doing things with their children. Some parents give them encouraging words and tell their children that they love them. Some parents work hard to afford things for their children, such as education, clothes, toys, etc. What’s important is that your children understand your language of love. Do you know what your children would feel loved by? Do you know what makes them happy?
I have worked with dozens of parents over the years in different capacities and have noticed that one of the sad things is that children don’t understand their parents’ language of love. Many parents work extremely hard to afford different things for their children and their family. The cost of living increases each year. Technology has made expensive things very desirable to many people, including children. Children seem to want things. Hence parents believe those things would make their children happy. Yet this is a serious trap for both parents and children.
Again, the key is the love and attention you can communicate to your children and that they understand it. Remember, clothes, toys and other items can run out of fashion. Piano lessons and expensive outings can be long forgotten. What will always remain in a child’s heart is the loving words, the gentle and affectionate touch, and the encouragement and faith that you demonstrate towards your children. As Maya Angelou stated “People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel.”
In the next section, I will talk about instrumental support and emotional support from others that can positively impact your sense of self-worth.