Just as I wrote my big essay on self-esteem, I encountered an event that triggered a discovery and healing of where my own self-esteem was damaged. It’s a rather personal tale, but let me use it to illustrate how you can mend the foundation of your mind.
My Son’s Fall
A few days ago, I was outside with my two kids, my 4.5-years-old daughter and my 1.5 years-old son. Some evenings, I take the kids out to play, so that we can give Mommy a break. She went off to a near-by library, and I was home alone with kids. I’m not one of those fathers who have a melt-down when left home alone with kids — I can take care of them, bathe them, and put them to bed on my own. It’s no big deal.
Kids were just playing the way little kids play — climbing up stairs, running on sidewalk, picking flowers, grass and sticks, and so on. Then they started walking on this concrete wall in front of a neighboring apartment. The wall was about 3.5 feet tall, but not free standing. The side facing the apartment was filled in — the earth came up to the same height as the wall. So this wall was built to contain the soil from spilling out to the sidewalk.
Kids love walking on such places. They love the challenge of walking on a narrow area — having to balance themselves. I was watching them closely, standing within an arm’s reach. But the brick wall wasn’t very skinny — good 8-10 inches wide, not quite a foot — so I thought it unlikely that they would fall. I was ready to catch them if they stumble, however.
But fall, my son did. It was a split-second distraction. I don’t remember what I was looking at, but I know I wasn’t paying close attention, though I didn’t take my eyes off of him, entirely. He was walking on this wall, and one foot completely missed the wall, and he fell to the sidewalk below. I saw the whole thing happen right in front of me, 2 feet away. I could have grabbed him easily if I was prepared, but I simply wasn’t expecting him to just fall straight down, without any stumbling or signs of losing balance. Those were the signs I was watching for. But he simply stepped off the wall. There was no such warning.
Luckily, he didn’t fall head first. He turned mid-air from the motion of stepping off and landed on his side.
He started screaming, obviously, and I picked him up and looked for a sign of injury. There was none. His head, which did hit the sidewalk also, didn’t seem to have any sign of bulge or bump.
Fear Arises and Consumes
At first I was relieved that there was no injury. My son was screaming, and at first it really sounded like he was in pain — but as he continued to do so, it seemed to me like he was more upset than in pain. He falls and bumps into things all the time, but it’s not often that he falls off from some place that high. Plus, it was an evening, he was tired — and his mother was not there to comfort him.
But as I tried unsuccessfully to calm him down, I felt fear creep up inside me. What if he was hurt internally, in a way that I can’t see? I had heard that if you hit your head but it doesn’t actually create a bump or bruise, that can indicate a bad sign. My intuition was telling me that he was upset and tired more than hurt, but I began to doubt it.
And this doubt led to a new fear. What if he was hurt badly? It was my fault!
My mind began to flood with images of people getting mad at me. My wife, my mother, and my father, among others. It was my fault that I let my son fall, and they would get angry and condemn me. My father is deceased, so he obviously can’t get mad at me, but I couldn’t help but picture him berating me.
I quickly became overwhelmed with fear, and tried desperately to get my son to stop crying, but nothing worked. I considered calling my wife and asking for what homeopathic remedy to give him — my family’s first line of defense — as I couldn’t remember which remedy is good for this situation. I knew it starts with an A. Was it Arnica, or Aconite? But I debated calling her for a while, because I was afraid that she would be furious with me for letting this happen.
I realized that I was getting consumed by my fear and tried hard to hold on to my regular, more rational judgments. I tried to bathe them and got into the tub with them, thinking that if I played with him in the bath he would stop crying. He didn’t, so I quickly got us out. I did make myself call my wife and she suggested Aconite, after I explained to her that he seems more upset than in pain. She wasn’t impressed that he fell, obviously, but she didn’t get overtly mad like I had feared. I gave my son our digital camera to toy around for a while, which distracted him and finally stopped his crying.
He seemed tired, so I proceeded to put him to sleep. Which happened rather quickly — and this also stirred up even more fear. He usually fusses and resists going to sleep. It would take more than a few minutes of him sucking on his fingers usually. But this time, he fell asleep fast, and even without sucking on his fingers. Very unusual.
I began to panic inside. Could this mean he had a serious internal damage? Should I wake him up? I had heard that it’s dangerous to let someone fall asleep after hitting the head strongly (which I didn’t think he did, but I really wasn’t sure at this point). My daughter was nagging me for attention, though, so I tried to act normally. My wife came home and she and my daughter went to bed soon afterward. I did explain the fall more in detail to my wife, and that I was shaken, but I didn’t tell her the full extent of how I was feeling, so as not to alarm her. I sat quietly and listened for my son — he usually tosses and turns in his sleep, and had been sleeping poorly all week, waking up often. But that would be good news to me that night, as it would mean that he didn’t suffer some kind of invisible brain damage.
And he did wake up before too long. My fear began to abate, as I had sufficient reasons to believe that he was really not hurt seriously. That’s what I thought initially, and I was desperately hoping that I was right.
As my fear subsided, I began to examine what had happened. It bothered me a great deal that I was more concerned about people getting mad at me than the well-being of my child. I knew that this was the core of my fear. I didn’t want my son to get hurt or die because it would be my fault.
What is the lesson I needed to learn in this? Why am I so terrified of making mistakes? I explored by tracing my fear down to the root. It went like this:
- Letting my son fall was my fault. This, I had to accept that it was true, though it was an honest mistake and not an unforgivable one. I replayed the scene in my head, but I wasn’t doing anything that contradicted my values. I would do things differently now, of course, but I wasn’t knowingly getting myself distracted or underestimating the danger. I was prepared to catch him if he fell, but not the particular way he did — so fast, and without warning.
- People would get mad at me. This I feared, rather desperately. I’m usually not a perfectionist and don’t have problem admitting my mistakes and apologizing. But only little mistakes that I feel are forgivable. If they are bigger errors that are likely to get people to condemn me, then I become fearful. So I was hoping that my son’s injury was inconsequential, as that would put my mistake into the No-Big-Deal category. Nobody wants your kid to die because of your fault, but my reaction was irrational and overblown.
- I had to be a good person in order to be accepted. I can’t let people see that I make serious mistakes with serious consequences.
- If people condemn me and hate me, that would make me a bad existence. Aha. I hit the bottom. My level 1 self-esteem, the belief that I was a good existence, was compromised there. I had believed that I can justify my existence only if I am a good-enough person, one that didn’t make serious mistakes.
Having discovered the root of my fear, I knew what I needed to learn from this lesson. I needed to affirm my existence. I needed to get rid of the script that told me that I would lose the justification to exist if I committed a terrible-enough error.
At first, I tried EFT to tap into my fear. EFT (Emotional Freedome Technique), among other things, is a ritual that can be used to rescripting damaging beliefs. I was trying to tell myself that even though I make mistakes, I am still a good person, and that I deserved to exist.
But it wasn’t really working. I have to point out that I’m not a practiced EFT user. It’s something I want to explore more, but like a person who prays only when in deep trouble, I have only used it sporadically so far. It did calm me down and seemed to chip away at some fear, but it really wasn’t getting to the heart of the problem.
So next, I envisioned being a baby, being held by my mother. I imagined that I was looking up at her face from inside her arms. She was rocking me gently, and looking at me with loving eyes. And she told me something I really wanted to hear.
“I’m so glad you were born.”
Over and over, she told me that she was glad that I was born. I was a baby in her arms. I didn’t have to do anything. I simply existed, but yet that was enough to make her happy. Nothing to prove, no need to earn her love.
I began to cry. There was a strong sense of relief.
I knew I was healing.
After crying for a few minutes, I felt very light and free. Relaxed and back to my normal self, I went to bed and slept pretty well.
Reflecting on What Took Place
It wasn’t a new discovery to me, that I had this fear of mistakes, and that it was somehow related to my need to justify my existence. This theme had surfaced many times before. This was just another incident in my on-going healing and growth journey.
A few years back, I asked my mother about my early childhood and what life was like back then, to explore how I had acquired this fear.
Life was very hectic for years after I was born, to say the least. Being a new mother (I’m her oldest child) is often a turbulent process, but shortly after I was born, my mother’s mother had a seizure and became bed-ridden. My mother had to start commuting 1.5 hours one way on train to take care of her on regular basis. My brother was born 19 months later, and my family moved in with my mother’s parents, so that she could take care of my grandmother. My mother also has a mentally challenged older sister, who also lived in that house at the time. She was single-handedly managing a 7-person household, with two young children and two adults with very special needs. I can only imagine how stressful and overwhelming it must have been. (Just having 2 little kids is hard enough for us!)
I don’t have specific recollections of what happened, but I have speculations, based on experiences I do remember from later in life and knowing what my mother is like. I think my mother was over-burdened and sometimes it came out on kids, probably when she was disciplining us for misbehaving. Some days she would be forgiving and kind, other days she would be angry and harsh. I became confused about what incited the terrible wrath, and came to the conclusion that I had to be infallible in order to avoid her getting mad at me. I don’t know if it had the same effect on my brother — he was probably subjected to the same thing, but he was the kind of child who acted out his anger and frustration physically (sometimes he took it out on me) so he may not have internalized like I did. The circumstance I was in and the particular personality I have compounded in building up my fear.
I have to admit that it’s so easy to take out anger and frustration on kids. I am guilty of it myself, though not often. If I’m under stress, my temper gets shorter and I over-react to kids misbehaving. Kids love their parents unconditionally, which is why they invite abuse and neglect. Adults can get away with causing them harm. I hate myself when I realize that I’m taking it out on my kids.
I don’t know if that is what happened, (my mother doesn’t remember specifics — people tend not to remember painful eras) but it makes sense and explains my fears, so I’m sticking to my theory as being true, if not factual. My mental recreation of early childhood, and having my mother affirm my existence, had a powerful healing effect. If the same theme resurfaces down the road, I know what to do to further heal myself.
Chances are, this theme will resurface again. The damage in my self-esteem probably didn’t heal completely from this single event. But it did get better — I made progress in my healing journey. It’s likely that the fear will come back on other occasions, unless this was truly the end of it. It’s possible, I suppose — I do feel more secure in the aftermath, like I have more solid ground to stand on. But life constantly offers opportunities to heal, learn and grow. If my psyche is still compromised in some ways, I’m sure life will reveal them to me and I will continue my healing. That’s how healing works — in baby steps, little by little.
I need to add that I am not trying to make my circumstance to be more tragic than it is. I would consider my upbringing to be one of more fortunate ones. I have a terrific mother with whom I always got along with, and over all I’m a confident, well-adjusted, stable and happy person. A lot of my parents’ parenting style, I’m adapting as my own, as I think it was very effective. The fact that I was able to mend a level 1 self-esteem — one that’s very deep in our psyche — on my own suggests that my scar is not very deep. If I was seriously neglected or abused as a baby, the damage would have been too big to heal on my own, with a simple visualization.
My son didn’t sleep well that night, as he hadn’t all week, but next day he seemed perfectly normal. There wasn’t a single scar or bruise on his body. We were lucky. I haven’t gone back to that concrete wall with him, to see if he remembers falling from it and becomes afraid or cautious. I do hope to revisit the place and if he isn’t too fearful, and try doing what he was doing when he fell — but this time with proper caution. It will be more healing for me (and for him, too, perhaps) to go back and redo it, so that we don’t let fear associated with that place settle in.
Kids fall and get hurt often — it’s part of growing up. Although my son’s fall had a small chance of being a major disaster (he could have fallen head first), we live with that risk every moment. We need to be vigilantly cautious, but that’s not the same thing as living in fear.
My reaction to the event was an unreasonable one, because I had a vulnerability, a weak spot, for mistakes and people condemning me for them. But I reigned in on my fear, trusted and acted out of my initial intuition and my reason, and conducted myself reasonably well. And my healing was a positive accomplishment.
My story illustrates how an event can reveal scars in our pscyhe, and how proper understanding and self-examination can lead to healing. As I said, the healing we can do alone are limited to small and minor stuff, but still, we can accomplish a lot with self-diagnosis and healing. In your life, if you encounter fears that you can’t unscript and scars that don’t seem to heal, it’s best to go talk to someone.
Above all, look at every negative experience as a learning opportunity. Look at the event and ask yourself: what can I learn from this? How can this help me grow further? What does the reaction to the event tell you about yourself? Failures, mistakes, and other painful events are rich opportunities for healing and growth. It’s your heart’s way of telling you “this is where I am hurt, come and heal me.” As you take advantage of these opportunities and move forward in your evolution, you become more whole, better equipped to deal with unpredictable flow of life, and start to interpret events as negative, painful or threatening less often.
Your sense of well-being becomes more unflappable. You begin to live in peace.