When our daughter Violet was younger, I found a shoebox stuffed in a corner of her closet. I lifted the lid to find tons of pieces of paper in it, like 50 torn shreds. As I opened the first folded piece, a lump in my throat constricted like a knot.
“You hate me.” I opened another. “You hate me.” And another.
What was this? My heart pounded, my ears rang. The next 30 had the same kid scrawl saying the same sentence, most with tears drawn all over the piece as if the words were crying.
She was only 9 years old.
I was haunted. She was SO young, and this was such a desperate measure – trying to shed her innermost thoughts by boxing them up, yet concealing them as if she knew how scary they would be to me. It was like peeking through a curtain to see what was constantly running through her mind. Even now, my heart cracks in half remembering it. The teardrops drawn were self-fulfilling, my own poured down my face.
How could this be what she was thinking? I LOVED HER so much it hurt. I always felt like a warm mom, constantly hugging and praising. I just couldn’t understand. And, how could she POSSIBLY interact with anyone in a positive way when she couldn’t escape herself? We listened to Violet put herself down, OUT LOUD, all day. Now you’re telling me THIS was on repeat even in her silence? It must have been an unbearable place to exist in, a tireless loop of self-loathing.
“When self-esteem is compromised, the feeling of self-loathing may be intermittent, and it may be suddenly triggered by disappointments, struggles, painful memories or anxiety about the future. These triggers can create an overwhelming flood of feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and powerlessness which can lead to self-destructive behaviors, emotional withdrawal or aggressive behaviors towards loved ones and family members.” (Out of the Fog, see link)
This is exactly what was happening in our lives at the time. Self-loathing turned into acting out. Unfortunately, for our precious little girl, it was not intermittent. It was continuous and consumptive. An inescapable prison, without doors or windows from which to even glimpse hope.
“In sociology and psychology, self-esteem reflects a person's overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self… Self-esteem may, in fact, be one of the most essential core self-evaluation dimensions because it is the overall value one feels about oneself as a person.” (wiki – see link)
The self-esteem piece has consistently “shown up” throughout all of our family’s trials and every family we have interacted with in our process. It seems to be the baseline of ALL of these issues, regardless of how they manifest. Eating disorders, self-harm, acting out, depression, school refusal, substances - they ALL seem to stem from anxiety and lack of self-esteem. The world is a difficult place when you DO feel good about yourself. Try multiplying it by 1 billion when you don’t.
12 years old now, and over a year since she left home, Violet was truly transforming her soundtrack. Being in the woods in wilderness therapy changed her. She began to believe in herself again. Going to a therapeutic boarding school continued her metamorphosis.
At Violet’s school, they pass through therapeutic levels. As you progress, you gain more trust, responsibility, and freedom. In order to pass through to the next, the girls “petition” the staff. They write a speech about their growth, and present to a team of about 8 people.
How do you demonstrate change in self-love? I don’t believe it is the grandiose moments. They are fleeting, sometimes contrived for a result. I am most encouraged by the subtleties. The littlest things seem to be the biggest barometers.
Violet proudly showed me her speech for her petition for Level 3, the Leadership Phase. These sentences covered the journal pages of her speech notes:
“I’m awesome.” “Keep it up.” “Good job.” “You got this.” “I love winning.” “Be the best you can be.”
Violet let me publish this. As incredible as the content is of the speech, it was the outlining words of encouragement she was giving to herself that were the most moving.
There is nothing I can write to explain how this felt to me. This was not my troubled Violet. This was the girl I believed in, the one who was now overtaking the sad parts. These, to me, were the greatest indicators of her sense of self worth. Her private journal moments, full of strength and hope. Impossible for me NOT to cry every time I see it.
She petitioned to move up to the Leadership Phase. It worked.
SHE WAS WINNING, and clearly, loving it.