When I was growing up, going all the way back to my earliest memories, I was angry and depressed (my father was emotionally abusive and my mother emotionally abused). I quickly developed an eating problem, remembering quite clearly trying to eat as quickly as possible to get away from my father at the dinner table and, not wanting to speak or do anything else “wrong” and get yelled at more (for doing absolutely nothing but what children do), eating without coming up for a breath out of frustration and disappointment. I was 8 when I told my father, “I don't have to listen to you, you're not my real dad” (I was adopted). That was the only time I can remember that I said something which actually shut him the hell up. At age 10 I tried to throw myself from a hotel window (on a lovely vacation in Disney World), only to be pulled back in at the last second by my mother. I tried running away countless times, but of course that didn't work. Since I was getting yelled at for destroying things anyway, even for minor scratches or things I didn't even do, I took a razor to the oriental rugs, and the alarm system wires to boot. So my dad took me to a therapist, who would ask me about my family life (“I hate my father”), and after that brief conversation we would play chess for the rest of the hour (which undoubtedly infuriated my father when he found out). He didn't immediately get a replacement, just stopped taking me to that one after a span of about 2 years or so. I was binge drinking at 15, having sex at 16, and smoking and doing drugs at 17. My father paid for me to go to college (on the other side of the the country) for a year, and I spent all his money on weed and got almost exclusively F's (1 C in English 101). When I dropped out and came back home with no clue what to do with myself, he finally took me to a psychiatrist who prescribed me Prozac after talking to me for 5 minutes, undoubtedly with my father's urging. I took 1 pill, and threw away the bottle. What was a pill going to do for me anyway? Make me forget my whole life of pain and turn me into a happy person as if by magic? My problems were real, not pharmaceutical, and I did not believe (and still don't) that they could be solved like that. The whole time, my parents never acknowledged that I “was in pain and needed help”, not from some stranger, but from them, or else remove me from them and give me a family that gave a crap about me. All the doing drugs and dropping out of school and eating and smoking, all that self-destructive behavior was one life-long cry for help, which never got answered. I don't think it was a terribly complicated road from emotional pain to low self-esteem. Whatever the causes, low self-esteem essentially means not being motivated to do what is in one's long-term interest anymore, because one either feels that one needs what one can get when one can get it, and damn the consequences, or that one doesn't really care if one makes it that far or not, because one doesn't care about what happens to them anymore, because nobody else ever did, so why would they suddenly start now? Or both. Even a boring, talentless person with good self-esteem can make a decent life for themselves, but people with low self-esteem, regardless of talent (or maybe even because of it?) are inexorably headed towards self-destruction. My entire life has been ruined, and despite my best efforts to turn things around since then (almost entirely on my own), my life will never be anywhere close to what it could, and indeed should, have been. My physical health is ruined, my emotional health is fractured at best, and so much of the talent and strength I had has been wasted and gone.
I don't just blame my parents though. I also blame all the other people in my life that never did anything to change the course my life was taking. Aunts and uncles and grandparents sat idly by. Teachers punished my poor work ethic (who can do schoolwork when they have bigger problems to worry about at home?) and gave me consistently failing grades but nobody ever took a personal interest in me. Parents of friends did nothing. Nobody I ever spoke to had anything to say to me that might have turned my head in new directions. I had to find philosophy, my true love, completely on my own. I did not even know what it was until sometime in my 20's, though I had been doing it internally all my life. And I blame human nature, and society. Perhaps there's a real critique of American culture and society there regarding its ability to handle existential problems like, oh, I don't know, suffering? Our society is still heavy-handed, authoritarian, patriarchal, etc. They blame the victim and that's the end of their insight into how to address societal woes. One could go on at length here, but I won't.
What I have learned, however, in my studies of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and now the humanities in general, is that self-esteem is probably the real end, the final ultimate goal towards which we as people and societies should be aspiring. All the other stuff - wealth, power, etc. - doesn't mean anything if we can't look ourselves in the mirror and be proud of who we are. And the instrumental value to the society, as I mentioned before, is paramount – people with low self-esteem simply aren't properly motivated, they flail around psychically, looking for something to hold on to, but everything appears illusory. Self-esteem is not something one can get a steady grip on, certainly not if one has never had one to begin with. On the other hand, people who have always had their grip seem to intuitively know how valuable it is, because with it goes how valuable they are to themselves, and this is all-important. So in general, people with low self-esteem are either unproductive members of society, or sometimes successful on the outside but not inside, and sometimes perhaps wildly successful and able to overcome their deficiencies, but this is the rare case, while those who have high self-esteem are generally productive and well-adjusted. We are all driven by our egos, and this makes having self-esteem all the more vital, because those who have it are able to strike the proper balances in their values between themselves, what they owe to themselves, and to others, while those without it end up either very selfish in their behavior, or co-dependent, or erratic.
Thanks Steph. Sorry your childhood wasn't great either. Perhaps some of our many similarities are due to our early suffering? I don't really like to talk about it either, it sets you up for people to mistreat you, as if that wasn't the cruelest irony of all. I would just as soon keep it private except that there are some real lessons in there and perhaps someone may get some kind of relief knowing that there are other people who have suffered out there. I'm very grateful to have you as a friend Steph. :-)