Updated: Apr 24
Why am I not good enough?
This was a question I used to mull over constantly in middle school. I told myself I wasn’t good at anything, that I had no special talents or skills. It’s not that I was lazy. I worked very hard. Yet, even when I studied days before an exam, I’d obtain the same results as some of my naturally brighter friends. Somehow, this actually felt worse. Whenever it was time to take an exam, I would walk into the classroom, sit in my seat, and think: I’m not going to do as well as I should.
I was insecure over just about everything -- my intellect, my looks, my body, my personality. I felt surrounded by a sea of people, friends and strangers, who were all smarter, prettier, and funnier than I was. Whenever someone paid me a compliment, I would secretly reject it, because I had convinced myself that they were merely doing so out of pity.
I’ve always been a writer, journaling in my sparkly pink notebook since elementary school, well before my teenage insecurities set in. In the depths of my depression, writing became my first and most reliable outlet: I journaled daily, pouring my frustrations out onto the page. It felt safe. It wasn’t like social media; I could say anything I wanted. The change for the better began when an opportunity finally presented itself -- and at school of all places! -- in the form of an English assignment.
We were to write a persuasive speech on a topic that affected us personally, and the goal was to change the thinking and behavior of our peers. This was the perfect opportunity for me to share my thoughts on insecurity with my classmates. However, I hesitated for a bit. On the one hand, I felt prepared, because I’d been writing about this stuff for weeks already. On the other hand, it was the very last thing I wanted to do because it meant opening up and getting vulnerable.
Sitting in front of my computer late at night, spiral notebook open on my lap, I tried to type out my first few words… and failed miserably. Twenty minutes in, and I was still staring at a blank screen. Frustrated, I turned to the beginning of the notebook, and began to flip through it for inspiration. As I looked back over it all, I began to develop a much keener sense of my own emotional life, as well as insight into my own patterns. Wanting to get this new perspective down, I treated it like any other night at the diary. I ignored the assignment, and pretended like the public-speaking component didn’t exist. This, I told myself, was a private speech I was going to deliver to my fragile, insecure self -- to the girl that I caught staring back at me, helpless in the mirror, on a really bad day. Soon enough, my fingers were flying across the keyboard, faster than my brain could keep up. Before I knew it, I was looking at a ten-minute speech that needed to be reduced to five.
This was a better problem to have than an empty screen, but still a problem nonetheless. As the nature of the project came back into focus, I started to ask the obvious. What do I feel comfortable with my friends hearing? What would be too embarrassing to share? How vulnerable is too vulnerable? Then, something interesting happened. The thought seemed to turn on its head, and I began to think less about my image, and more about my friends and their insecurities. Did they have insecurities like mine? What sorts of things would they most benefit from hearing? Was I in a privileged position to speak on this matter? After all, I wasn’t trying to convince them that I was insecure. They probably knew that already. Moreover, the point of the speech wasn’t simply to change their thoughts, but their behaviors as well. I wanted them to feel less insecure too.
This was the first time I truly thought about insecurity as a social and cultural issue. The assignment forced me to connect my specific experiences with a stance on adolescent insecurity in general.
Indeed, I was only able to generalize about our modern culture of insecurity -- the dangers of social media, the ubiquity of cliques and bullying, the demands placed on teens to succeed academically -- by first revealing the conditions behind my own poor self-esteem. For example, in order for my listeners to take me seriously, and connect with me on a deeper level, I needed to open up about the physical and emotional abuse I went through at an early age. I needed to talk about how my parents disciplined me when I misbehaved; how they repeatedly reminded me that I wasn’t as good as my genius younger brother; how my mother sent me to elementary school without a packed lunch some days because “I didn’t deserve her food”. I needed to lay my soul bare. Once they saw me as an authority on insecurity, then maybe they’d listen to what I had to say about the problem at large, and how to address it.
Sitting in class, half-listening to what the students before me were sharing, I felt plagued by insecurity even then. It’s not like I had discovered the key to happiness. The speech didn’t go that deeply into any secret tips or life-hacks. It was more of a communication of the problem than any well thought-out call to action. For this reason, I was worried it might fail -- that it, like me, just wasn’t good enough.
Standing in front of twenty students, a teacher, and a camera, pages rattling in my hand, I began in a trembling voice:
“Envision yourself standing in front of a mirror…”
After several minutes ticked past, I was finished. There was a brief pause, my last words suspended in the air. Suddenly, the class erupted in applause. Moreover, I saw my teacher, sitting in the back of the room next to the camera, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes. Except it wasn’t shameful crying: it was born out of emotional connection, and I felt a small victory in being able to finally communicate some of the feelings that had led me to isolate. My teacher looked up at me and nodded, giving me approval, and acknowledging my bravery. Some of the students were misty-eyed too. I was stunned as one of my friends proceeded to grab a box of Kleenex and distribute tissues to the rest of the class, even if it was intended as a joke.
Though I was relieved the speech was finally over, I felt even more startled by this big reaction. Other students in the grade wanted to read my speech, and I happily accepted. It’s not as if I delivered the speech and then everything was sunshine, puppies, and rainbows. However, I couldn’t help but recognize the fact that it had touched my teacher and classmates. Moreover, I had to admit, delivering it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was an empowering moment in which I took a chance and allowed myself to be vulnerable. The chance paid off.
This experience made me stronger. It also made me more interested in mental health. I am especially interested in coming up with self-care techniques, and new perspectives, to help teens like myself deal with the low self-esteem that can plague them simply by being subjected to the pressures of modern life. Recently, I’ve decided to take the dynamic a step further. I am in the process of writing a self-help book, for teens by a teen. Perhaps the negative experiences I went through will become more meaningful if I share them with others, so they can better deal with their own issues. If I’m able to help even one struggling teenager out there, I will be beyond honored, and will consider this project a huge success. Still, even if I only end up helping myself -- that will be more than enough.