Are You a Red Pencil Person?

by Mark Sichel, LCSW

Remember when you were in school and the teacher would return your work with your errors highlighted in RED? You looked at your graded work, and all you could see were the errors, faults, inaccuracies, and failures as highlighted by the teacher with her red marking pencil.

The red pencil encapsulates the two major causes of self-esteem problems:

1. Allowing others to define who you are and what you're all about.

2. Highlighting your negatives, weaknesses, and failures rather than your positives, strengths and successes.

People who grew up in dysfunctional families are particularly prone to allowing others to determine their self-worth, because the general chaos and lack of control within dysfunctional families foster feelings of helplessness in children. The child experiences the general state of confusion, neglect, anger, disappointment, and fear that exists within the dysfunctional family. It is a natural impulse for children to want to change their parents and create more adaptive and loving modes of relatedness within the family. Unfortunately, children are rarely able to change their parents. When they try to do so repeatedly, they are doomed to chronic failure, which takes a terrible toll on the child's self-esteem.

The children of dysfunctional parents, who themselves tend to have very low self-esteem, have a particularly hard time feeling good about themselves. Spending their childhood and adolescence contending with the anxiety and depression rife in a dysfunctional family, does not afford the child the opportunity to build their self-esteem. Sadly, many people turn to alcohol and drugs to "medicate" their poor self-esteem. Self-destructive and self-abusive behaviors only make the decline into bad self-esteem a steeper one.

Climbing out of the pit can be very painful for adults trying to rebuild their self-esteem. For example, a client of mine in his mid thirties is now in law school. He took many years to get through college because he was battling drug and alcohol problems. He also had difficulties separating from a dysfunctional family. He now sits in classes with people who are, on average, ten years younger than he. This sometimes makes him feel very badly about himself. Having grown up with an abusive father and an ineffectual mother, he lacks the skills to put his life in perspective.

He can not easily remember the fact that he has struggled and has achieved. He finished college, was admitted to law school and currently, for the first time, does what is required of him. It is hard for him to focus on the fact that he is sober, abstinent, and fighting daily to undo the patterns learned in his dysfunctional family. He can not easily see that he is competent, functional, humorous, generous, and that he posseses many other great qualities. Instead, he gets out the red pencil used by his Dad throughout his childhood, and finds ways to bash and devalue himself. He has many positive inner qualities and spiritually sound values, but instead, he rents the space in his head to the bad feelings of being the oldest person in his class.

When he allows himself to refer to the list of his inner qualities and values, he is able to get a much more positive perspective on himself. By reducing his black and white thinking and realizing that while he might not be a 26 year-old associate in a law firm, he still has achieved impressively, his self-esteem rises. And when he acknowledges that he has come this far despite the emotional hardships that existed in his family, his achievements are even more impressive.

Another client of mine is a comedienne who performs in night clubs. She works very hard and is very funny, but sometimes her audiences are too drunk to appreciate her and understand her humor. She has learned, however, to say to herself, "I'm not going to let a bunch of drunk people make me feel badly about myself." This is because she has worked very hard to integrate the notion that her worth is not defined by others, but rather by her abilities to be creative and take risks in her work. She, too, grew up in a dysfunctional family where she was not acknowledged for her abilities and gifts. She had a hyper-critical mother who would only point out her flaws and weaknesses and had no ability to recognize her daughter's many strengths and talents. Life with this mother was one big field day with a red pencil.

Remember that whether others happen to be drunk or sober, bosses or co-workers, husbands, wives, parents, or children, no one can take away the good feelings and accomplishments that you have worked hard to achieve. If you truly know your strengths, and carry them with you proudly, you can become the master of your own self-worth.

Learn to use that red pencil to highlight your strengths! Turn it around and evaluate yourself with a focus on what you do right and well rather than what you do poorly and incorrectly. All of us are human and we all have some strengths and some weaknesses. We all have days when we perform in a highly effectual manner, and we all have days where we are not up to par. We all have CHOICE in our pencil pushing: we can stick with the red pencil which highlights the negatives, or we can highlight the positives in red, yellow, green, blue, and all the other colors of the rainbow.

If you would like practice accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative when it comes to little ol' you, try the Psybersquare Self-Esteem Workshop.

If you'd like to start drawing up your battle plans for the attack on low self-esteem, check out Ten Steps to Improved Self-Esteem.


Copyright 2000, 2001 © Psybersquare, Inc.

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