Lack of Self Esteem and Identity

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

I never feel good enough. My life has been unstable. I am a 16-year-old Korean teenager living in Florida. I moved to the U.S. with my mother and my sister to study when I was 7. Even though my mom told everyone she came for education, the real reason was because my parents often got into violent fights. My mother wanted to have a period of time to cool off. We were not planning to stay here for long. But after one year, my father still showed signs of violence and my parents’ relationship got worse.

My mother decided that we could not stay with my father, and that we should continue our study. Not having my father in my childhood pained me very much.

As time went on, my mom went through her undergraduate, masters, and is currently doing her PhD. My father has been supporting us for 8 years by himself in Korea. He is a lifeless person, and it pains me every second of my life knowing that it is my fault.

I learned in middle school that my parents were divorced when I was in 4th grade. The empty hole had been there since I was in 2nd grade, so it did not affect me. As time went on my mom became more abusive towards me, often screaming and physically abusing me. It would always be my fault, but sometimes I felt that she went overboard. My friends during middle school were mostly girls. Even though I was part of the “cool” crowd, I felt I didn’t belong. I was an asian that liked math, and my friends couldn’t understand that.

My father graduated from the best university in Korea on a full scholarship while being from a small village. My mother went to the second best university in Korea with a full scholarship at a time where women did not go to college. People all around me say that my parents are great people. But I see my father, lonely and depressed with the life sucked out of him; and my mother who is raising two kids by herself and struggling in America. I feel responsible for their lives; that I have to succeed to make their miserable lives mean something. Sometimes I consider suicide, but I can’t because it would all go to waste. I can’t be selfish like that when both of my parents want to do the same thing.

To make myself feel important I tried hard at everything I did. I am an all-state musician on two instruments. Recently I won a National math competition. People said I did a good job. But even after winning, I felt nothing. All I wanted was for everyone to think highly of me but I didn’t feel important. I feel lost. My citizenship status is unclear. I am split between two countries. I am split between two parents. I feel abused every day by my mother, and I hate myself for hating her. I am angry all the time, and I have no self-confidence. People say I am good looking and tall. I do not feel that way. I never feel like am good enough. Even if I win a national competition, I don’t feel good enough. What is wrong with me?

A. Nothing is “wrong” with you. In fact, everything is “right” with you. You are doing exceedingly well under very challenging circumstances. You’re excelling in school, particularly in math. You’ve recently won a national math competition and became an all-state musician, mastering not just one instrument but two. Please recognize these are impressive accomplishments. You should be very proud of yourself. You possess skills that many people don’t. These accomplishments prove that you’re not only musically gifted but intelligent as well.

You’re also resilient. I define resiliency as the ability to “bounce back” in the face of hardship and adversity. You’ve accomplished many remarkable feats, all while dealing with serious family and personal issues. This is a personal triumph.

You’re a child of divorced parents. It has left a hole in your heart. The difficulty associated with having divorced parents, especially at a young age, is underestimated. It’s deeply upsetting to be part of a family that splits apart. It’s doubly challenging when there’s abuse involved. Not only did you witness your father abusing your mother, you’re now enduring abuse by your mother. I’m not certain if you know this but abusing children in this country is illegal. If your mother is physically abusing you she is in violation of the law and could go to jail.

I want to be clear about the fact that none of this is your fault. If your mother abuses you, you must know that you didn’t bring it on yourself. You do not deserve to be physically harmed; no child does and that is why there are laws against it. Parents have a choice in how they treat their children. They don’t have to physically harm them but unfortunately some do. Perhaps your mother is punishing you in the manner she learned in her culture. Even so, it’s unacceptable and illegal.

You also need to know that your father’s suffering is not your fault. You are not responsible for your parents. They are responsible for you. If your parents divorced it was because they could not get along. That has everything to do with them and nothing to do with you. You must stop blaming yourself for things that are not your fault.

You are a victim in this situation. You are faced with the unfair reality of having to live between two countries, with a mother who is struggling with personal challenges in addition to your own concerns. It’s undoubtedly a difficult time.

When school begins in the next few weeks please make an appointment with the school counselor. You need to meet with a mentor or a wise and informed adult who is trained to deal with situations like yours. You also need someone who can guide you into college and out of your current living situation. Academics or perhaps music may be your way to a better life.

If you’re feeling suicidal please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and speak to a counselor. Another number you should have in your possession is the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline. They can be reached at 1-800-422-4453. You can call this number and speak to someone about how your mother treats you. They can advise you about how to handle the situation.

Lastly, start giving yourself credit where it is due. You are resilient. The fact that you are able to thrive in light of a very challenging family situation, none of which is your fault, reveals a lot about your personal character and development. Resiliency is an important quality that you seem to possess. It’s a trait that has and will likely in the future carry you through difficult times.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 25 Aug 2009

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2009). Lack of Self Esteem and Identity. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2009/08/25/lack-of-self-esteem-and-identity/