In January 15 2015, I wrote an article: Emotional Health, reflecting on two Chinese international students who committed suicide during their second year of school. The two students were Yuan Yuan, and Guo Yanjun. Yuan, a young woman in her early 20’s from Nangjing China, was in her second year of an economics degree at Amsterdam University. Guo, a 28 year old, who immigrated to America in 2001, graduated with an Honors BSc in 2006, worked in investment banking in New York, then registered at MIT, majoring in management – a journey much admired by many Chinese families.
Unfortunately, on January 27, 2015, another 20 year old Chinese international student named Wang Lu Chang a math major at Yale University, was successful in her suicide attempt. These young students all exhibited excellent academic performance records, hard work, and were achievement driven; in the eyes of an outsider, they all would have a bright future. While we are sadly mourning these young lives, it also causes us to question: What kind of pain was so heavy that it caused them to choose to end their own life?
My previous article looked at this issue from an emotional health perspective; I thought it was the taboo of depression, suicidal thoughts and loneliness that blocked them from seeking help. It was the negative emotions that confounded their thoughts and their mobility, blocked their view to finding a way out; since most people see vulnerability as shame. Neither failure nor misfortunes are supposed to be disclosed or shared with others, even with family members. Lacking the knowledge and skills to deal with negative emotions becomes an obstacle to reaching out and asking for help.
Then, recently, I have come to realize that there could be a deeper reason for their taking their own lives: lack of Self – Esteem. In order to learn new knowledge and skills, they first have to believe in themselves and trust that there is a way out, and are willing to try. Without confidence and beliefs, they would not reach out. Even if the resources are there, they won’t be able to recognize and seize it.
Lack of Self – Esteem
First, let us explore this question: What is the main difference between a confident and an unconfident person? The answer is self – esteem. When a person has healthy self –esteem, it means that she has the courage to meet life’s challenges. It is through risk taking that we are able to develop resilience.
The second question naturally follows: Where does courage come from? It comes from a belief in ourselves: a belief that we are capable, lovable human beings who will eventually succeed. In other words we hold ourselves in high regard. When we think well of ourselves, then we have the courage to take risks.
When self – esteem is not there, the person would even try to learn new methods. It is like being stuck in a labyrinth and not believing that there is a golden thread that can guide you out of the maze. So believing is the first step; in order to believe that the resources are there requires self acceptance and self love.
These three young women took their lives because they lacked healthy self – esteem.
Does Success = Self – Esteem?
People may challenge this concept, “Why do you say that they lacked of self – esteem, they were academically driven and had a proven record of their capacity to prevail, sure they had self – esteem.”
According to Nathaniel Branden, the guru of self – esteem, self – esteem has two components, self- efficacy and self- respect. Self – efficacy means a basic sense confidence in being able to face of life’s challenges.
It refers to confidence in the function of one’s mind, the ability to think , understand, learn , choose and make decisions, confidence in one’s ability to understand the facts of reality that fall within the sphere of one’s interests and needs.
Self – respect is a sense of being worthy of happiness. It refers to assurance of one’s value; an affirmative attitude toward one’s right to live and to be happy; comfort in appropriately asserting one’s thoughts, wants and needs; the feeling that joy and fulfillment are our natural birthright.
According to this definition of self – esteem, these three Chinese students had a sense of self – efficacy, they were very successful students met the academic challenges they faced while in China. However, they lacked self – respect: when they encountered a new environment, they felt that they had lost the battle and could never win, no matter how hard they tried. They could not find a way out. Self – respect, is a sense of being worthy of happiness, a sense of self acceptance, no matter what. The common pitfall of these three students was that they tied their value, capacity for happiness and self acceptance, with their academic success- the external evaluation was only based on their academic performance. In their minds, their personal value was tied to success, and success was only measured by academic performance.
Analysis from Culture Perspective
In my practice, I have counselled International Chinese clients who were successful, academically or in their work, yet they lacked the capacity for self –respect.
One rational for the lack of self respect is that they could only relate their value to their academic or work performance. A student client came to counseling because of her severe OCD disturbing her life. She had been an A student throughout her student life in China. Before entering the University of Waterloo she had set a big goal for herself of continued academic success. Unfortunately, during the first year, she did not do as well as she expected. She felt so disappointed with herself and also because lack skills in self regulation, time management, etc she was stressed out.
The second rational is that they gave too much space, letting others take advantage of them, allowing others to walk all over them and still blame themselves – they should have given more. In their heads, their self talk took the form of a good person does not argue with others, is considerate and kind. These are two symptoms of lacking of self – respect. When we lack self respect, we tend to act in ways that lower our sense of our own value even further.
In China, parents expect their children to excel academically; they start to train their child from an early age. Children who excelled were regarded by parents, teachers as a ‘smart kid’. They were being praised and rewarded for their academic achievement. The parent’s love is conditional. When children do not do well, they feel ashamed of themselves, and feel sorry for their parents.
As state in Transaction Psychology, this illustrates the concept that how your parents treat you when you were child will be the way you treat yourself when you are an adult. So even after children have grown up and left the home, they still carry their parent’s values unconsciously. These values form the basis for how they evaluate themselves in the future.
These types of students have the assumption that “A wise person can always effortlessly solve any problem; genius is to achieve without too much effort. Once geniuses work hard they will have rapid progress beyond the ordinary.” One of my clients stated. Because these smart kids had won so many ‘battles’ they have a high degree of confidence and they regard themselves as highly competitive. They have a strong belief in their abilities, which then leads them to having high expectations. When these “smart “kids lose their battle and form the notion that there is no way they can win, they lose their ground.
These tragic incidents evoke in us the impetus to rethink the goals of education and parenting: how do we evaluate ourselves as a person? Why do our children lack the capacity for healthy self – esteem? Why do they not treasure their own lives? And what kind of people do we want our children to become?
The traditional Chinese approach to education and parenting has been overly skewed toward the students’ skills, knowledge and academic work, with less focus on their emotional health- the capacity for self – respect; cultivating a person who is courageous, responsible and cooperative with a healthy self – esteem.
Healthy self – esteem has two components: self – efficacy and self – respect. Self – efficacy is concerned with the ability to learn, think and do. Chinese parents have been successful in cultivating self – efficacy, they have high expectations for their children and believe that they can do well, and fully dedicate themselves to their children’s academic curriculum. Yet what they lack is respecting and unconditionally loving their children. In 2011, Amy Chua, a Yale University professor wrote about her parenting struggle in The Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother. In this story about a tiger mother raising her daughters in two cultures, we can clearly see the traditional Chinese parenting philosophy: being competitive, driven by the excellence at all costs.
Some parents may question: “I have devoted so much, what you mean I do not love my children? What you mean I am not respecting them?”
This is clear from Amy Chua’s experience: her second daughter Lulu, tolerated her mother’s diligent and forceful parenting approach until the age of 13, when Lulu finally exploded：“I hate you…”. At that point, Amy Chua realized that she could lose Lulu if she insisted on her forceful approach, even though she believed that everything she did was for Lulu’s own good. She did realize that, from a mother’s perspective, she did need to respect and consider Lulu’s wants, feelings, and thoughts, not just the end result and what was good for Lulu’s future.
When we love our children, educating them with discipline, love and respect, then not only will our children learn to treat themselves with discipline they will also love and respect themselves. And only when a person who is truly loving and respecting of themselves, she is capable of treating others with love and respect.
As parents we have the innate desire to love our children, but the desire to love is not enough. Love needs to be based on respect and appropriate methods. Respect means we accept our children as an individual’s, as separate and distinct human beings, not based on what they achieve. Discipline based on respect and the right methods can yield a child who is courageous, responsible, and cooperative and has a healthy self – esteem. This topic will be further explored in the next article – How to cultivate healthy self – esteem in our children.
Hailing Huang MTA MA CCC
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA