Inner reflections: Self-esteem

I have low self-esteem. I am not afraid to admit it. In fact I think I over-emphasise on it.

I hesitated writing this post because I wasn't sure if I really wanted to share my confused, intimate thoughts publicly, but eventually I've decided that I do feel like I want to share my growth (or the lack of it) with you.

Prior to my Tokyo trip I promised myself I will start from a clean slate when I return. Now that I am back, I'll not be afraid to admit that I am still in the process of clearing my thoughts. I shall attempt to type them down here – but I should pre-warn anyone that whatever that follows will probably be like a tangled ball of uncertain, confused thoughts.

Issues arising

I am not sure when did the transition actually take place, since when did I morph from an over-confident, vocal kid, to someone who is painfully shy and who is coping with the lack of a self-esteem? This is the root of many of my issues. My poor self-image probably contributed most of me:

  • being afraid to speak out
  • being extremely shy
  • having no proper boundaries because I am afraid to upset people – not being able to say 'no' when I should (which in turn is causing many more issues)
  • under-charging for my work that I am seriously proud of
  • letting people step all over me
  • disliking confrontations
  • getting upset very easily because I take people's words too personally, or letting criticisms upset me too much because I am too sensitive of my own flaws
  • letting my moods fluctuate easily because I am easily affected by outer conditions
  • expecting too much out of myself because I don't give myself much credit
  • not being motivated to work because I am paranoid that I'll start to regress in terms of quality of work

Basically I am constantly swimming in vicious cycles. Poor self image leads to tons of issues described above which translates to poor quality of life. It is already a huge improvement from a couple years back, when I would find it difficult to believe that I would ever be happy. I used to think that my life is destined to be ridden with 'bad luck' because I tend to encounter negative situations repeatedly.

Blaming it all on the world

It seemed like all I wanted to do was to be happy and work for my passion, but all I ended up with was plenty of people who seemed to take advantage of my idealism. I would negotiate a low-pay package because I wanted to learn, thinking that since I was green, it would be sensible to exchange money in return for experience. However, being a fast learner, I would usually excel on the job, but the pay package would never be revised.

I sincerely believed that my employers would recognise my effort. Yes, it doesn't make business sense for them to revise my pay package voluntarily right?

At this point, many people, especially those who believe in their capabilities, would hold reasonable talks with their employers to change the situation, but fearing confrontations, I would simply be silent, until I would gradually lose the love for my job because of the lack of appreciation – monetary or not.

I would proclaim proudly – that I am not taken by money the way most people do and I would rather choose to be a poor artist who would at least be working for a job I love. Ah, that poor artist mentality. That set the pattern I would encounter for many years of my life. I gave up money for the freedom to choose (I still will).

There was a particular job where most of the employees were just trying to bide their time, whereas I was winning pitches and new accounts with my work. Six months into a job, no word of any recognition, which didn't particularly disturb me, until I found out by accident that I was the lowest paid employee by a four-figure mile.

I am only but human. I felt let down, not only by my employer, but by the world. Why was it that no matter how hard I tried, how much I excelled, how not materialistic I was, I never seemed to be appreciated?

It is only a recent discovery that perhaps I didn't value myself enough for people to value me. I couldn't see that being paid adequately and being materialistic are separate issues.

And it seeps into my current work

After going into self-employment, the same pattern ensued. I kept my rates low when I first started out to build a portfolio, which was justifiable. Just that I continued to keep my rates low because I probably didn't think people would hire me if I raised my rates. Apart from that, I kept accepting work because I was paranoid that work would dry up. So, I was working long hours, getting not a lot of money, feeling really stressed out because I was very particular about the quality I output, with deadlines looming over me every day.

It wasn't a pretty sight. Do I have anyone to blame for burning out, falling sick, and losing the passion for my work?

I remember telling a client that I was flexible over rates as long as I get to do good work. Now, I am not sure what kind of message I was sending out to the world. Though I must maintain, I am very blessed because there have been a couple of clients who not only refrained from taking advantage of my idealism, they actually took care to reward me more than I asked for. If I had to go through all that again just to know that there are such kind souls that exist, I would gladly do it all over again. People like them give me hope in this world.

It is extremely frustrating, because all I wanted to do is to be nice, help companies who are starting out (which means they do not have much of a budget), because I truly want to invest in their dreams. I want to help execute someone else's vision, because I know how it is like for someone to help when everyone else just want to know about the figures.

I have not changed my stand, I would still consider helping someone if it was worth it, but there has to be a balance. I find it difficult to reconcile that being one of the better designers (not the best, but I would say above average, that much credit I would give to my work), I have to think really hard if I wanted to purchase a new laptop for my work.

The creative conflict

I think this is an inner-conflict that many passion-motivated people face. Trying to get rid of the 'poor artist' mentality or stop thinking that money corrupts (my beliefs about money will warrant another long post).

And how do we draw the line between genuinely wanting to be 'nice' and yet not allow people to step all over?

I have a fear. That I will not meet expectations if I start to raise my rates. Then again, the value of money is relative. Even I charge really low, there will still be people who will deem it too high.

Overcoming it

I am not sure how long it will take me to overcome my low self-esteem – it has been rooted deeply in me since childhood. I take comfort in a quote (originally discovered on Evelyn Lim's blog) from Warrior of the light by obviously enlightened Paulo Coelho (author of The Alchemist):

You can recognize a Warrior of the Light by the look in his eye. Warriors of the Light are in the world, they form part of the world and they were sent into the world without saddlebags or sandals. They are often cowardly. They do not always act correctly. Warriors of the Light are wounded by the most foolish things, they worry about trivialities, they believe themselves incapable of growing. Warriors of the Light sometimes believe themselves unworthy of any blessing or miracle. Warriors of the Light often ask themselves what they are doing here. Often they find their lives meaningless. That is why they are Warriors of Light. Because they fail. Because they ask questions. Because they keep looking for a meaning. And, in the end, they will find it.

Peer recognition

Been busy with work lately but think it would be nice (can't find a better word, sorry) to share some positive news.

Nothing beats being recognised by industry peers, it serves as a great motivation for me to continue pushing myself further.

My portfolio site's current incarnation celebrated its one-year anniversary a while ago, and during its early launch period it was featured in a few css galleries which I was already over the moon about. However lately, on a second wind, it is being featured in several high profile sites:

Am passionate about typography and set out the design of my portfolio to be strongly minimalistic and type-based, which I thought would not be well-received by a mass audience as people tend to go for visual richness. I am also well-aware that my site does not look too good on a Windows machine without anti-aliasing (font-smoothing) turned on. Nevertheless I wanted to push some boundaries and demonstrate that a site can look great with carefully used type and almost pure code without much imagery. I am glad I stuck to my beliefs, as I knew that there will always people who'll appreciate it the way I do, even if a handful.

It is the law of attraction at play here I guess, because the way the site is designed, it does attract potential clients who appreciates design the way I do, and no words can describe how helpful that is to me.

Today, just for this moment, I allow myself to be in pride of my work, especially with the recognition of some of my peers – I thank you from the bottom of my heart, you people have no idea how much it means to me.

9 blessings to count (for what I am grateful for)

I am prone to waking up on the wrong side of the bed some times and wonder why situations in my life seems so difficult. My better self will remind me that I am already living a very blessed life, and I should be nothing but very grateful for what I have been given. There are times when it is difficult for me (being sensitive and emotional) to snap out of my negative moods, thus today I have decided I should write out a list of things that makes me happy and I should be grateful for – for that rainy day when I need that subtle reminder.

1. Being healthy

This is something that many of us possess and yet take for granted every day. Isn't health in itself something to be really grateful for? We simply need to flash a thought of someone living in borrowed time or someone who needs to go through painful treatments for chronic/terminal illnesses and I assure you that you'll feel instantly better about whatever crappy day you have.

2. Having my sight and limbs intact

This is closely related to the point above but I think it deserve a mention on its own. Isn't it wonderful to be able to walk, write, paint, cook, etc? That we have the ability to travel to anywhere we want, enjoy any physical activity, and do interesting stuff with our hands, take in the most beautiful sights?  I think a lot of us take this for granted as well.

3. Being able to eat and taste whatever I want

I love to eat. Eating makes me happy or it comforts me when I feel down or stressed. Of course, nobody should over indulge in food, but it is a blessing to be able to eat. Next time you lift the fork and poke at that boring plate of food, re-think again, because no matter how bad it tastes, you should be grateful for it, for not everybody is so blessed – think about the millions of starving people in poorer countries.

4. Being self-employed

Working on my own and from home is indeed a great blessing, because it allows me to be in control of my own destiny to a certain extent. I am very grateful for this because in times of recession I do not feel insecure about my job. It is up to myself to ensure that I survive, and not because some top-level executive have decided that it is the best strategic decision to retrench 10,000 employees. Sure, my business may not be as stable as before, but it is still in my own hands. I am certain that if I work that extra bit harder than before, I will eventually reap fruits of my own labour. If not, at least I had a good shot at it. Anything beats those days I had whereby I worked 16 hour shifts to meet mad deadlines and at the end of the year, the bosses buy new cars and property, while we employees cannot even be sure if we are entitled to an extra month's bonuses.

5. Not having to wake up at a certain time

Having my own business for more than a year, I have learnt to appreciate routines. I used to hate waking up in the morning, but I've somehow grown to enjoy it. However, I do not like it at all when I have to do it because everyone says so. There are times when I feel absolutely uninspired and it was a waste of time being at the office and trying to churn out work for the sake of it. It would have been more productive if I was allowed to rest and recuperate – am sure the work produced would have been better. I also thought that it was pointless trying to work when all I really want to do is to sleep. Now I have planned my own routine, but at least it is designed for me.

I know that in huge organizations it may be difficult to give employees a degree of freedom, but there have been instances whereby it has been implemented successfully.

6. Having my family and partner

Not everyone can be so blessed to have a supportive family and who loves you for who you are. I have had severe issues with my parents in my earlier years but I am very glad that they have been sorted out now. They make the effort to accept me for the person I am and I know it in my heart. They have been a great stabilizing factor in my life, especially during uncertain times. It is easy to take people around you for granted, but I constantly remind myself that I wouldn't know the day they'll no longer be around, so I do make the effort to spend quality time with them.

7. The freedom to work from anywhere (with an internet connection)

Technically (but not financially yet), I am able to start my dream of working from anywhere I want to be as long as I have an internet connection and my laptop. I have great understanding clients who accept the way I work (virtually). In fact, am just indebted to the internet, or else I would not be able to fulfill my nomadic tendencies. I can write a whole new post (which I will) on how grateful I am for technology. Without the internet I would not be able to work from home, nor in the first place would I be able to realise I have a gift for design (which was discovered trying to design my own website).

8. Turning my passion into my career

There have been times when I almost wanted to give up but am glad I did not. For being a designer has allowed me to live the life I want, and make people happy in the process. It is indeed satisfying when my work helps my clients to generate more income, positive feedback, experiences, or attention. This is what that fuels and motivates me. I do not design because I like to look at pretty stuff, or to impress people of my ability, but rather the knowledge of the impact it may have on others, not only aesthetically, but economically, and even socially.

Good design is an important vehicle for carrying messages. On a material level it helps people to understand a product more, but it is a whole different ball game altogether when you can be involved in carrying a message for a social cause.

9. Being able to communicate to a wider audience

The last time I checked, I have like roughly 10 rss subscribers on this blog's feed. Which is really pretty insignificant in internet terms, but to me it matters, every 10 of you, no matter who you are. I feel blessed to have this platform to publish and share my thoughts with you. If I was born in an earlier era, I would not be able to do so at all! Sharing enables one to learn from each other, which I have learnt a lot by sharing, and also from material that people have shared online.


If you're one of my 10 rss subscribers, do leave a comment and let me know of who you are if you have the time. :) It would be nice to get to know all of you. I am curious to know what people think of what I write on this site.

But if there's really nothing, say you're either already retrenched, or about to be retrenched or you're not sure, then you might just take that leap because the loss is not much already.

Henry Tan via