January 12, 2013


Filed under: Psychology and Politics — psychpol @ 8:14 pm

Self-esteem is a concept that is frequently mentioned in popular media, schools and discussions that we have with one another. Many of us wonder about our self-esteem. Is it what it should be or could be? We have learned that positive self-esteem is a desirable thing, and negative self-esteem may explain our actions and those of other people.

Such as when we conclude that  the reason someone made a choice is because of their self-esteem. Or, my child seems to have low self-esteem. What can I do to help? Where did it come from?

Let’s try to understand how this thing called self-esteem originates and develops.

When a baby is born, it brings certain tendencies as a result of genetics and  biology. For example, some infants are quite adventuresome and others seem shy. This is a matter of temperament, and early observation of that child often predicts later personality development.

For example, “she was very outgoing as a baby,” or ” he was always kind of quiet and inward.”

Some children are born with a genetic configuration that predisposes them to behavioral disorders. We are learning that genetic makeup will also predict a variety of medical disorders. These usually involve the expression of a combination of genes that activate the disorder and are difficult to turn off.

So, our DNA is programmed to produce particular characteristics for some of us. In other cases, it appears that genetics and environment must interact to produce certain outcomes, such as the realization of maximum potential for a child or a particular disorder.

As the child is exposed to the environment, a number of critical things occur. First, if the environment is responsive to the child’s needs, a basic sense of trust will develop. For example, “when I feel sensory discomfort from hunger and cry, someone responds to reduce my uncomfortable state.”

The child is exposed to a very large number of such events. Some babies do not receive a comforting response from the environment. They may hear anger, feel touched roughly or be ignored by the caretaker. They may be stuck with prolonged distress because their needs are not being met. They may develop an early sense of deprivation and mistrust regarding the goodness of the environment around them.

This stage corresponds to the development of what is called “primary narcissism.’  This is an early imprinted state whereby the child has a positive perception or feeling about themselves as beings in the world. It is a kind of “I’m OK” conclusion reached by the child about their basic worth.

As the child develops, they encounter other challenges as well. For example, it is natural for a child to seek autonomy, that is, independent action. The child strives to modify their environment as a result of an innate curiosity and desire for mastery. They manipulate objects and engage in early problem solving behaviors.

It turns out that the child must engage in these behaviors because brain development mandates it. Even for infants, there is a kind of dance via reciprocal movement with the caretaker. Mother’s voice produces particular movements of arms, legs, head and trunk. Those movements in fact strengthen certain motor centers and connections in the brain.

We are learning, through neuroimaging research, that the child’s brain connections develops in distinct stages. Specific brain areas became “hooked up” and activated and the child engages in corresponding behaviors to facilitate this. 

Examples would be moving into a pre-language stage with fundamental sound elements (“Ba, Da”), or classifying objects within a conceptual category by placing all the dolls and soldiers in their own piles.

Although genetics will determine things such as eye color, these forces also shape intelligence and other cognitive factors. The environment can either facilitate or suppress the child’s potential. This is a matter of positive intention and parenting ability.

Parenting ability will also manifest in areas such as nutritional choices for the child, exposure to violent events or imagery at an early age, protection from worldly harm, or parental comfort as the child develops an independent relationship with their environment.

So the child has developed a kind of unconscious self-valuation on the basis of how the environment has responded to their natural needs.

Around age seven, the child fully develops an internal voice that evaluates self and other. For example, “I am being good,” or “that person is mean.” This capacity for self-evaluation is not present in younger kids.

A child will learn what makes a caretaker happy or angry, and will activate or suppress those behaviors if able. But to objectify themselves, as in “I feel or think this” or “I do this because” is a neuropsychological impossibility for the preschool age child.

When we ask” why did you do this” and the child says “I don’t know”, they are absolutely telling the truth.  Most kids are unable to offer a logical explanation for their actions that may violate familial norms. 

Kids with a neurological disorder such as Attention Deficit Disorder Hyperactive Type (ADHD) may not be able to suppress particular annoying or disruptive behaviors. So, they tend to receive frequent negative input from the interpersonal environment.

But at around age seven, the age of reason in the Catholic Church, an area of the brain known as the frontal lobes begins to function more fully for most kids. This region involves planning, sequencing and other higher cognitive functions. One key function is self-evaluation. Here, the child is able to make judgements about their own actions, as well as their general value.

There comes into existence a “Me” that acts and an “I” that simultaneously observes personal actions. Here, the child may be able to inform the caretaker as to their reasons for doing a particular action. This is salient in most kids who are pre-adolescent.

The content of these judgements is largely determined by how the child was treated historically and how the environment responds now. For example, “I am bad because people are mad at me,” or “I am good because others love and comfort me” or “this always makes them mad at me.”

The child, like we all do, will talk to themselves about their worth as it relates to the world around them. This self talk is simply a form of thinking and self-evaluation.

If a child has been treated poorly early in life, they may develop a secondary narcissism, with this a self-focus that never quite seems to satisfy a sense of internal lacking and deficit. Such individuals tend to focus on themselves, talk about themselves and show little interest in their fellow human beings, except as audiences for their self preoccupation. In its extreme form, this represents a personality disorder that pervades one’s entire life.

There is a kind of epidemic of this problem in contemporary American society, including leaders and celebrities who manifest this quality of self preoccupation.

Children exposed to chaotic environments at early ages tend to develop a very negative definition of both themselves and the world. For example, that child may learn that “you can’t trust anyone,” or “get what you can while you can” or “love and pain always go together so the more I love someone, the more it will hurt me.”

As we progress through the school years, we tend to compare ourselves with peers. They may seem smarter, more popular, prettier or more athletic than us. We may evaluate ourselves negatively in comparison, or we may embrace  our value as it relates to our unique personal abilities and successes.

For example, to choose two common situations,  “I am not a football star or a homecoming queen,” but “I am good at grades, friends, scouts, loyalty, listening, caring, chess, science, poetry” or whatever it may be. Thus, one’s self-worth is not solely determined by social position and comparison with others.

Most kids go through this struggle. The exception seems to be particularly inner-directed kids who are quite focused in their lives. It is as if they already have some understanding of where they are headed in the future.

Someone made a simple but interesting observation that there are “two types of people, those who know and those seek.”  Some kids are on track very early and others search for their place in the world, often for years.

It also turns out that if we are burdened with negative self-esteem, chances are that our environment hurt us as kids. We may have been treated unfairly, even physically and emotionally abused, and our initial natural reaction was to fight back. But, given the obvious size and power difference, we directed our anger at ourselves. We learned to blame us and to feel bad about ourselves, when we really wanted to strike out at the tormentor.

They were big and we were small and we saw the difference very quickly. We may have also learned to hide aspects of ourselves, and these become a source of anxiety as we develop. For example, someone who is very placating may have trouble being assertive, even when any reasonable person would do so. They feel the internal anger or dissatisfaction but are unable to directly express it.

The same is true with sexual feelings in our culture. One feels them but does not know how to be comfortable with their biology, since many received early messages about the “badness” of such feelings.

This dynamic can set the stage for problems with conflict, depression and anxiety in adulthood. Learned patterns that we observed growing up may condition us to act the same way.

For example, “my parent was a depressed alcohol abuser and I seem to have the same tendencies,” or  “my parent was angry with us kids a lot and I find myself doing the same thing.”

Or, “my parent would punish me and then show love and affection, and I seem to choose relationships where that same thing happens over and over again.”

These examples of negative self-esteem represent early learning repeated, as if we are asleep, without awareness or choice. These patterns can be unlearned, and that is one of the purposes of therapy. They may be unconscious and tucked away in our brains. These too can be accessed and we can develop new ways of behaving in the world.

So, if a parent is stressed, one doesn’t have to act persecuted and irritable with their kids like mom or dad did.  Regular life brings enough challenges without repeating what we learned as little sponges in childhood. Someone else’s distant solutions to our problems today often makes matters worse.

For those subjected to severe abuse, learning a new way of giving oneself a fair evaluation and being constructive in life may take more deliberate work. Some can accomplish this, while others may not because the damage is too ingrained and likely to be repeated.

So, the parent is indeed father or mother to the man or woman as life evolves.

Our actions will reflect our self-esteem. If we value ourselves, we tend to make choices that promote happiness and fulfillment. We feel good in the present moment.

If we do not, we tend to make choices that produce conflict and unhappiness. For example, some individuals may seek abusive relationships with a measure of sexual excitement combined with emotional pain. Some mistakenly define this as “love.”

Or others may seek relationships that feature power and control over a person. This may produce a perverse satisfaction for the perpetrator, but a sense of being devalued for the victim.

Depending on early learning in their family, a person may repeatedly seek a familiar side in this type of transaction (controller or controlled), causing short-term excitement but eventual disappointment in the emotional outcome.

These patterns might be seen as reflective of poor self-esteem, and were probably learned by watching the adults in one’s childhood.

Would you sign up for your parents’ class in how to be married or how to raise a child? Bless them, but most of us would not.

The young child in effect says “so that is what love is – it hurts” or “that is how men treat women” or “pain and love are always mixed together.” Then, we simply act those patterns out, to our dissatisfaction and bewilderment as adults.

Some of us will take the absolute opposite position, in effect saying “I will never be like them in my life.” This position of determined decision-making is a reflection of personal resilience and ability to see alternatives to one’s early experience as a vulnerable child. 

When this happens, the child has often known a different adult role model. This typically involves a relative, neighbor, coach, teacher, friend’s family, member of the clergy, grandparent or health care professional who offers the child or adolescent a model for a different type of life.

The person says to themselves. “wait a minute, there is a better way and it looks like it would be a happier alternative to what I learned.”

Sometimes, religious belief systems can help one compensate for negative early experiences, thereby not repeating them. Or if the pain becomes too great, working with a competent mental health professional can help free one from self-defeating patterns.

So we might see self-esteem as having four primary components:

First, how do we evaluate and talk to ourselves about us?

Second, how do we behave in the world and does it promote happiness?

Third, do we treat fellow human beings as valuable and worthwhile entities?

Fourth, do we initiate and finish real world behaviors that involve success and accomplishment?

Regarding the latter, an unfortunate social trend today is to assume that everyone is valuable just because they showed up. While it is true that we all have intrinsic worth, not achieving anything real does not justify having positive self-esteem.

In schools, even given the difficult challenges of teaching, many educators may act like counselors whose job is not to educate but to repair a child’s poor self-image. It is understandable when the child’s pain is so apparent. 

While this is a noble intention, professionals may communicate that a child is valuable by virtue of being present. “You are wonderful just because you are you.”  This is a hollow gift devoid of real accomplishment.

We must learn to tie positive self-esteem to real world achievement.  Receiving a trophy for showing up or being on the losing team so you don’t “feel bad” is absurd. Part of trying harder is feeling uncomfortable and wanting to improve. That is a key motivator for progress in life.

Certain current political trends regarding entitlements, dependency on government and redistributing the fruits of the labor of others are another example of over-valuing those who produce little.

As this dynamic solidifies, people may become “deserving” and enraged if this demand is not met. Like an individual who expects the world to meet their needs because of their “specialness.”

So, the concept of self-esteem has been abused, with this disbursed by media folks who exploit a longing to feel better by cooing how great we are. True self-esteem derives from action.

If you are mishandling your life and feel bad about it, that is a good starting point. Give yourself a gift and use that realization to make positive changes.

If you are living a conflicted life, and you don’t make an attempt to improve, reconsider that decision. The next moment is a potential starting point. Always. Talk to a friend and ask for their genuine feedback about your choices.

Many in contemporary society disparage the idea of shame. But it is shame that can motivate us to improve. It is not to be ignored because in some cases it is well deserved. It is a signal to catch our attention.

If one feels ashamed at repeating a particular behavior that harms self or others, that can motivate the person to change it. Not always easy, but worth the effort. As is seeking help from a professional, clergy or trusted loved ones.

Socially, we are beset by individuals who publicly shame themselves, are celebrities and therefore are in the limelight.  They are well-known, might be wealthy and are adored by millions without the slightest idea who the real person might be. Some are even famous for being famous.

But, true positive self-esteem always involves actions of which we are proud, and improving the world around us, not simply parading in the bright lights and glitz of your “specialness.” 

So, these are some thoughts regarding the concept of personal self-esteem. Psychological researchers have tried to measure it, and there are some good scales that predict future behavior. The more positive or negative your view of yourself, the more likely that your choices will reflect that belief.

Some would say happiness is our absolute birthright. A nice idea, no? Some would say all the negative psychological gunk we carry is not truly ours. People from our early life dumped this on us, and we naturally absorbed it as kids, but as adults we can give it back and keep the good stuff.

It becomes a matter of getting rid of what you haven’t got. It never truly belonged to us. It was someone else’s problem and their confusion about who we truly were.

Positive self-esteem ideally derives from proper parenting, observable achievement, maximizing our unique potential and success in competitive environments. That is the nature of the world, and the sooner we learn this, the more prepared we and those we teach will be for the considerable challenges of tomorrow’s world.


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