I would like to write about an issue that comes up frequently in my sessions, namely, the question of where a “healthy” adult should derive their sense of worth (or self-esteem, loveableness, intrinsic value—there are many more names for it). The answer is obvious, right? We have all been told that psychologically and emotionally healthy people derive their sense of worth from inside themselves, not from external sources.
I am often struck by how often clients get down on themselves for wanting praise and validation from the outside world (their lover, boss, friend, teacher, parent, or child). Inevitably comes the question, saturated in shame: shouldn’t I be able to feel good on my own?
I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me. Pop psychology and the world of self-help blankets us in the message that we need to turn toward ourselves for happiness. Pursuing it elsewhere is a wild goose chase, they say. The irony is that this message itself elicits a great deal of shame among those who don’t know how to rely solely on themselves to feel good. This perceived deficit of character only reinforces their low self-esteem!
What are we missing in our discourse about self-esteem?
The Origins of Self Love
It’s true that people enjoy a more continuous sense of well-being and navigate life’s inevitable challenges and rejections when they have a solid, inner certainty about their worth. But this notion has become distorted by the cultural and economic forces of individualism and capitalism, such that now anyone who isn’t radically and completely self-reliant—both emotionally and financially—is considered weak or “needy.”
What no one ever talks about is that self-esteem begins with external validation.
As children, our developing selves are either cultivated or suppressed by our intimate caregivers. Think of a small child who cries with joy at seeing a dog on the street. One parent might respond by saying, “Wow! What a cute dog!”, joining with the child in her excitement. A different parent might say “That dog is filthy! Stay away from it.” In the latter case, the child’s spontaneous and authentic self-expression is met with disapproval, and her excitement evaporates. She learns to not express excitement anymore, or worse—to not feel it. Other times, children learn not to trust their own feelings and judgments.
Now imagine this sort of thing happening thousands of times over the course of a child’s development, around expressions large and small, trivial and significant. An attuned parent will give regular and accurate mirroring and praise, which will bolster the child’s confidence and sense of worth. This eventually becomes internalized, meaning that the child has a global, foundational and enduring sense of their own basic goodness.
A non-attuned parent—one who regularly ignores or criticizes—will raise a child who feels badly about themselves. Without intervention or a corrective experience, these kids grow into adults with low self-esteem. And these adults may try to find what they didn’t get in childhood (validation from outside themselves) from their work, their partners, or their communities. Can we really blame them?
Being vs. Doing
I think some of the confusion lies in another distinction: whether you arrive at an inner sense of worth because of what you do or because of what you are. It’s true that studies show that children feel better about themselves and are more motivated when they are praised for their effort, rather than for innate qualities such as being “smart” or “special.” But I would surmise that one of the reasons this is the case is because children feel good about being the kind of person who makes an effort, and that the value in being that kind of person isn't contingent on anything outside of their control. The praise of effort is translated into a praise of character, which makes them feel good about themselves.
If you suffer from low self-esteem, there’s a reason for it, and it’s not your fault. Nor is it your job to fix it on your own. Without a foundation of self-esteem, many people are not equipped with the internal resources to develop a loving attitude toward themselves. You can’t build something out of nothing.
So what can you do? With the help of a therapist and a particular theory of psychological development, there’s a pretty basic formula for success. I’ll write about that in my next blog post: How To Build A Self.