Starting at the beginning: What is self esteem?
I believe good self esteem is having a sense that ones whole, real self has value.
What’s involved in developing good self esteem?
I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three elements of developing good self esteem. I’ll get to the other two in another post, but the first, and the foundation of good self esteem is being treated as valuable for our whole, real selves, and then incorporating that into how we think of ourselves, and treat ourselves.
How does this happen?
We learn to value ourselves by imitating others valuing us. Lucky ones of us learn it from our parents who treat us with value, just like we learn how to dress ourselves when they dress us. They dress us; we watch over and over, and then develop enough skill to try it ourselves. We practice and need help at first and practice more and eventually, we have taken the skill (the ability to dress or value ourselves) inside us and it lives there permanently.
Please note that repeated practice is an essential part of the process, and this is true when it happens with parents as babies and children and it’s true when we do it as adults too. We learn the skills we practice over and over and over.
What goes wrong?
[I’m going to use the word “parents,” but I mean whoever deeply influenced you as a child, including any caretakers, and siblings and peers can have a huge effect as well. Fill in whoever it was for you.] When parents don’t value us, or don’t show us they value us, or they devalue us, or even if they value us for one part of us, like how we look, or a certain talent we have, or the grades we get in school, we don’t incorporate a sense of value for our whole, real selves, so we don’t grow up with the skill of valuing ourselves. In fact, we are all hard-wired to imitate our parents, and parent ourselves the way they parented us. This is a good thing, when they parent us with unconditional love, are responsive to our needs and feelings, and nurture and protect us with compassion and wisdom.
How does that cause us to feel bad about ourselves as adults?
When parents devalue us by telling us we’re ugly, stupid, not good enough…or whatever, we parent ourselves with the same messages. Since we learn the skills we practice over and over—we get good at this. How many times have you practiced telling yourself you’re gross, or useless, or not good enough?
Similarly, when parents devalue us by ignoring and neglecting us, we parent ourselves by ignoring and neglecting our own needs, or acting as if we are invisible, or don’t deserve to take up space. When parents expose us to abuse, we often expose ourselves to abuse as adults. And when parents value us only for a part of us that they use to feel better about themselves, we grow up with terror and shame about not excelling in that area (for example, losing our beauty, or failing to be great in our area of talent), because we think that without it, we would go from being great to being worthless.
What’s the good news?
The good news is that we can re-wire our brains as adults, so if we didn’t get the valuing kind of experiences as children required for valuing ourselves, we can still develop the ability to value ourselves as adults. It’s never too late.