I see a lot of people with low self-esteem. I know my own self-esteem didn’t get a great start as a young child. Whilst there were a lot of happy memories, I grew up in a home with more negativity than affirmation. I call this the reverse ratio. I believe that every child needs the magic number of 7:1 positive to negative but unfortunately for many children it’s the reverse. Oftentimes this happens because the parents themselves haven’t got a positive view of themselves. How can you pass something on that you don’t have yourself?
I often wondered why I found it hard to speak up in front of a large group of people, whether it be to ask a question or even provide an opinion. It dawned on me that my father’s mantra when we had visitors was “children should be seen and not heard”. I also wondered why I constantly sought to achieve, to do things first and be the best at what I did. It came to mind that it may have been due to the fact that I was not affirmed as a child. I have no recall of being told by my parents that they were proud of what I achieved. Sometimes what we don’t get can be equally as influential in moulding our behaviours.
Our early experiences of socialisation come from what our parents teach us. They teach us what behaviour is acceptable, which are loveable, which are dangerous, which are morally wrong and which are annoying. We may be praised for appropriate behaviour and punished for wrong behaviour. Many of us experience more of the latter. Personality theorist Harry Stack Sullivan called these events “forbidding gestures“. For more on this see Matthew McKay & Patrick Fanning’s excellent workbook on Self-Esteem.
As McKay & Fanning go on to say “By design, forbidding gestures are frightening and rejecting. A child who is spanked or scolded feels the withdrawal of parental approval very acutely. He or she is, for a while a bad person. Either consciously or unconsciously, a child knows that his or her parents are the source of all physical and emotional nourishment. If he or she were to be rejected, cast out by the family, he or she would die. So parental approval is a matter of life or death to the child. The experience of being bad can be felt very deeply, because being bad carries with it the terrible risk of losing all support”.
We all grow up with emotional residues from the forbidding gestures. If they happen often they sink very deeply into our unconscious self, deeply affecting and wounding our core sense of who we are. Some call this the hurt and wounded child. The picture you have of yourself is the accumulation of all of the memories stored in your subconscious mind. Even though on a rational logical level, your conscious mind knows you’re a good and worthwhile human being, your subconscious mind is screaming at you all of those wounding experiences and memories from your childhood, that coalesce into the idea that somehow you are not good enough. Surviving then is all about striving, to be good enough.
It is no surprise that in my clinical practice I see a negative correlation between mood related disorders and a person’s sense of self. In other words, those with the most elevated depressed and anxious symptoms often also have very low self-esteem. For the most deeply wounded it can be a long journey to rebuild a stronger sense of self worth. As that builds, mood generally lifts. Good psychological support can sensitively guide someone through the process of healing the painful woundings. It takes time but it is worth the journey to a stronger, more confident and capable way of interacting with those that you love, and the world in general.