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Low Self Esteem & Family History

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Self esteem is the sensitive and fragile perception one has of their own self and their worth.

This encompasses a person’s right to be, to need, to love, to feel, to be wrong, and to emotional and physical safety. 

For most who have read this article so far there would be some general agreement, at least intellectually, that these things “ought” to be available to us all. Unfortunately, it is not what we think that makes the difference. 

People’s self esteem, like character and personality, are very much determined by the age of five or six. By this time, we will have learned what we are worth directly from the actions of our parents and family. 

For example, the baby who is left to cry for lengthy periods feels abandoned by it’s parents. This baby has no way to rationalise these circumstances - he or she can only experience them. The baby in this position cannot pack up or leave home, nor can it refocus attention to someone outside the family home in an attempt to be cared for in the way that they need. The resulting feelings that the child may experience are not something that they can stay present with either. 

In this one isolated example, the child may split from their own feelings so as to stay in the family and cope with the fear that results from being left. In the process of adopting this coping mechanism to survive, the child has learned that to get by it is necessary to give up part of itself. This is a betrayal of one’s own body that is unavoidable, unconscious and totally necessary for survival. To maintain this diminished degree of aliveness, the child’s body physically responds to the fear, by holding on in the joints or musculature of the body, depending on the age of the child when they experienced abandonment. 

As the child gets older the memory of the experience as a baby is recalled subconsciously in the body. It translates into an adult experience of self and the world that is distorted by the primary emotional injuries that occurred when they were very young. By this I mean that an adult coming from this kind of background as a child may experience “the world” as a hostile and unsafe place to be, thus making relationships a nightmare. This person is caught between needing to be loved and touched, as we all do, and not trusting to be in a relationship for fear of the childhood injury re-occurring. There is also fear of dependency which places the person in touch with the unresolved needs of the child. 

There are different degrees to which people may have felt abandoned and this is only one of the many ways that we may respond to injuries in the process of growing up. 

So to return to the case above, we are now looking at an adult who lives in what they may perceive as a hostile world where their need for love and understanding is great and yet their ability to permit intimacy is diminished. In regard to self esteem, in this case, there are no prizes for guessing that it will be low. 

The child’s understanding is that if there was no one there, then this somehow reflects their individual worth. I wasn’t loved translates into I am unlovable or I am not worthy. 

The above example that I have given is one of specific circumstances and of fairly specific reactions. I would like to now look across the board at some trusty parenting methods that can be guaranteed to cause real problems. 

If parents focus on who we should be rather than supporting who we are, then this can be a recipe for disaster. A lot of over achievers fall into this family scenario. Let me explain how this works. 

If parents make unreasonable demands of children in school, sport, sexual stereotyping, etc., then what the child learns is that who they are is not ‘okay’. To be ‘okay’ again, they will be forced to surrender themselves, as well as their own limits and boundaries, and perform in an ongoing struggle to be loved. Sadly you will see many people out there in the world who will physically and emotionally abuse themselves in the name of success. 

The double bind in this is that these people are secretly tied to their achievements by their need to be approved of. The sting in the tail for them is that success holds the illusionary promise that with their achievements, they will rise above their fellow man and thus negate their simple human needs and thereby avoid vulnerability. Of course, when their ego is defective, the adulation, fame, wealth or power will never quite be enough. The underlying belief that they are not okay remains intact and so does their means of dealing with it. This keeps them on the rat wheel by replacing one goal with another. 

A common practise with parents is to teach that there are ‘good’ children and ‘bad’ children. Obviously the ‘good’ children are the ones who do as their mums and dads tell them. The ‘bad’ ones, of course, are those that beg to differ. In a sense this stuff works for parents in the short term because fear of love being withdrawn as punishment keeps most of us in line, but it also makes bad people out of us. 

If who we are is essentially different to what it is that we are taught then there are only two ways to go.  

Repression of who we are which leads to loss of identity, low self esteem and rebellion which usually leads to a loss of emotional support that few of us can tolerate without even greater hurt, as there is an obvious low self esteem associated with rejection.  

I’d like to talk now about personal boundaries and the effect that verbal abuse and hitting have on self esteem. Remember always that the degree to which we are loved, respected and encouraged for who we are and not what someone else thinks we should be will have the greatest bearing on whether we consider ourselves to be worthy or not, thus making acceptance and compassion essential to our health. 

The first thing to remember about people is that we are all seeking love and acceptance and that in our own way we are doing the best we know how with the skills that we have. So when people yell or hit or abuse they may gain our compliance on one level, but that is nearly always at the expense of the relationship and our opinion of ourselves.  

When the primary relationship between parents and their children has been along these lines, what the child learns is that the physical and emotional boundaries that people with high levels of self esteem set as the acceptable standards of behaviour in relationships, do not apply to them. 

So the person who has been treated without regard learns that it is acceptable for other people to invade their space, whether that be emotionally, physically or sexually.  

Lots of cases involving battered or hen pecked people, men and women, come out of families where individuals are not taught or shown respect for their personal space. The end result is, of course, low self esteem, because it is difficult to value yourself if in fact you were not valued by your mum and dad. 

The links between low self esteem and crime are well documented. The main thing that stops most of us from committing unlawful behaviours against our fellow man is our conscience and compassion, our ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. This is not inherited, it is taught. 

As I said before, when people feel injured by another person, there is a break in the relationship and the trust that would otherwise naturally occur. If this has become a way of life for a child, then the chances of them growing up to have a little conscience compassion are greatly increased, because the relationship is not there. 

Sexual abuse is another strong contributor to low self esteem. When we are touched without permission, again the message is that my boundaries and needs are not important, otherwise why would someone do this to me? 

This is not necessarily a rationalised decision, but is learned instantly in the moment of abuse, particularly when we are young. Again the point being if we are not valued, how can we be valuable? 

I would go so far as to say that the majority of the world’s ill are a result of the emotional scarring that most of us have experienced and the consequent breaks in relationship to ourselves and others that follow. Every time we were forced to give up something of ourselves to remain loved, we have essentially betrayed the self, and without this self there frankly is no esteem.