The way we predominantly think and feel about ourselves constitutes our self-esteem. We are all aware of fluctuations in our self-esteem and obstacles that we need to overcome to maintain the sense of our value and worth. Yet, we have an underlying self-esteem that is relatively stable. If our underlying, more permanent sense of our own worth is mostly negative, we will find it more difficult to deal with criticism, failures, rejections and disappointments and it will influence our relationships. For those fortunate to have built a healthy sense of worth, criticism and failure will be less devastating and their chance to form healthy relationships will be much better.
The deepest roots of our self-esteem is formed during childhood causing adults to have an underlying sense of their worth. In order to have a realistic and mostly positive sense of our own worth specific experiences are needed during childhood. Self-esteem can be seen as a deep memory of being loved and accepted for who we really are (not for who our parents wanted us to be). The best guarantee for the development of positive self-esteem is secure attachment and parental love. Children cannot develop self-esteem in a vacuum. We need experiences of being genuinely valued, cherished and respected to develop a sense of our own worth.
During the child’s earliest development the child’s self-experience is almost totally dependent on the nature of the mother-infant relationship. The well known pediatrician Donald Winnicot believed that the child’s first view of himself is the reflection of what he see’s in his mother’s eyes. The mother’s eyes acts as a mirror in which the child see’s himself in a specific way. If the child see’s reflected in his mother’s eyes love, pleasure and adoration it starts building a sense of the child’s worth. Sadly, if a child mostly experiences his mother as angry, unhappy, anxious or depressed it is very likely that the child will (over time) come to see himself as the cause of the mother’s sadness, irritation or anger. Infants have a high need for security. If their needs are well met and they mostly feel secure and loved the road towards a healthy self esteem will be easier. Over time all young children have to negotiate the awareness that they have loving and hateful feelings towards their mothers and that their mothers can be loving and frustrating. This reality can be difficult to deal with. If their experience of their mothering is mostly positive it will lead to a healthy, robust and realistic sense of their worth and goodness. A secure attachment to a consistent and available mother is very important to the developing child.
During the second year of life the little toddler becomes painfully aware of his/her relative weakness, dependence and insignificance. Because this can be painful it can lead to compensatory fantasies of omnipotence and grandiosity. With adults who could not develop a healthy sense of their own worth these compensatory feelings of grandiosity and overvaluation of themselves can be apparent. During this phase the developing child needs parents to praise and admire what he can do. Lavish praise and admiration for every little accomplishment is needed to build a healthy self-esteem and will not lead to an overvaluation of the self. It is the absence of consistent admiration, praise and love that creates problems in the development of healthy self-esteem.
Parents’ feelings and responses to children’s gender will further contribute to their sense of worth. Even subtle responses to a child’s gender can contribute to a child’s developing gender identity and self-esteem. If a child has a healthy relationship with the same-sex parent it enhances their identification with that parent. “I am just like my mommy/daddy”. A healthy identification with a loved and admired same-sex parent can be another stepping stone towards a healthy sense of a child’s value. These feelings can counteract negative feelings of inferiority that we all have to negotiate as we deal with rejections and failures.
Young children are highly dependent on external people for their self-esteem. Over time and with various experiences in their relationships to their parents they develop an internal sense of their worth. When children enter the external world (often when thy start school) they already have an internal sense of themselves. If their experiences have been mostly of frustration of needs, disapproval and criticism their internal sense of themselves will be negative and they will be highly sensitive to criticism (including self-criticism) and failure. Now the child’s interaction with other adults (teachers etc.) and the child’s comparison of himself/herself with other children will start impacting on their evaluation of their worth, but by now the deepest roots of the child’s sense of worth is already established.
A deep sense of a healthy positive self-esteem is formed in our relationships during early childhood. For those not fortunate to have had experiences that fostered the development of a positive self-esteem a life-long feeling of worthlessness and undervaluation of themselves can be difficult to deal with. Some people compensate for a poor self-esteem with fantasies of omnipotence and grandiosity and this causes other problems in their functioning and relationships.
Insight into the causes of our lack of self-esteem and loving relationships in adult life can facilitate the improvement of self-esteem later in life. But, like most things associated with mental health, it is not that easy to repair damage done during childhood.