A brief psychology of self-esteem
What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem is just a technical word to refer to liking oneself. If we investigate this idea a little further, we can see that self-esteem comes from the capacity to like oneself in one’s true measure: to be able to identify one’s strong points and one’s weak points, and to be able to be reasonably proud of the former and tolerant with the latter. This means, therefore, being able to like what one really is, in a stable way.
Self-esteem also comes from being able to reach one’s goals, which need to be possible and motivating, and not so unreachable that they become crushing. In order to be able to feel comfortable with oneself, the distance between what one is and what one would like to be must be stimulating, not insurmountable. This is where phrases such as “where to put the bar” or be “up to the task” come from. If the bar is too high, it’s a source of constant frustration, if it’s too low, boredom takes over.
When one’s self-esteem is damaged, one can’t accept oneself, nor can one like oneself the way one really is. One will also tend to judge oneself very harshly, which will lower one’s self-esteem even more and will result in the creation of the vicious circle in which so many people who suffer from self-esteem difficulties find themselves in.
What are the sources of self-esteem?
Self-esteem has four different sources that follow each other in development and that combine once the person has reached adulthood.
The first source is the most uncertain of all since we do not have the means to observe it empirically; nevertheless, this source is hypothesized from the observation of the most primitive fantasies in adult patients. We consider that in every small baby there is a stage of self-satisfaction and feeling of absolute completeness in which the baby feels perfectly contented with herself and finds herself submerged in a state of undifferentiated bliss that she believes to be her creation. This state cannot be maintained, of course, without the very active participation of a primary caregiver that provides a sufficiently satisfying context for the baby, but she doesn’t really realise it at this stage.
The primary caregiver brings us to the second stage which is the massive investment of love that normal parents make in their baby; by loving her so much they provide her with a capital of affection towards herself that she will be well-supplied with for the rest of her life. It is important to note that for an exterior observer this first massive parental love is disproportionate to the baby’s reality but it is normal and necessary that it should be like this. We all need to be “her/his majesty the baby” at the beginning of our lives.
Little by little, as the baby grows, the parents’ enormous and undifferentiated love will be modified in function of the baby’s behaviour. By teaching the child the norms and the aspirations of the family and society (age appropriate, of course), the parents show the child, delicately but firmly, the path towards being acceptable in society and liked by others. This means that the child will have to give up being able to do whatever she wants whenever she wants if she wishes to be liked by her parents and others. This learning process leads to the interiorisation of the norms and aspirations of her family and society and these crystalize to form a moral consciousness. This moral consciousness subsequently rewards good behaviour with an inner feeling of well-earned pride, and punishes bad behaviour with an inner feeling of guilt or shame.
The fourth source is the most visible one of all, because it comes mostly from the outside, and it has to do with the validation-recognition that the adult individual receives from others. By acting in such a way that she is valued by the people that surround her, the individual will receive demonstrations of validation-recognition from others that will contribute to her self-esteem. When there are deficits in self-esteem, this fourth source will be the one that the individual tries to use the most in order to fill the inner worthlessness she feels.
Self-esteem disorders come from trauma that happen during the constitution of one of these sources of self-esteem –– the earlier the trauma, the more severe the consequences. Trauma can happen either by excess or by deficit, can be massive and sudden, but it can also be small and accumulative.
Psychologists and other mental health professionals have observed that self-esteem related problems have become more and more frequent over the last decades. On an emotional level, they manifest themselves by a lack of confidence in oneself, feelings of inferiority, a depressive affect (often unconscious), certain inhibitions, and constant comparison with others. On a bodily level, they manifest themselves very noticeably through all the eating disorders and non-acceptance of the body ––so frequent in Western society–– such as anorexia, bulimia, vigorexia and cosmetic surgery.
Since self-esteem disorders are particularly painful emotionally, they are often accompanied by compensatory behaviour that tries to reduce the bitter feeling of worthlessness or failure. All the bodily manifestations we have just mentioned are a form of compensation, one way or the other. On the emotional level, compensatory behaviour manifests itself frequently in an appearance of superiority, contempt for others, accumulation of wealth, extreme competitiveness, etc. Unfortunately, compensatory efforts only work provisionally and need to be renewed constantly in order to maintain the fragile equilibrium in which the individual lives.
Self-esteem disorders also come with a desperate and indiscriminate need to please others ––it’s an identifying trait of these difficulties–– which seriously compromises the individual’s freedom. Feeling that you have to please everyone all the time –– or feeling that you have to please enormously–– is not only condemned to failure but it also makes it impossible to take care of yourself since you are embroiled in what you think other people’s wishes are. Your true identity becomes hostage to the need to constantly mould yourself to others and this often results in chronic exhaustion and feelings of inauthenticity.
Such emotional precariousness explains why these individuals are often extremely sensitive to others’ reactions, which is sometimes beneficial, but more often than not they tend to exaggerate the importance of what they perceive in others.
Needless to say, all this is a question of quantity: naturally, we all want to please others and we all make certain efforts to adapt to others –– moreover, society and personal relations function because we do this. Difficulties only appear when it becomes excessive.
An aspect of the treatment of self-esteem disorders
People who suffer from difficulties in their self-esteem feel, consciously or not, deeply wounded –– this is where great sensitivity stems from. Because of this, the interventions of a psychologist must be even more tactful and gentle than they would normally be in order not to create new wounds. A psychologist treating someone who suffers from severe difficulties in their self-esteem will have to be able to create a deeply containing environment where the patient can feel safe enough to address painful wounds and begin the process of healing them.