I am taking the opportunity of posting this on my blog as the author is an amazing mentor, friend, confidant and my brilliant editor on work related blogs!
Her writing is phenomenal… true life stories about everyday things we all deal with. Read more of her sometimes gut wrenching and sometimes tummy tickling posts here http://adelegould.com
Can One Really Learn How to Build Confidence and Self Esteem?
Is it possible to learn how to build confidence and self esteem? With determination and perseverance, the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’ I am living proof that having low self-esteem is not a life sentence!
Symptoms of Low Self Esteem – What Does It Feel Like?
For many, many years I was plagued with debilitating feelings of inadequacy – an all-encompassing belief that I was a flawed human being. I was quite sure that there was something inherently wrong with me … that I was born with a deficit which I was powerless to change. Mistrusting of my ideas and opinions, I kept them to myself and felt like an outsider watching the world go by without being a part of anything. Making decisions was agonizing because I was sure I’d make the wrong choice. I could never say no to a request, and was convinced that if people knew the person behind my smiling facade they would discover just how worthless I really was – and then disappear from my life. So I lived in fear of exposure, envious of those who exuded confidence, and always aware of a large, dark, empty whole inside of me – one that could never be filled.
In short – I suffered from extremely low self-esteem.
How Did it Happen?
For so long, the cause of my low self-esteem eluded me. Was I born that way? Did I enter the world with low self-esteem? Of course not (though at one time I would not have believed that). Newborn infants have squeaky-clean slates – no hangups, no lack of self confidence, no self esteem issues.
So what happened to me? How did I become so critical of myself? Was overcoming low self esteem even a remote possibility – or was I stuck with it forever? My climb out of that large, dark empty hole began in my late thirties, when – by sheer chance, an article on the front cover of a magazine caught my attention. The title of the article was “The 4 D’s of Emotional Abuse”. Intrigued, I bought the magazine.
It changed my life.
The article described four elements of parental emotional abuse (though this is equally applicable to adult relationships):
Deprivation – in which the parent does not express love or show affection towards the child, and offers little support or guidance.
Distancing - in which the parent is emotionally unavailable, and displays minimal interest in the child’s developments, milestones or accomplishments.
Depreciation - in which the parent is verbally abusive to the child, criticizing his/her accomplishments as falling short of perfection and condemning perceived misbehaviour with accusations of ‘you always say ….’ or ‘you never do …’
Domination – in which the parent tries to control every aspect of the child’s behaviour through the use of harsh threats and unrealistic punishments.
The Effects of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse leads to the destruction of self-esteem. Children who do not feel loved and cherished by their parents automatically assume that it is because they are not lovable. Hence a lifelong struggle to find ways of overcoming low self esteem,
As I read and re-read the article I realized that some of what is described in the 4 D’s mirrored my own experience as a child. What I later discovered was that emotionally abusive parents are usually people who themselves received inadequate love and nurturing from their own parents. So - whereas I initially felt anger towards my mother (the main disciplinarian in our family) – I was later able to feel great compassion towards her (and still do), since in those days there was scant information about abuse or its causes and treatment - and I believe that my mother, in the absence of the kind of information that turned my life around – was trying her level best to teach her children right from wrong. For her, there was nothing more important than her family, and – though she was unable to show it in ways I would have wanted - I know that she really loved me. I used to wish that we could have talked openly about all of this but now I am glad that we did not, since we did not need to have that conversation in order for me to heal.
How complex family relationships can be!
Understanding the ‘why’ however, was not enough. I needed to know how to fix it. I decided to get some professional help and was fortunate in finding an excellent psychiatrist whose gentle support, guidance and expertise helped me to uncover and revisit some of the painful childhood experiences that I had blocked out of memory until then – experiences which had led to my beliefs about myself as unlovable and unworthy. These therapy sessions helped me to challenge the validity of these beliefs, and I began to notice that the dark hole inside of me was gradually being filled by positive feelings about myself. I continued these sessions for about two years, and then tapered the frequency as I felt stronger and better able to manage my emotions.
Too Little Too Late?
Sadly, until I had began the healing process, I had parented my children as I had been parented. To this day it is painful for me to remember. I have since told them many times how sorry I am and how I wish I had known then what I know now about being a parent. What I needed them to know was that any negative beliefs they had of themselves were imposed by my then-unconscious mode of parenting, not by any deficits of theirs. My children are older now, some with their own children. I am now a loving parent who tries hard to provide the kind of support, understanding and encouragement that my children deserve I am truly fortunate that they do not hold my past transgressions against me. They know how unaware I was, how remorseful I am – and how different I am now.
Aside from having been in therapy, there were (and are) other confidence boosters which contributed to my improved self-esteem – factors such as having a successful career, being in a loving marriage and developing skills in my areas of interest. While these factors definitely contribute to my feeling of self-worth, I believe the reverse applies too – i.e. my improved self-esteem impacted my ability to have a successful career and marriage.
The Cycle of Abuse
The cycle of abuse is all too common. Some abused children rebel against their upbringing and develop a ‘lassez faire’ approach to parenting. Others (like me) might blindly repeat what is familiar to them, parenting as they were parented – until (if ever) something leads them to seek professional help. By that time the damage is done, and one can only hope that the children involved somehow break the cycle of abuse. If not, it is likely to continue into the next generation.
My wish is that parenting do’s and don’ts be taught in schools so that children have an opportunity to know that there is another way. If teachers were to address this, and get children talking about self esteem issues, I am convinced that the world would be a better please.
Can ‘Affirmations’ Improve Self Esteem?
Just a quick comment on the practice of ‘Affirmations” - statements of positive self talk which are reputed to improve self esteem. For example the person is supposed to repeat phrases like “I will be extremely successful” or “I stand up for myself” or “people look up to me and admire me”. Perhaps affirmations can be useful in certain situations, but what concerns me is that it gives people false hope. I fail to see how affirmations could change a lifetime of low self-esteem.
And Finally – What Does it Feel Like to Have Good Self Esteem?
I began by describing what it felt like to live with low self-esteem, and I posed the question “Can One Really Learn How to Build Confdence and Self Esteem?” There is no doubt in my mind that the answer is a positive one, but self esteem cannot simply be learned or taught in the conventional manner of learning. It is a process - and one that can take time. The time will pass regardless, so it makes sense to me to begin the process sooner rather than later.
This is what it feels like to have good self esteem:
I am able to view myself as a worthy individual. That is not to say that I think I’m terrific – or that I never struggle with some experiences of self-criticism. Rather, I believe that my ideas and opinions are worth expressing, that it is okay to be wrong and that I don’t have to be perfect. While I feel good about myself – about my strengths, abilities and accomplishments – I recognize and am able to deal with my limitations. I have learned to be assertive, to trust my choices and decisions, and to say no when I need to say no. I am less critical of myself, more confident and more resilient. There remain some areas with which I still struggle, but the struggle is generally short-lived and manageable.
“Self esteem is made up primarily of two things: feeling loveable and feeling capable” (Jack Canfield)