In a previous article I discussed how in our attempt to gain acceptance and love by the significant people in our lives (usually parents), we adopt some of their values and try to meet their expectations. I will now use an example to illuminate the journey from low self-esteem to unconditional self-acceptance and confidence.
If as children we were neglected or punished when we expressed our needs, we may have adopted an attitude that our own needs do not matter, that they are not as important as those of our parents, to whom we depend for our survival and whose approval we desperately need. We may have even tried to deny that we had needs altogether. But the more we prioritise other people’s needs, the less able we become to recognise our own needs.
As a result we started judging ourselves as being ‘bad’, ‘wrong’ or ‘not good enough’, whenever we found ourselves thinking, feeling or behaving in ways that reminded us that we do have needs and desires. Depending on how automatic, persistent and rigid these self-judgements are, we may experience varying degrees of shame. And chronic shame can be an extremely painful and debilitating emotion. It can stop us from going for things we truly desire and it can sabotage our potential to be the persons we really are or can be, thus fuelling a vicious cycle of painful feelings of worthlessness and even hopelessness. We may get depressed or try to avoid the pain by leading a self-limiting life. We may even attempt to deny or numb the shame with excessive eating, drinking, working or any other compulsive or addictive behaviour.
All this may sound negative, but the good news is that we don’t have to keep living with the pain and limitations of low self-esteem. Even though sometimes we may think ‘this is who I am and there’s nothing I can do to change’ (a belief that is very much an expression of low self-esteem), in my personal and professional experience there is always hope. For example I worked with people who for many years tried to numb this pain with heroin or alcohol (two of the most highly addictive substances) and who with the right support managed to turn their lives around. Such change may require courage, persistence, time and resources. But I know of too many individuals that overcame low self-esteem, to consider giving up hope even for the most shy, withdrawn or self-sabotaging person.
So what is the antidote to low self-esteem? How can we move away from a place in which our self-acceptance is so limited and conditional to some particular way of experiencing ourselves?
It is important to recognise that low self-esteem has been the result of a defensive strategy we developed in order to protect ourselves from further abuse, abandonment, complete self-rejection, despair or psychological disorganisation. It is an expression of the intelligence and adaptability of our organism. We may have gone through the following process: ‘I am only acceptable if I have no needs. Therefore, whenever I need something, I will judge myself negatively for feeling like this, in order to force myself to continue acting as if I have no needs. That way I will protect myself from being further rejected, abused, neglected etc’. Such a recognition, that low self-esteem is a creative way of our organism to survive physically and/or psychologically, can allow us to stop judging ourselves for judging ourselves (or feeling ashamed for feeling ashamed). It can be the beginning of breaking the vicious cycle of low self-esteem.
The healing process necessarily involves reviewing the image, the perception we hold of ourselves (in this example, that we have no needs or that our needs are not important). Because no matter how much we try to convince ourselves and others that we have no needs, the reality is that we do have them and that we will experience them in some way. Therefore as long as we cling to that image of ourselves as having no needs, we will not be able to fully accept ourselves, because our experiences will keep contradicting it and we will keep judging ourselves. We need to start accepting ourselves as persons with needs.
This is a relational perspective on the problem of low self-esteem. Therefore the solution to the problem will be a relational one. In Person-Centred Therapy, the relationship is the therapy. Or more accurately a specific way of relating that aims to create the optimal conditions for personal growth. In this kind of relating, the therapist aims to enter as fully as possible into the client’s inner world in order to understand how they perceive themselves and the world ‘from the inside’, the way they are experiencing things. When this is done in a genuine way, it inevitably results in the therapist experiencing an acceptance of the client as a person who is doing their best to survive and grow, given the circumstances they found themselves in. This does not mean that the therapist necessarily agrees with or approves of every view, choice or behaviour the client expresses. The acceptance the therapist is experiencing is based on a wider existential stance and belief of the Person-Centred therapist that we are essentially social beings and that any self-destructive or anti-social behaviours are the result of psychological damage. Damage that can be reversed if we are offered a climate within which we can grow. If the client is able to perceive even a small amount of the therapist’s understanding and acceptance and feel received in such a way by her, positive personality change is inevitable.
In such a relational environment we can experience ourselves as having needs (or whichever experience we learned to deny or distort in our awareness) and still be accepted. Then we can tentatively start accepting more and more of ourselves. Having the whole range of our experience accepted, we are forced to challenge the ways of being we have developed in order to gain love from significant others and we are empowered to drop the ones that do not serve us well, in this instance low self-esteem. Therapy can help us see more clearly and acknowledge our self-concept and our self-judgements and how these are limiting us. We can then reflect on them and check for ourselves to what degree they are true or not and if they are useful or not. The grip that self-judgements have on us gradually becomes weaker and weaker, as we create wider, more flexible images of ourselves.
Of course therapy is not always enough to promote self-esteem if the conditions of a person’s life are strongly contributing to the opposite. Equally true is that a person’s self-esteem can increase through engagement in activities other than therapy. Personally I gained a lot from distancing myself from settings and relationships that were posing conditions damaging to my sense of self-worth. Also from writing, physical exercise, meditation and yoga. But these are all topics to be covered in future articles.