One of my first memories was during summer holidays in Greece. I was just over three years old and my mother was teaching me how to swim. I remember turning my head often to check if my father was watching. He was sunbathing just a couple of feet away. I wanted to impress him with my newly acquired skill. I was enjoying learning how to swim and I was feeling proud of myself, but I also needed acknowledgment and praise from the significant people in my life.
According to Person-Centred theory, as children we all had a need to feel liked and appreciated. If this need was adequately met, we probably grew to like and to regard ourselves as worthwhile individuals. But if we did not get enough loving attention or if we received a lot of negative attention such as physical or emotional abuse or neglect, we may have grown up feeling inadequate. No matter what we achieve in life, we feel as if we are not good enough. We may develop a tendency to constantly seek affirmation from others in order to feel that we are a worthwhile person. And even if we do get other peoples’ admiration, any good feeling usually lasts only for a little while. This is because we have been alienated from what we ourselves value and instead seek to fulfil other peoples’ expectations.
But what if our parents or significant others only showed us love if we behaved in certain ways and withheld it if we behaved in others? The need to feel liked and accepted is so strong, that the child may learn to deny or distort the awareness of his or her own needs and feelings in order to conform to the parental expectations and thus gain their approval. Although my parents were not great at expressing warm feelings, they would assign great importance to academic achievement. I remember my father’s excitement when he would bring home the latest volume of the Encyclopaedia he was buying at the time or when he would talk about the importance of education. My mother was an English teacher, so you get the picture. I tried my best to read as much as I could and to study hard in order to get that much wanted acknowledgement.
Today I have four degrees, I have completed countless courses and I am always involved in some kind of training or seminar. Nothing wrong about that, right? Well, yes and…no. Yes, because the love of learning is something that I consider to be a great asset and a source of meaning and pleasure in my life. And no, because in the process of trying to gain approval by being ‘knowledgeable’, I significantly ignored other needs of mine, such as for fun, rest and social contact. But I also attached my self-esteem on this image of myself as a learner. I would not feel good about myself unless I did well at school, entered the University, finished my degree, went on to post-graduate training, completed my Masters, did a second Masters…The frustration of the need to be liked for who we truly are can lead to a false sense of self-worth and to low self-esteem.