What is self-esteem? One dictionary defines it as “a realistic respect for or favorable impression of oneself”. Many parents worry about their children’s self-esteem. I often hear them explain, “I don’t want to do or tell them something because I’m afraid to hurt their self-esteem”. The statement alone suggests that the child will not measure up. I ask, “Measure up to what or to whom?”
We cannot walk through life constantly comparing ourselves to others and always feel good about the results. I consider myself an intelligent woman and yet if I sat and compared myself to Einstein, I’d feel pretty inadequate. From the time we are babies we are being compared. I appreciate that it’s human nature to want to organize and categorize our lives and the people and things in it, but we seem to go a step further: we label our categories in terms of good and bad. The “good” or “bad” of course simply reflects things we personally like or dislike or things we perceive our society generally views as favorable or unfavorable.
If we allow people or things outside of us to define who we are, our sense of self is continually being redefined. There is little chance of feeling grounded or feeling self-acceptance and stability. Externally driven people depend on others to tell them how they measure up. An example might be a constant need for affirmation of how one looks (I need you to tell me I am Okay, otherwise I am unsure).
Internally driven people tend to set their goals for self-improvement on their own without having to compare themselves to others. An internally driven person might say “I know I am a good person and although I do not need you to tell me that to make it true, I do appreciate you saying so”.
Parents often miss opportunities to help children become internally driven. We let our fears get in the way of our children’s lives (e.g., I’m afraid you will not be safe walking to school. I know you are responsible, but my fear of losing you is stronger, so I will drive you. In driving you I may keep you safe, but I will teach you that I don’t trust you). We take away moments in our own haste or frustration (e.g., I do not have time to sit here and wait for you to tie your shoe, so I am going to tie it for you). Think of the pleasure we take away from this child in his/ her sense of accomplishment. The meta-message or the overall lesson becomes, “You are too slow. What I need is more important to me than witnessing you accomplish this task.” These are not the lessons we would intentionally want to teach our children. Sometimes we allow our tone (not what is said but how it is said) get in the way of open and honest communication. Our tone can very quickly turn into shame for the listener. Shame changes the message from “you did something stupid” to “you are stupid”.
Self-esteem is strongly linked to our sense of belonging. Belonging or the feeling of belonging is an irreducible human need. According to Adlerian theory our sense of belonging can be measured by looking at two simple components. One is the need to contribute and the second is the need to have our contributions valued. Children (people) need to have age appropriate chores and responsibilities and doing them is how they contribute to the overall wellbeing of the group or family. They also need to know that others in the group or family notice when the chores are done or not done. It is important for them to realize that doing these chores makes a difference – that it matters. Self-esteem comes out of knowing our selves. Knowing what we can do and how what we can do it matters.