We come to form our beliefs, including those about ourselves, through our life experiences. Of course, the beliefs we hold because of what has happened to us in life can be very inaccurate.
Experiences that we have early in life have a particularly strong impact on how we feel about ourselves, and, below, I list some that are likely to lead us to develop a feeling of low self-esteem, leading us to dislike ourselves, overly criticize ourselves, lack confidence, feel unlovable and believe we’re not interesting or important:
- our parents treating us as a constant disappointment in childhood.
- being bullied/ left out/ maliciously teased when we were at school.
- feeling, or being treated, like we don’t fit in at home – ‘black sheep syndrome’
- suffering prejudice and discrimination when we were children
- experiencing systematic and cruel punishment as children.
- being neglected when we were children (e.g. deprived of love, security, interest, praise etc.)
- having constantly to cope with a parent’s distress/emotional needs when we were children, at a cost to ourselves.
I elaborate on each of these below:
OUR PARENTS TREATING US AS A CONSTANT DISAPPOINTMENT IN CHILDHOOD:
This can include parents always putting our mistakes and weaknesses in the spotlight whilst simultaneously ignoring our strengths and the positive aspects of ourselves. It can also involve being constantly ridiculed and teased in a hurtful way ( my own mother referred to me as ‘scabby’, because, as a child, I had the nervous habit of picking at scabs on my arms and legs; and also ‘poof’, because I was highly sensitive ). Over time, it is all too easy to become conditioned into believing that there is something FUNDAMENTALLY wrong with us and that we are of no value.
BEING BULLIED/LEFT OUT/MALICIOUSLY TEASED AT SCHOOL:
We all want to be accepted by our peer group when we are young and developing our fragile and vulnerable self-concept. It is a human instinct, particularly pronounced during adolescence, to want to be accepted by the group. We evolved, as a species, after all, as social animals because acceptance by the group added to our chances of survival. It is, therefore, a fundamental psychological drive, created by millions of years of evolution, difficult (putting it mildly), therefore, to overcome.
Indeed, it is so powerful that it can lead to problems such as feeling a need to conform to group expectations even if it makes us uncomfortable (eg feeling a pressure to be confident and jovial when we actually feel depressed and anxious).
If we don’t conform to the expectations of the group (unless one is an exceptionally strong personality, which normally does not materialize until later in life) we may be rejected, bullied and cruelly teased and this can have a very damaging and lasting effect on our self-esteem.
FEELING, OR BEING TREATED, LIKE WE DON’T FIT IN AT HOME:
This is sometimes referred to as ‘being the black sheep of the family’. Perhaps there is something about us that does not fit in. An example might be the central character of the film, ‘BILLY ELLIOT’, who, at a very young age, decides he wants to be a ballet dancer much to the violent chagrin of his tough, alpha-male, former miner father (who would much rather see him incurring possible brain damage in the boxing ring). Or simply being the quiet one or the introverted one. Obviously, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being any of these things, but, if it makes us stand out in the family, we might be treated as odd, a misfit, strange, ‘not quite one of us’ and in some way deficient and of less value. Again, over time, this can significantly wear down our self-esteem and can lead to growing up feeling rather like a pariah.
SUFFERING PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION WHEN WE WERE CHILDREN:
There are many ways in which this can occur – I remember, when I was at school, a boy in my class who came from a very poor and not especially caring family; he was not properly cared for by his parents and used to turn up to school in very tatty and dirty clothes every day. Cruelly, he was nicknamed ‘Tramp’ by the other boys. Another boy, perhaps slightly effeminate, was always being called ‘Poof’. A third came from the travelling community and was called ‘Dirty Gypo’ and more or less completely ostracized. Children, then, through no fault of their own whatsoever, can become the focus of hostility and contempt. They also, of course, tend to be the most vulnerable, already struggling with self-image.
Such treatment, particularly if the child has a lack of solid emotional support at home, can have long-lasting effects on self-esteem.
EXPERIENCING SYSTEMATIC AND CRUEL PUNISHMENT:
If we are often severely and unfairly punished as children, we may come to equate the fact with meaning we must be a bad person, that we have somehow brought it upon ourselves, and that we deserve it. This, especially, becomes true if the punishment is inconsistent and unpredictable (eg more to do with the parent’s mood and lack of self-control than what the child has actually done), extreme and the child does not understand what he/she is supposed to have done wrong.
Also, more ‘subtle’ punishments, such as being ‘given the silent treatment’ ( my mother had this down to a fine art) can be equally damaging.
Such treatment is another very high-risk factor in relation to causing long-term and severe problems with the development of self-esteem.
BEING NEGLECTED WHEN WE WERE CHILDREN (e..g being deprived of love, security, interest, praise etc):
It is not just the presence of bad things in our childhoods which can affect self-esteem adversely, but, also, THE ABSENCE OF GOOD THINGS. These include praise, interest, affection, the reassurance of being loved, the reassurance of being wanted and reassurance of being valued. In other words, then, it is not just blatantly bad treatment which impacts adversely upon the child’s self-esteem, but, also, the missing fundamental good things.
HAVING CONSTANTLY TO COPE WITH A PARENT’S DISTRESS/EMOTIONAL NEEDS WHEN WE WERE CHILDREN:
Some parents are emotionally immature and, in a kind of role reversal, actually turn to their children for emotional support, as happened in my own case following my parents’ divorce when I was eight. Indeed, by the time I was eleven, my mother sometimes referred to me as her ‘Little Psychiatrist’ (encouraging me to continue in my rather bizarre role). This was,s obviously, a great psychological burden and caused me great worry and concern.
Also, if there is friction in the parents’ marriage or other pressures, parents can transfer their own distress onto their children and are more likely to become volatile, lose control, become prone to anger or withdrawal due to their own problems. Such deficient parenting, too, can affect the child’s self-esteem.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.