How low self esteem develops in childhood

In the video, I discuss Carl Rogers’ theory-of-self model, which explains how a gap between who we think we are —  and the who we think we should be — contributes to low self-esteem. Just about everyone has some unreasonable expectations of how we should be as a person, and this leads us to believe we’re not good enough whether that be not dynamic, motivated, intelligent, emotionally controlled, rich, successful, athletic or good-looking enough. 

Conditions of worth and self esteem

In the development of self-esteem, Rogers saw conditional and unconditional positive regard as key. Growing up, when our parents or guardians give us positive feedback only on condition we behave in a certain way, we become conditioned to think we’ll only be loved and valued if we meet, what Rogers called ‘conditions of worth’. These might include winning medals or getting certain grades. 

You often hear parents saying: “I’m so proud of you for winning that race, or passing that exam”, so rather than accepting the child for who they are – they’re accepted for what they’re doing. It also includes praise for behaving well, which means children suppressing certain emotions deemed undesirable, such as anger or feelings like jealously. And many parents do see it as their duty to ensure complicit behaviour in their children, like breaking in a horse, so a pattern of criticism evolves. And a recent study in America revealed a startling fact: 

For every one piece of praise they gave their children, parents criticised them eight times. 

Many parents do not accept their children as they naturally are, and parental love is conditional. Parents, often inadvertently, paint a picture of the perfect person – an ideal self – they want us to aspire to. But when our own natural temperament, our own uniqueness gets ignored or thrown aside in favour of becoming this ideal person, then the problems with self esteem arise. We develop according to others’ expectations and develop in a way that’s very different to the way we would naturally develop. So, as children we grow up feeling unable to perceive our own value and worth. This perfect, successful ideal self is unrealistic and when we fail to become our ideal self so the inner demons started to grow in our heads, shame, guilt, embarrassment, pride – these developed like mould on bread, so it’s not surprising we don’t always like what we see when we look in the mirror.  

Unconditional acceptance

This contrasts with unconditional acceptance – the caregiver accepting the child for who he or she is without reservation, without strings attached. They accept the child for who they are, not what they do.

All this and more is discussed in my online course on building greater self esteem and self confidence, How to Build Unbreakable Confidence.

Peter Willis,

Course tutor & co-founder of Unchainyourbrain.org – online courses for managers and leaders the workplace.

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