This article, how self-esteem develops, was previously published on Dr. Lynn Friedman’s Carnegie Mellon University blog.
Self-esteem is develops early in childhood and continues to evolve through out the life span. Self-concept is intimately related to self-esteem. Self-concept refers to the way in which we see ourselves: emotionally, intellectually and physically. Much of our self-concept is established early in our lives (ages 0-6).
How self-esteem develops
A twinkle in the mother’s eye
We receive messages from our primary caretakers (typically our parents) and from others in our world’s regarding who we are and how we are seen. When we coo or take our first step, the twinkle our parent’s eyes lets us know that we are special. In an ideal world, our mother*, or our primary caretaker gets to know us. Over a short period of time, she (or he) can differentiate between an, “I’m hungry”, cry, an “I’m angry”, cry, a, “I want to play”, cry, and an, “I’m wet”, cry, etc. And, in general, she responds empathically to our cries. Feeding us, calming us, playing with us, and diapering us; she let’s us know that the world is generally a safe place in which we will get our needs met.
No twinkle in the mother’s eye
But, what if there is no twinkle in mother’s eye? What if she is so bound up in her own anxieties and worries that she’s inattentive to our needs? What if she has difficulties with her own self-esteem? What if she has trouble with substance abuse? What if she suffers from physical illness? Or, workplace stress? Marital troubles? Or chronic low self-esteem? In this situation, our self-esteem is likely to be compromised.
Mothers are not the only primary caretakers
Obviously, our mothers are not the only key players and there are many moderating influences. And it should be noted that key caretakers, or maternal objects, come in all shapes and sizes, including, fathers (who are often the primary caretaker in this day and age), grandparents, nanny’s, aunts, neighbors and even others. The key here is not who the primary caretaker is. In fact, research indicates that a child can get along fine with two mommies or two daddies, or grandparents, or any other sort of primary caretaker. However, the caretaker must be attentive, and emotionally bonded to the child. This is critical because of how self-esteem develops.
Self-esteem may still be intact with an attentive caretaker
Of course, many people successfully survive growing up with their self-esteem intact despite the absence of an attentive caretaker. Talk to them, however, and you will learn two things: First, you will find that another significant person took up the role of carrying them in their sights. This may have been an aunt, a teacher, a neighbor, an uncle, or someone else, anyone who conveyed to them that they mattered. That is, someone tuned into who they were and recognized them as special. Second, those whose mothers, or primary caretakers, were less available to them do suffer some self-esteem deficits; however, they may have found some adaptive ways to function in the world.
Of course, having loving devoted parents, of any stripe, is no guarantee that a child will develop a good self-concept. A number of factors influence self-esteem. Aside from the disruption caused by parents who are unavailable or ill, other factors can influence a child’s self-esteem.
The development of narcissistic difficulties
Earlier it was noted that, ideally, the primary caretakers are tuned into a child’s needs. This does not mean that they admire his every move. Rather, it means that they set age appropriate expectations. For example, a baby is applauded when he takes his first step. A three year old is cheered on when he draws his first scribble. However, under usual circumstances, no one would celebrate these same behaviors when they appear in a five year old. Instead, a parent might say, “you can do better than that”. Or, “come on honey, that’s baby stuff”.
What about the child who, in the parent’s eyes, can do no wrong? The parent worships the child’s every move. No matter how he behaves, he’s still a star? If this sort of overvaluation of the child persists – no matter how the child behaves – then, the child is at serious risk for developing narcissistic difficulties or, even, a narcissistic disorder.
Anyone who has ever truly gotten to know someone with a narcissistic disorder will appreciate that although they can be grandiose at times, people with narcissistic difficulties are quite insecure. Often, they can be quite self-sabotaging and self-destructive.
Typically, the caretakers of narcissists were either overly indulgent or neglectful. Although, in a sense these, two possibilities seem contradictory, it’s important to recognize that neither of these parental stances are realistic. A child should neither be fully indulged nor should he be ignored. Children who are treated in either of these ways end up feeling, correctly, that their needs were not properly met. Unconsciously, they may feel resentful and entitled.
Low self-esteem and difficulties with self-assertion
What about those folks with terrible self-esteem and difficulties with self-assertion who have seemingly no narcissistic tendencies, at all? Those individuals do have what we call, “narcissistic difficulties”, because, like the narcissists, typically, their parents did not tune into and recognize their specialness. Fortunately, in part, because we know how self-esteem develops with proper treatment, these individuals can be helped to develop healthy, self-esteem, and to live fulfilling lives.
The astute reader will, undoubtedly, recognize that we have not addressed the individual’s, physical and intellectual endowments. These are important, too. A child with unique gifts in these areas may get recognition and appreciation from others. Hopefully, they will appreciate him not just for what he can do but for who he is. However, if this is not the case, if the child is recognized for what he can deliver rather then for who he is, his narcissistic vulnerability will be further exacerbated.
Similarly, a child with physical or intellectual limitations, will be similarly vulnerable. He may be belittled or devalued because of his deficits or he may be over-indulged. Either of these approaches can lead to narcissistic difficulties.
Self-esteem and narcissistic difficulties are treatable
Decades ago, many psychoanalysts and psychologists viewed these individuals as untreatable. Fortunately, over the years, psychoanalysts, psychologists and other mental health professionals have become increasingly sophisticated as to how to help people with these difficulties. With psychotherapy or psychoanalysis , many of these people can be helped to develop mutually-satisfying, committed relationships and to have fulfilling lives. A first step to getting help is to seek a comprehensive psychological evaluation.
Over the years, I have worked with individuals with substantial self-esteem deficits. Through intensive psychodynamic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, I have found that they can be helped.
* Obviously, our mothers are not the only key players and there are many moderating influences. Key caretakers, or maternal objects, come in all shapes and sizes, including, fathers (who are often the primary caretaker in this day and age), grandparents, nanny’s, aunts, neighbors and even others. The key here is not who the primary caretaker is. In fact, research indicates that a child can get along fine with two mommies or two daddies, or grandparents, or any other sort of primary caretaker. However, the caretaker must be attentive, and emotionally bonded to the child.
If you are interested in seeking evaluation, psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, with me, feel free to call: 301.656.9650.