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The Importance of Self-Esteem

Recently, I had a professional appointment with a surgeon friend and we got into an interesting discussion about self-esteem. My friend made the statement that self-esteem had to be earned. He shared a personal example that when he plays tennis with his teenage son, he never lets his son win, ignoring his wife’s idea that letting his son win once in a while would somehow benefit his son’s self-esteem. My friends’ theory is that his son’s self-esteem would be better developed by not feigning defeat. I knew my friend was confusing goal achievement and success with self-esteem, but I did not want to challenge him too much at that particular time. He was operating a sigmoid scope, and you know where that goes. My better judgment was not to upset or rile him an awfully lot at that moment. Neither was I in a good position to carry on a meaningful discourse with him. You know no eye contact.

Simply put, self-esteem is the sense of how much one likes, or dislikes one’s own self. Self-esteem is a very real feeling directed totally inward, holding more power over us than the feelings we have for other people, or that they have for us. Good, healthy self-esteem is responsible for helping us achieve our goals, and to survive and recover from disappointments and failures. The direction of our self-esteem begins at birth, if not before. Throughout infancy and childhood we receive millions of cues from all the important adults around us that reflect how they feel about us and what they think about us. These adults are typically our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, ministers and teachers. These people hold enormous power in our developing self-esteem. Our perceptions of how these people feel and think about us become internalized in our minds as facts about who we really are. Literally, everything a child hears, sees and feels from those around her/him has an impact on that person’s self-esteem, and their closely related self-concept. By adolescence, the positive or negative direction, and the degree of one’s self-esteem are set for an individual. The importance of healthy, non-abusive relationships with those significant adults in our childhood cannot be overstated. How can adults contribute to healthy self-esteem in children?

Respect a child’s boundaries. This is the absolute, essential foundation for good self-esteem. Never touch a child inappropriately and respect when a child does not want to be touched, held or kissed. Respect a child’s desire to distance some and be alone when he/she feels the need.

Respect what a child is thinking and feeling. You have to spend a lot of time really, truly actively listening and understanding what a child is experiencing. A child needs to know someone is there who understands. You don’t necessarily have to do or change anything.

Respect the child’s decision-making ability and judgments. Spend lots of time helping a child to understand all aspects of a decision, pros and cons of all the options, and then let the child reach his/her own decisions. Of course, if the child’s safety is at risk, you need to intervene.

Don’t be overly controlling. Anything that is forced fights back..

Be open. Beyond the field of right-doing and wrongdoing, there is a field. Meet your child there and really get to know each other. Don’t get hung up over what is right and wrong or good and bad. Focus, instead, on what is productive or nonproductive, helpful or unhelpful, healthy or unhealthy. Show by how you act and what you say, that your child can feel safe and comfortable talking with you about anything.

Always be honest, never lie to a child. It’s all right to say you would prefer not to discuss something, but explain why.

Be consistent in your emotional reactions and responses to a child.

Encourage the child’s creativity. Praise your child’s creative expressions. It’s really OK to color outside the lines, no matter what all of our first grade teachers told us.

Avoid shaming and embarrassing the child. Discipline is really about teaching, not always punishment.

Make sure your own life is healthy, happy and whole. Being a good role model is still the best way to teach.

The most wonderful gift you can give a child is not to make him/her a “human doing,” living to fulfill your own goals and expectations, but to facilitate the child becoming a “human being,” fully aware of her/his own life experiences and following his/her own path in life. I see so many people in my practice who, at the age of 40 or 50, say, “I’ve spent my whole life doing and achieving what other people expected of me. I don’t know who I really am or what I’m really all about.”

If you are among the many people who did not grow up in an environment that resulted in healthy, positive self-esteem, can you get it later in life? You sure can, but it takes work. The first step is to realize what internalized concepts you have about yourself that are not valid. Then you unlearn them and replace them with valid, healthy concepts. Gradually, your self-esteem improves as you come to believe new concepts about yourself. A therapy process can help you recognize negative and destructive self-concepts and replace them with positive and constructive self-concepts. Books that contain daily affirmations can be helpful, also.

By the way, would you let your child beat you at tennis? Why don’t you discuss this issue over dinner tonight with your children!

– by G.H. Dornblazer, M.D.

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