Kathi Whitten, LCSW - Individual, Couple & Family Psychotherapy

How well do we know ourselves? How did we come to understand ourselves as someone who…is generous or greedy, neat or messy, pleasing or frustrating to others, embarrassed by dimples or considers them an endearing part of their looks, often fails tests or almost always does well, and so on?

We come by these characteristics in a way that might surprise some people. Certainly, our enduring traits are a function of our own inborn and cultivated tendencies and temperament. But how is it that one person feels anxious over the same trait someone else feels good about?

Over the course of our lives we take in messages about ourselves from others concerning how we come across to them, then shape our sense of self and our corresponding behaviors to fit those messages! People are not aware of sending or receiving these “messages.” But they begin early. We say a baby has “father’s nose, mother’s eyes, aunt’s chubby cheeks, etc. Importantly, it is how often these messages get repeated, and encoded with subtle meaning that leaves their long-term impression. If that child later realizes that a parent absolutely hates the aunt—to which the child has often been compared—how does he register that message about himself? When parents focus on certain things they notice about their child, because they are qualities important to them, the child assumes that is “who” she is. When a parent continually comments on how sloppy a child is (while never noticing how curious and clever she is, for instance) the child is going to pick up the strong message of “I’m someone who is always sloppy” while the awareness of curiosity or cleverness will likely become background, not strongly registering in a positive way the child is likely to incorporate as a part of her “self.”

Much of who we understand ourselves to be was “given” to us over time by others. In time we can define ourselves as not being what others suggest about us. But small children find that difficult, as they depend on caretakers to provide everything for them. Few people realize that during these formative years, just as we provide nurture and shelter to our children, we also provide them with powerful but selective feedback that partially leads to their identity formation. They will understand themselves to be what others have subjectively responded to about them from infancy onward. Usually, this is positive—providing good, healthy self-esteem for children. But some children are raised with a lot of negative feedback. This can be devastating to a child’s sense of self that often leaves lasting pain and insecurity throughout life.

Psychotherapy is often helpful to adults who carry a lasting legacy of painful childhood messages and want to improve their self-esteem. They can examine early “messages” that may not be accurate about who they are in the present time, which may lead to feeling much better about themselves.

Kathi Whitten, LCSW Copyright 2008