Kathi Whitten, LCSW - Individual, Couple & Family Psychotherapy

Self esteem is something everybody intuitively understands, but can rarely define. It is that inner sense of worth, of goodness, of presence in the world that ultimately leaves us feeling confident in most situations, and allows us to enter into relationships and accomplish tasks with ease.

When our self-esteem is adequate, we are able to maintain a generally positive attitude, having the ability to handle most of the ups and downs of our lives.  It does not mean that there are never times when we feel shy, scared, angry, uncertain or hesitant. But on the whole, it is what allows us to operate in life without always second-guessing ourselves, or feeling inferior to others.

It is more of a background felt sense of value as a human being than something we are constantly aware of. In fact, when self-esteem is relatively good, it is not something that we usually notice. It’s more like having a smooth-running invisible instrument that silently and positively supports our thoughts, feelings, actions, beliefs and way of being in the world.

When self-esteem is lacking, people tend to feel self-doubt, sometimes being indecisive and not having confidence in themselves. They find it hard to believe in their own merit, and often do not fulfill their own potential. Sometimes there is self-sabotage or a fear of life (or its’ opposite—an aggressive attitude toward life). These attitudes are not the causes of low self-esteem; they are the expression of it.

Self-esteem begins to form in childhood. When children are responded to in nurturing ways, and in a manner that accurately reflects their needs and feelings, a good basis is laid that promotes later self-assurance and readiness to go into situations with confidence and self-respect. Such children will have a faith in themselves that arises as a result of others validating their basic communications. They incorporate the belief that their needs will be met, and then proceed to act as though they will be. But when children are consistently responded to in a manner that leaves them believing that their needs are either not understood or valued, they may not incorporate that deeper sense of personal worth and assurance that will translate into the unseen self-supportive quality.This is not to blame parents—there are times the most well-intentioned and conscientious parents may miss a child’s signals. But usually, a child can sense when people are trying to understand and respond, and that is what they need.

Infants come into the world with no expectations (except to be fed and sheltered) and so it is in those very early interactions that the first feelings of self-worth can emerge. They arise through the interactions and responses from others that seem to mirror their needs.

Self-esteem is probably always something that is initially shaped through interactions with others. A child with a good basis of trust in self and others will find it easier to withstand the slings and arrows of life, but that does not mean that children who do not get that early nurturing can never acquire it.Self-esteem can be improved and deepened at any stage of life. It happens naturally when someone feels a valued part of any group (family, school, work, friends, etc), where they are having basically positive exchanges with others that promote the feeling of being understood and affirmed.

But sometimes the deficits in self-esteem are so deep and enduring, that it requires psychotherapy to be able to acquire that deeper feeling of worth and value. If you feel that your self-esteem might be low, and holding you back from getting your needs met in life, it would be a good idea to schedule an appointment for an evaluation to discuss your concerns.

Kathi Whitten copyright 2009