The advice around mental health is consistent. Don’t base your self esteem on external sources like approval or achievement. Don’t base your will to live on things outside of yourself, or other people. Don’t make your sense of self about how other people treat you. We’re encouraged not to be too focused on things we see as evidence of success or on the opinions of other people.
All of which assumes you have some kind of internal resource to draw on where you can realistically base those things. I blogged a while ago about what it’s like having nothing to reboot from, and this line of thought follows on from that.
Internal resources are something most people will build during childhood. The experience of feeling secure – practically and emotionally – is a key experience. The child who grows up feeling loved and wanted, respected, valued and worthwhile will internalise those values. If you grow up without those experiences, all of your sense of self worth depends on the conditions you are in, and the conditions placed on you. The less-functional childhood doesn’t offer unconditional acceptance, instead the child learns the terms on which they might earn praise, approval and other affirmations.
For some children, there is never the experience of being good enough. This can particularly impact on children who show early signs of being talented, gifted or unusually clever and who are then burdened with high expectations and come to feel inadequate as a consequence. I hear from my neurodivergent friends about the ways in which not being able to do what the neurotypical kids did impacted on their childhood. It’s not always about deliberate cruelty, control or neglect – although it can be. Well meaning parental ambition can really mess a kid up.
If you have nothing to reboot from, you may find it really hard as an adult trying to build a sense of self worth from scratch. But here’s the thing – happy children don’t actually do that by themselves. They develop self esteem from the supportive, encouraging feedback they receive from the people around them. Trying to grow confidence or a feeling that your life has meaning as a solitary, inner process is hard, perhaps impossible. The key is to find people who can help you with that.
Unconditional care isn’t something that only parents can provide to children. Your true friends will value you for who you are, and they won’t make you jump through hoops to win approval. There are many people out there who will treat you with respect and dignity simply because you exist. There are people who default to kindness. If you grew up without this, you may find it hard to trust or recognise, but that’s the inner work to focus on. Work out how to find the people who make you feel good about yourself. Start imagining that you are allowed to feel good and be happy, and that you don’t have to jump through hoops to earn that. Find the people who don’t want you to jump through ever more hoops.
Mental health is not something that exists in isolation. There’s always a context. How we treat each other has huge implications for our wellbeing. Some people grow up with the confidence to know that they deserve kindness and respect. Some people don’t start from there, and can struggle to imagine deserving to be treated well. No one can fix that on their own, but we can do a great deal together.