Tag Archives: self esteem

Self esteem and childhood

Most people develop their self esteem in childhood. A child who is loved, praised, supported and encouraged will have a sense of their own entitlement to exist. Many children however get their self esteem crushed early, or never get to develop much sense of self worth. Obviously, abusive families will damage their children, but there are other sources for this, too.

Many families don’t set out to harm the next generation, but pass on family truths, stories and patterns. They may think they are protecting a child by stopping them from getting unrealistic ideas, above their station. They may have a child who doesn’t fit the family narrative about what’s ok – a queer child, a left handed child, a neuro-divergent child, a child who is too quick, or too slow, or thinks too much or moves too much… Landing in a family that cannot understand your very nature does not make for a good start in life. There’s no malice here, but incomprehension can be pretty damaging.

I’ve met adults who were told at school they were stupid, or lazy, and didn’t get a dyslexia diagnoses until much later in life. I’ve met kids who were set back because no one realised they needed glasses. I’ve also met a lot of kids who had clearly learned some really unhelpful things at home – violent kids, and kids so spoiled they didn’t know how to deal well with anyone else. I’ve never met an ugly, useless or evil child, but I have met plenty of kids who were either treated that way, and thus growing into those roles, or learning problematic ways of being.

We’re learning from the moment we’re born, if not sooner. Every sound and movement from the beginning shapes our sense of the world and our ideas about who we are. Well meaning families can still produce children with no self confidence. Families who take against a child can do massive damage.

As an adult, there’s nothing you can do to go back and change your beginnings. Trying to talk about it with those who were there isn’t always helpful. But I think trying to understand the mechanics can be good. If your family didn’t allow you to grow up happily as yourself, trying to understand why they did that can be productive. It’s easy to end up with a short answer of ‘I wasn’t good enough’ but I invite you to consider whether you can imagine another human being who was not born good enough. If your shortcomings feel vague and hard to pin down, if you just, for some reason, didn’t seem to deserve love, or attention, support or praise then it probably wasn’t about you. It should have been about you, of course.

If you take out the assumption that there was something intrinsic in you to explain why you didn’t have a good experience of growing up, it becomes easier to see what was going on. It can be much easier to let go, when you can find a different perspective on this. It can be easier to forgive, where that’s appropriate, to recognise abuse, where that’s the size of it. The emotional neglect of a child is a form of abuse. It may be that your parents in turn were emotionally neglected and don’t even know where to start. Sometimes these things have their roots deep in our ancestry.

Tell yourself a new story, about how you were as inherently acceptable as any other child ever born, but your environment didn’t really work for you. Imagine what the right environment for you would have looked like. Consider how you can make that for yourself, now. Do some of the things that were missing. Find people who can play the roles you need people to play. Know that growing up feeling like a failure doesn’t make you a failure, and is not a truth about the sort of person you are.


Re-personing

A person who doesn’t get their basic needs met can experience a loss of personhood as a consequence. If it starts in childhood, the sense of not qualifying as a proper person entitled to basic things can be hard to shake. Everything I’ve read about self-esteem has talked about how the individual with low self esteem has to develop more of it. Many people seem to assume that self esteem is natural and innate, and I think it isn’t. For most of us, how we feel about ourselves is influenced, if not defined by what we learn from our environments.

Developing self esteem is not something most of us can easily do alone. It is a process of building a sense of being a proper person deserving of all the things proper people get. What’s needed here, is a process of re-personing. Or for some people, getting to become a person for the first time.

If you are involved with someone who is de-personed, this will take time to change. A few positive comments here and there won’t fix things. They won’t magically change in face of a few small gestures. It’s important not to get cross with people if they are slower to re-person than you think they should be. It can take years of persistent, positive feedback to help a de-person become a person. They will likely have little confidence in themselves, they may be pessimistic, and from the outside their sense of self may look crazy. If you blame or shame them for this, you will add to the self esteem problems.

From the inside, it can be difficult trusting anyone who is positive. You may feel like they are setting you up to fail, or mocking you, or over-estimating you. Their positivity may seem like a build up to you inevitably letting them down. It’s hard to get past these things and it takes time. An evidence based approach here can work well – gather data on what actually happens. It won’t help that if you have low self esteem, your mistakes and messes will look bigger than your successes, but if you can identify successes at all, you’re under way.

If you’ve taken a serious emotional battering, you may feel that thinking well of yourself is dangerous. If you’ve been knocked down for being happy, for success, for getting too big for your boots and ideas above your station, the idea of good self esteem can itself be fearful. If you think that treating yourself as an ok person will attract violent pushbacks and emotional abuse, it can feel safer to stay with hating yourself. It takes time to learn how to trust other people not to do this to you. It takes courage to give people a chance to prove that they won’t knock you down as soon as you try to stand up. If you aren’t in a safe environment, you may be right to keep your head down.

We all need to spend most of our time in places that allow us to be people. We need room for our own feelings and responses, for our basic needs, and for a few wants and desires as well. We all need to feel safe and respected. If someone has robbed you of your self esteem, growing a new one is not a quick or easy process, but the thing to remember is that it can be done, and that you do not deserve to feel worthless.

If your cock-ups are normal, human mistakes – poor judgements, misunderstandings, over enthusiasm, insufficient knowledge and so forth, you do not deserve to be knocked down. There are worthless people amongst us, certainly. They spend their time on deliberate malice and cruelty, knocking down others, taking what they aren’t entitled to, grabbing and wounding as they go. And even in those cases, a punishment involving the denial of basic needs doesn’t seem like a good answer. If you’ve not deliberately harmed anyone else, you certainly don’t deserve to be treated like some sort of criminal.


Identifying your basic needs

One of the things that goes with poor self esteem is struggling to get basic needs met. It can be both a cause and a consequence of the esteem issues, creating vicious circles from which it is hard to escape.

People with good self esteem feel entitled to have their basic needs met. If their needs are not met, they treat it as a problem. For the person with poor self esteem, not getting your needs met can be evidence that you don’t deserve the basic care others receive. It can be proof of not being good enough. It can seem reasonable, if you feel you don’t deserve to be well treated. If you’re always told to put others first, if no one around you treats you like you matter, if your needs are minimalised, ignored, or worse yet, laughed at, this is difficult territory.

There are some basic things that all humans need. We need rest, food, and shelter. Anyone with any mobility needs opportunities to move. We need stimulation and interest in our lives. We need to feel valued and accepted. If you are denied something basic it can erode your confidence that you deserve any of the most basic things. Confident people tend to take what they need, or demand it, and make a fuss when basic needs aren’t met. People with low self esteem can find it hard to flag up such problems.

Whether the problem exists in the current environment, or in the past, is well worth a look. If you find it hard to express need or to raise it when needs aren’t met, there’s probably a history to this. At what time in your life were you denied your basic needs? If you can identify it, this helps greatly. If you are still in that situation, it is, I promise you, the situation that needs to change. Ask why it is hard to seek help, or to make sure you get your needs met. Ask what or who you are afraid of. Ask what expectations you have, or think others have.

The most fundamental need of all, is the need to feel entitled to the basic things that keep humans functioning. If you don’t feel entitled to be treated like everyone else, this is a tough thing to overcome. I think it helps to figure out why this is the case. If you’ve got anyone you think is on your side, talk to them. If you have trouble thinking about what you would need, think of someone you love, and then think about what you would want for them in the same situation. It can be a good way of going around an issue.

If your self esteem has been damaged such that you struggle to get your basic needs met, then one of the things you need is a kinder and more supportive environment in which you can build a better sense of self. Move towards the people who treat you well, and do what you can to get away from the influence of anyone who treats you as though you do not deserve the most basic things. No one develops poor self esteem alone. It isn’t a failing on your part. It isn’t something inherently wrong with you, it’s something born of a context. If that context is in your past, you have a better chance at letting it go and rediscovering yourself. If you are in a situation that is sapping you, it may be harder to get out or to seek better spaces, but I urge you to try, and that no one, ever deserves to feel worthless.

If you find you are living in an abusive environment that you’ve tolerated because you thought you were worthless, please take note: Leaving is the most dangerous time. When you leave, you are at greatest risk of violence. Get help. You deserve help, and help can be found. Talk to the police.


You have to love yourself

The oft repeated ‘wisdom’ that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone else enrages me. It’s wrong, it simplifies something really complicated, and adds pressure to people who were already not feeling good. Lack of self love goes with lack of self esteem and confidence. It’s a likely consequence of abuse – and especially of growing up in an abusive context. The people most effected have likely spent chunks of their lives, if not their whole lives, being told they are worthless, not good enough, not able to do the things. And then some twat swans in with their meme and stabs you with it.

I’ve spent most of my life dealing with self-hatred. It has not been pretty. Alongside that, I loved wholeheartedly, intensely for the long term as a child, as a teen and as an adult. I do not find it difficult to love other people, places, creatures, books. I am not happy about being told that this isn’t real or happening – the implication of that whole suggestion that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone invalidates my experiences.

In the last few years I’ve managed to deal with the self-hatred and get to a place of mostly being ok with myself, mostly being able to accept myself and my limitations. This is not the same as self love. The idea of self love still leaves me feeling queasy and in danger. But, self-okayness means I’m not constantly beating myself up, and that’s liveable with and good enough. I have not noticed any changes at all around my capacity to love anyone else.

The person who cannot love themselves may find it hard to accept and trust love from other people. That has a huge impact on relationships. It is not easy (and I speak from experience here) to love someone who thinks they are awful. They may reject or resist you because they don’t know how to make room for what you feel. They may desperately need to be loved, but may not be able to let it in. They may love you in turn, but their inability to accept love and their own self loathing may lead them to sabotage the best things that come their way.

The person who cannot love themselves may have some really distorted relationships. They may feel most at ease when lavishing their love, energy, resources etc on someone who treats them with disdain. They may feel safest when not loved in return. It’s easy to stay in harmful relationships that will further damage your poor self esteem if you have such low expectations.

It takes a lot longer and a lot more effort to learn how to do relationships well, if you aren’t in a good relationship with yourself. It requires some really good people in your life who aren’t expecting you to just make them feel comfortable. People who pressure you towards self love will say they want to help, but it’s a basic refusal to accept you for who you are and where you are. That doesn’t build confidence or self esteem. If you have to fake things to be tolerated, the self-loathing will grow, hidden away, and get worse.

If you deal with someone who cannot love themselves, telling them to love themselves won’t save them. Having come at this from all angles, the answer is to love them anyway. Don’t ask them to change, accept them. Love them as best you can, and don’t take it personally when they don’t respond in more normal ways. If you can do that, and if they will let you, then you may eventually get them to a point where they can believe that you care for them, love them, value them. When they get there, they may be able to reassess themselves in light of your care.

Lack of self-love doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It will have been shaped by experience, or by perception of experience. It doesn’t change quickly, or on demand, or without something to change the story of the person who feels themselves unloveable.

You do not have to love yourself in order to love other people. But, if you can get to a place of being ok with yourself, comfortable enough in your own skin, not punishing yourself, that’s good enough. It makes everything else easier. Acceptance is key to healing this stuff, and people who don’t accept you are not actually helping you.


Depression and exhaustion

Lack of energy is often treated as a symptom of depression, when a person is depressed, but I am entirely convinced that exhaustion is a major cause of depression. Often it seems like depression is understood as an internal event, but my experience is that it is often caused by external things. We make the problem, and the solution personal because looking at the collective implications would be hugely political.

Over worked, over stressed by increasingly difficult commutes, it’s easy to get into situations of not eating well enough to maintain energy and not being physically active enough to look after your body. That in turn all feeds into poor sleeping and further energy loss. Poverty and lack of work are also exhausting and the government is doing its best to make it so. Depression can be a kind of forced stop, when body and mind won’t take it anymore and just can’t do any more things. Rest at this point is essential.

However, if all you do is recover and head back into the fray, the next round is inevitable. If the way we live makes us ill, brief respites won’t solve anything.

Proper rest and relaxation has to be part of normal life. It’s not some kind of luxury add on bonus thing, it’s not a reward, or a distant goal. It has to be an every day thing to keep mind and body well. It also has to be good quality. Rest is like food – some things are more nourishing than others, and what you really need is the good stuff that will feed you, body and soul.

For me good books and films, beautiful anime, and lots of sleep works well as down time. When I’m a bit more lively, live music and other live entertainment, and time with friends is good. When I’m really low, I find socialising exhausting, even with the people I find it easiest to be around. But then, when I’m really low I find most things exhausting and I can get to places where I don’t have the concentration to read or to watch a film. While I know the theory of how to look after myself, I don’t always do a great job of it.

One of the issues for wellness, is how much slack you have in your systems. I tend to run close to the limits of what I can get away with. When things go to plan, this is fine. However, all it takes is one surprise energy drain and I can be in a lot of trouble. A cold, an unexpected job, or someone needing my emotional support in a big way can all tip me over. I’m not good at saying no to people, especially when I know those people are in trouble, and I’ve found it hard to really look at the costs of some things. But, I can do more good stuff and be of more benefit to others when I’m not dragging myself along the ground, and that logic has helped me make better choices. Like a lot of people, I find it hard making self care a priority when faced with someone else’s need, but I can think about overall effectiveness.

Which brings me round to another underpinner for depression – low self esteem. If you are the least important thing, if everyone else’s wellness and happiness are more important than your own, if every last job you might do is more important than whether you can do it… depression is inevitable. Not getting exhausted all the time in the first place requires you to be worth more than the things that are wearing you out. That’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s not even possible. If, when you are under so much pressure to do all the things and you fall apart, you are then blamed for falling apart, that really doesn’t help at all. It can in fact keep the cycles of exhaustion and depression firmly in place. Blame confirms that if only we’d tried harder it would have worked. Blame confirms that we should be able to do all the things with no respite. This piles stress upon stress and offers no way out. Sometimes, a little recognition that what you’re up against is shitty and unfair can be a life saver.


Gnawing away at the roots

Trigger warnings – exploring the mechanics of abuse.

It’s all too common to imagine abuse in terms of obvious physical violence. In practice, when people are subjected to physical abuse it’s often late in a process that has already ground them down so badly that they don’t resist or complain and instead feel it’s what they deserved. The long term consequences of emotional and psychological abuse tend to be far more damaging than any physical abuse that is survived (but not everyone survives). Our criminal systems focus on bodily wounding.

Psychological and emotional abuse is not always deliberate. There is often no way to tell if it is meant to harm the recipient or not. People may be repeating their own family patterns and experiences, affected by their cultural background, religion, belief and so forth. They may think what they’re doing is fine, they may be projecting all kinds of crap onto their victim. This doesn’t lessen the effect, but it means if challenged they will be very clear that they aren’t doing anything wrong, and this makes them difficult to challenge. If you tell your significant other that they are hurting you and they respond by saying it is your problem not theirs, they are fine, it only serves to entrench the damage.

This kind of abuse is often a slow process of attrition and erosion. No single act will be enough to make you realise it isn’t ok. It’s just little nit picking criticism and complaints, it’s living without praise or kindness, it’s being told off and told you look lousy and that your cooking isn’t up to much. You make too much noise, you don’t smile enough, your taste in clothes, films, books, friends is piss poor… and slowly, day by day, more is shaved off your identity until you wake up one morning and you don’t know who you are any more, you just know you aren’t any good at anything and its all your fault.

You don’t know what happened. And maybe the person who did this to you tells you that they still love you, even though you look terrible and aren’t doing anything interesting. They still love you, even now you’re fat and boring. And you’re grateful to them. They’re heroes. No one else would want you in this mess and you are so desperately glad they are willing to put up with you that you’d do anything to try and make them happier. You wish you were a better person so that you could do more good things for them.

If you’ve grown up with this coming towards you from a parent, you may never notice that it isn’t normal or ok, and that your crushed self esteem and the anxiety that comes from it is not something that you deserve. If you take it from a spouse, you may keep taking it for years, all the while internalising your own alleged shortcomings. How do you tell that you’re ok when the key people in your life constantly undermine you?

There are no easy answers to this. It is very hard for a person in that situation to wake up and get out on their own.  However, most people who are being ground down in this way will defend the person crushing them if faced with a direct challenge (because you’re dissing the one person who can put up with them). A well meaning attempt to get someone out of this trap can instead push them further into it. The only thing I’ve seen work is to get in there and gently, persistently build someone up. Affirm them, praise them, encourage them, ignore whatever they do to deflect it. And keep doing it, for months, or years or as long as it takes for them to start questioning how rubbish they think they are.


Anxiety, Depression and Self Esteem

On the whole, anxiety and depression are best tackled with self care. Rest, moving away from the sources of distress, not being outside your comfort zone too much, good food, sleep, exercise… All the obvious things that contribute to good health are needed to bring a person back from mental difficulty. Some (many?) of us who suffer from anxiety and depression have terrible trouble taking proper care of ourselves.

The person with poor self esteem struggles to believe that they deserve basic, essential things. Getting the job done thus seems more important than being well. Being useful is more important than being well even if being useful in the short term may compromise your longer term viability. For me, for a long time, the idea of self-care was itself a panic trigger and if people suggested it, I’d get even more distressed. I think I’m not alone in this.

When poor self esteem underpins poor mental health, the odds are a person has internalised a lot of crap from other people. We do not come alone to the idea of being worthless, useless, and that we deserve to suffer. We may believe we’re lazy, making a fuss, a nuisance – because we’ve had prolonged exposure to people telling us these things. We believe that we aren’t really ill, that the problem is that we aren’t trying hard enough. If only we made more effort to be more positive, we’d be better people. Getting a person to believe the bullshit of positivity logic can be one of the cruellest ways of keeping a mentally distressed person trapped in cycles of ill health.

Getting out of this is not a solo project. I know this because I can look back on my own journey and see when things started to change. Wind the clock back seven or eight years and I did not see myself as a real person. I was a thing made of straw and only my usefulness mattered. If I struggled, I’d push harder, beating myself up – physically and emotionally – to keep moving. I’d name call and shame and ridicule to make myself keep going, keep working, keep doing all the things. Running on internalised hate, I’d use the energy of that to keep my broken self moving.

There have always been people happy to add to the inner hate pile, and then to humiliate me as someone who ‘just plays the victim’ on top of that. I have taken those words into every burnout with me. I’ve listened to well meaning people online telling me I needed to take better care of myself, and I’ve been afraid to do so. As though being kind to me would turn me into something even more horrible and unworthy than I’d already been told I was.

I’ve been able to change because my environment has changed. It has taken time. Support and kindness at home, for years, has had consequences. Good friends who treat me with warmth provide an antidote to the poison others have poured into my ears. Support from fellow travellers has helped create a context for looking differently at these things. I could not have done this alone.

It’s a thing about mental health that needs saying and saying again. Most of us do not fall apart on our own. We fall apart for reasons that are outside our heads. Trying to find a personal solution to this is often futile. If environments are sick, the people in them will become and remain sick. Where people exploit each other, treat each other as worthless, expendable, or mock visible suffering, things only get worse. Collective solutions are the only workable ones, and in treating each other better, and being kinder to each other we can overcome so much more. Individual positivity can’t heal much of what’s wrong. Collective determination to change things really can make a difference.


Self esteem and the spaces that hold us

I’ve struggled with the idea of self esteem for some years. Struggled in a way I imagine is vaguely comparable to never having had some other functioning part of a body in that it’s really hard to imagine the functioning of something you’ve never had. I can’t figure out how to grow one and the self-help books leave me anxious and feeling inadequate.

The conventional wisdom is that we must not base our self esteem on external things, because that makes us too vulnerable. The truth is that what passes for self-esteem in me is entirely dependent on what’s around me. If I’m in kind, accepting spaces that value me and treat me well, I can be quite happy and functional. Treat me like shit and it’s almost instantly internalised and I fall into despair.

When I act based on the idea that my self esteem *should* come from within, and that I *fail* at this, I remain vulnerable to spaces that hurt me.

My impression is that the person with good self esteem will not accept the spaces where they are treated dishonourably, casually etc. They will leave. The person with poor self esteem is more likely to accept it as fair judgement, and stay. When your self esteem is a fair percentage externally sourced, this means a low self esteem increases the chances of staying in spaces that perpetuate a sense of low self esteem.

It’s taken me long enough to figure this out!

If I admit that my self esteem derives from my environment, everything changes. I can look at my environment differently. Do I feel safe, welcome and happy? Great, this is a good place, I should spend time in it. Do I feel cheap, worthless, used, and the like? Bad place, need to leave because if I stay it will start to define me.

I note that by thinking this way, and acknowledging how I am, I get to behave more like a person with good self esteem. If I can manage to work with this, and spend most, if not all of my time in spaces where I feel safe and happy, then to all intents and purposes, I will be a person with good self esteem.

This in turn raises questions about the people who, usually for economic reasons, are not able to vote with their feet to escape from oppressive and dehumanising situations. The psychological damage of being forced into appalling conditions out of poverty and desperation, is something we need to be thinking about, and working to change.


How to grow wings and a tail

As far as I can tell, it all comes back to self esteem. I’ve read a lot about depression and anxiety and the gist goes like this: Rest, make time for good things, look after yourself, don’t push through pain and exhaustion, don’t keep going when you feel threadbare, take your needs seriously. It’s probably good advice. I’ve read books on self esteem, and the good advice there is about not pinning your sense of self worth to achievements or other people’s perceptions, because that way, getting knocked down is inevitable.

Pin your sense of self worth to something that isn’t about achievements or how other people perceive you.

I’ve gone round that phrase repeatedly over a lot of years, and I always come back to the same place. But what else is there? And those achievements, and the usefulness to other people that underwrites my sense of being ok, is hard to maintain when I’m sore and tired, and spiralling downwards. Without achievements I can point at, and people I can be useful to, the downward spiral becomes a nosedive. I’ve repeated it often enough to be confident about the mechanics.

Every time I go round this (which at point of writing adds up to a lot of times) the ‘wisdom’ I come back to is that if I tried harder to grow a self esteem that was a proper self esteem like a well and normal person would have, it would all be fine. I ought to be able to do this. I’ve yet to manage it. The whole thing seems about as feasible and available to me as sprouting wings. Despite all the books and all the sagely advice, I have no more idea how to develop self esteem that isn’t based on achievements or other people’s opinions than I did when I started down this route a good four years ago.

There is an uncomfortable truth in all of this – that the idea of thinking well about myself frightens me. To say I did ok, or it was good enough, or I am good enough… even as I type this I can feel my throat tighten, and my stomach. Dangerous things to say. And then the other voice pipes up, the one that says I have no right to say whether I’m any good or not and no basis for knowing, or judging. That my view of myself is inherently suspect and invalid. I know where that voice comes from, and the only viable response I’ve ever found for it, is to have achievements I can hold up, and the good opinions of people I trust to know better than I could, whether I am ok or not.

Self esteem is not actually something we grow in isolation. We learn it early, or we don’t, from those who are around us – family, friends, peers, teachers, neighbours, etc. We grow it from what’s reflected back to us. When you’re never good enough for the people around you, self esteem is bound to be in short supply.

As an adult it’s turned into a need to please. A need to prove that I can be good enough, and do enough, to be worthy of respect and inclusion. It has made me incredibly vulnerable to people who wanted to use me. For most of my life, all a person had to do was hold the hoop a little higher than I could reach and watch me desperately try to jump through it anyway. I think some people find that kind of thing entertaining.

I look at my desire to fix the self esteem issues, and I realise that I can’t, in no small part because I see it as something to achieve, something I am supposed to do so that other people find me easier to be around. I’m still not trying to do it for me, I want it so as not to be high maintenance, or inconvenient. Think how much more useful I could be if I didn’t get regularly mired in bouts of depression! But that thinking negates the whole project.

Seeing the mechanics is not the same as having an answer, but it’s a lot more useful than just keeping on doing what other people tell me I should be doing in order to become what they think I should be. In acknowledging that I’m still not really doing this for me, and not even comfortable (panic levels of not comfortable) with doing this for me, I am probably further forward than I’ve ever been. And yes, I am going to chalk it up as an achievement because I do need to score it that way.


First, grow a leg

A couple of years ago I had a bit of a stint with self help material, trying to work out how to avoid some the deep holes of despair I regularly fall into. It became evident that I tick a lot of boxes for low self esteem. This has consequences. I have found it hard to say no to people. I do not cope well in situations where my wellbeing is compromised, and mentioning this might inconvenience someone else. I am attention hungry and affirmation seeking, needing fairly steady signs of being approved of just to stay functional. This, it has to be said, is not a very good way to live.

The self help books talked about how to improve self esteem. Resting more, taking time to pamper yourself and doing happy things, not valuing yourself purely on achievements and most critically, not looking for external affirmation all the time. It felt like being told to grow another leg (hence the title). Your problem, Nimue, is that you don’t have enough legs. Grow another leg, it’ll work then. But there was never any information about how to do what felt like the equivalent of trying to grow a leg. I found that less than helpful.

It’s sent me on a long journey. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far…

Good self esteem is not intrinsic. It’s a thing schools now actively work on because having it enables kids to be happier and do more. Private schools, it is worth noting, go out of their way to develop and reinforce the self esteem of every student. The comprehensive system of my childhood did not do this.

Where do we get our self esteem from in the first place? Well, my best guess is that this develops, or doesn’t, as a consequence of our relationships with our first caregivers. It’s worth noting that what a caregiver thinks will help, and what actually helps, are not exactly the same. Children are developing identity, ideas and beliefs about the world from the moment they arrive, if not before. It’s a while before they can express much of that and give you any kind of sense of the sort of person they are, and what they might need. So even when everyone is trying their best, you can, with the best will in the world, mess this sort of stuff up.

Not every child is wanted. Not every child fits their parent’s idea of how a baby is going to be. Some are a disappointment – wrong gender, not pretty enough… and not all parents respond with open hearted love and generosity to children who have something wrong or unusual about them. Not all parents have as much time to give as an attention-hungry infant craves. There are lots of ways you can start out in a well meaning home and not feel loved, valued or wanted, and gods help you if you start out not being loved, valued or wanted.

I was told, from as far back as I can remember, that I could not make value judgements about whether anything I did was good enough, and that the only opinion that counted for anything, belonged to someone other than me. Lo and behold, I have carried that my whole life, looking for people to stand in that position of authority and power and tell me if I am good enough. People for whom my being good enough might mean something, and would ward of the terror, and the darkness that exist for me in the realms of failure. I was taught to live and die by other people’s assessments, I was taught to have no inner capacity for holding self esteem.

Grow a new leg, they say.

I’m finding better ways of managing the need for validation. I’m also getting better at picking my people, and finding generous hearted folk who help me feel good about what I’m doing. Increasingly in my life there are people for whom I tentatively feel that I do not have to ‘do’ and that they will accept me, just as I am. To be good enough without achieving, without making or working. To be good enough in and of myself, for someone else. That was the thing that had not happened before, and had not taken root. It’s a very small seedling of a possibility just now, but apparently things like this can be grown from scratch, in the right circumstances.