What goes into determining who winds up with solid, intact self-esteem?

Dr. Beth Goldman

“Poor self-esteem” is probably one of the most common terms in the psychological lexicon.  In my experience, the vast majority of people with mental health problems have problems with self-esteem, and often the people who on the surface appear to have excellent self-esteem, don’t.

What goes into determining who winds up with solid, intact self-esteem? It’s a complex issue, but the causes can roughly be divided into two major factors – psychological/experiential and biological.  Sigmund Freud was correct when he stated how important parenting and the experiences children have with their parents are in defining how a person looks at himself and the world around him.  People who come out as adults with intact self-esteems often got a realistic sense of their own abilities by how they were treated by their parents and other important adults in their world.  Children who are neglected, criticized inappropriately, abused and never receive praise for any of the accomplishments, usually turn out to have poor self-esteem as adults.

Conversely, children who are constantly praised no matter what they do, are never expected to follow rules and are never held accountable for their actions, ironically, also fail to develop intact self esteem.  In order to have a strong sense of self-worth (and therefore good self-esteem), a child needs to get a realistic picture of his strengths and weaknesses.    Furthermore, a child needs to also learn to tolerate some degree of frustration and be allowed to make mistakes.  Parents who never say no, protect their child from even the smallest unpleasant feeling or discomfort, fail their children because they grow up to expect everything to be perfect and easy, which is not how it is in the real world.

Sometimes people who really do have intact senses of themselves and good self-esteem become depressed, however, and feelings of worthlessness and guilt are common signs of depression.  Fortunately these people, who are usually well put-together, usually respond well to medical and psychological treatment for their mood disorder.

What can people do to improve their self-esteem?  First, people need to know that self-esteem comes from within, not from external forces.  One of the best ways to build self-esteem is to set a realistic goal and work on it.  There is nothing more empowering than planning to do something and getting it done!  Furthermore, when setting a goal, it’s important to understand that it’s okay to make mistakes.  Giving oneself permission to not only make mistakes, but to learn from them (rather than to be afraid of them and defensive about them) can be a great self-esteem builder.  It can also be incredibly rewarding to work on things that we really don’t want to do, to do things that are somewhat unpleasant, because the sense of satisfaction when one is finished can be huge.

Finally, to be a good, worthwhile person, you don’t have to be number one or the best.  Everyone is special and unique in his or her own way.

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  1. I truly enjoyed this article it was very insightful. I feel like I’m trying to build children who love themselves and appreciate others, so its nice to get expert perspective on this. Good quick read.

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