By Morty Lefkoe
Founder of The Lefkoe Institute
Mike had become a wealthy entrepreneur, but he had a hard time enjoying his business success because it seemed that every minute he wasn’t solving a business problem he was worried about what others thought of him and what he could do to get their approval.
Janet probably had as many good ideas as Mike, but because she was plagued with procrastination, she was nowhere near as successful.
Roger always talked about his dream of doing something on his own, but he just didn’t have the confidence to leave his safe (and boring) job.
And finally there was Marlene, who complained of bouts of anxiety that seemed to come over her without warning and paralyze her.
Stories like these from our clients go on forever. We’ve heard tens of thousands of them.
It seems as if no one really escapes. Escapes what? …
Having a low sense of self-esteem, a negative sense of oneself, a little voice in one’s head that is constantly critical of oneself.
Common Myths About Self-esteem
Before I explain why so many people have low self-esteem, let me first dispel a few common myths about self-esteem.
First, people who are described as “full of themselves,” or who have “too much self-esteem,” are people with low self-esteem who are trying to convince themselves and others of a worth they don’t experience.
Low self-esteem is the result of negative self-esteem beliefs, such as I’m not good enough, I’m not important, I’m not worthy or deserving, and I’m not capable.
People with high self-esteem don’t need to convince anyone of their worth; they know they are good enough and important and don’t need anyone’s approval to experience being okay.
Second, low self-esteem is not limited to the “losers” in life. A survey that makes this point crystal clear reported than many CEOs of billion dollar companies had the fear that “someday I’ll be found out and they’ll take it all away from me.”
It is possible to be successful by conventional standards (plenty of money, a good job or your own company, selling your artistic endeavors, achieving whatever you set out to achieve) and still have low self-esteem.
In such cases the low self-esteem shows up as a critical “little voice” in your head that criticizes much of what you achieve, as a feeling that you don’t deserve your success, or as a fear of rejection, or a need to get others’ approval.
All of these things that undercut the enjoyment you get from your success are the result of low self-esteem.
Third, not all people with low self-esteem are unable to function well. How well you are able to function depends not only on self-esteem beliefs, but also on what other beliefs you hold.
In a study the Lefkoe Institute did with incarcerated teens and adults a few years ago, we discovered that those subjects had the same negative self-esteem beliefs as the CEOs we saw in our private practice.
The difference was that the CEOs believed that what made them good enough or important is being successful (by society’s standards), while the people in jail believed that what made them good enough or important was getting away with things others couldn’t do, or being part of a gang, or not accepting anyone else’s rules.
Why Is Low Self-Esteem So Common?
The question that is probably occurring to most of you right now is: Why do so many people have negative self-esteem beliefs? Why has almost every one of the 13,000 clients we’ve talked to had the belief, I’m not good enough?
As I’ve described in previous blog posts, almost all of our self-esteem beliefs, positive or negative, are formed in the first six years of life as the result of interactions we have with our primary caretakers, almost always our parents.
Any yet most parents love their children and want the best for their children. So what goes wrong?
To begin with, most parents are not aware that children are forming beliefs about themselves based on their interactions with their parents, which usually doesn’t appear to be at all harmful.
But even when parents are aware of this, they can have a hard time stopping their inappropriate behavior because they are rarely aware of the conflict between what they as parents want and what children are able to understand and do at various ages.
Parents, being adults, generally like quiet; children are not quiet and cannot even understand why anyone would value quiet.
Parents for the most part want their house to be neat; young children don’t even understand the concept of “neat.”
Parents want to sit down for dinner when it is ready and before it gets cold; children are almost always doing something that is far more important to them and don’t want to stop doing it when their parents call them.
In other words, parents usually want their children to do things that they are developmentally incapable of doing.
They want their young children to act like little adults, which they cannot possibly do.
If we expect children to “do things right,” we have to explain what “right” is.
And we may need to explain something many times to a child under the age of six or seven before they really get it.
And, finally, there are some concepts that young children are just incapable of grasping.
The question is not, Do children frequently “disobey” their parents? Children are developmentally incapable to living up to most parents’ expectations. The only question is how parents react when their children are not doing what the parents want them to do.
And because few parents go to parenting school and most bring their own beliefs from their childhoods with them, their reactions range from annoyance and frustration to anger and abuse, with every possibility in between.
What Is The Question Young Children Ask All Day Long?
Hint. It’s only one word.
Yes, it’s “Why?”.
Children know that they don’t have the answers (kids are always saying, “When I grow up, then I’ll be able to….). Children think their parents (because they are adults) know everything and have all the answers.
It’s as if the child thinks to herself, “If my parents don’t like what I do a lot of the time and are unhappy with me, they must have a good reason. I guess I’m not good enough to have their approval.”
Or, “If I can’t get their attention, I guess I’m not important.” Or, “If I always have to do what they want me to do and rarely get to do what I want, I guess I’m powerless.”
In other words, children form their beliefs about themselves trying to make sense of their parents’ behavior, statements, tone of voice, and facial expressions … every waking minute.
It is important to emphasize here that rarely will just a few parental actions or statements lead children to form beliefs, positive or negative.
It is only when something is done or said many times that a child forms a belief. It’s as if children say to themselves, “Why does this keep happening? Oh, now I know what it means.”
Parental Clichés Lead To Low Self-Esteem
Some of the phrases parents commonly use have become clichés in our society:
* “How many times do I have to tell you?”
* “Don’t you ever listen?”
* “What’s wrong with you?”
* “Are you just clumsy/stupid?”
What would it mean to a child aged two to six or seven to hear those phrases uttered repeatedly in anger or frustration?
Thirteen thousand clients have told us:
“I’m not good enough. Mistakes are bad. I’m not capable or competent. I’m inadequate.”
Do you understand now why so many of us have low self-esteem, which shows up in so many obvious and subtle ways, including worrying about what people think of us, being afraid to take risks, having a little voice in our head that keeps telling us that what we do isn’t good enough, etc.?
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