Emotional Health · Health

The Elusive Quest for Healthy Self-Esteem

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


2120908716_f9fb2a0bf5_zPhoto by Anushruti RK via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of the most puzzling issues parents, educators and mental health professionals face is the question of how to promote healthy self-esteem. You would think that those of us who were once labeled the Me Generation, who in turn have raised Millennials, whose every thought has been witnessed, praised, and recorded for posterity, would have no problem with feeling worthy. And yet almost no problem I see in my patients who come for therapy is as common or as intractable as low self-esteem.

This is especially true of women. Is this a reflection of the old truism that when men see something wrong, it’s someone else’s fault, and when women do, it’s their fault? Certainly there are differences between the sexes, especially when it comes to the widespread problem of negative body image. The real difference, I believe, is there is a gender difference in the way in which insecurity is expressed. While women are prone to feel their worthlessness directly, men are more likely to defend against it. An insecure man may repress his feelings and turn them into the opposite. This is the root of pathological narcissism. So, for argument’s sake, imagine a man who loudly proclaims he is the best at everything, puts his name on everything in sight, and even believes he should be president, despite having no experience in government. Is all this “self-esteem” based on true feelings of self-worth or are they a noisy defense against feelings that he may not be good enough?

How do you promote genuine feelings of self-worth then? Telling your children they are wonderful indiscriminately does not do the job. Children are too clever for that, and besides, promoting self-esteem seems to work best when the child can understand how and why and what she is doing that makes them valuable. Going back to the earliest years, it’s the “gleam in the mother’s eye,” as psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut called it, that reflects back to the infant that he is valuable and important, and especially, securely loved that provides the essential foundation of self-worth. As the child develops, though, it is crucial for the parent to praise her or him for her “real” self and actual achievements. That means that parents must be paying attention to the person their child is as an individual and not just reacting to the person they wish their child might be. This takes work and more than a little self-awareness.

It is universal for us to project our values and goals onto our children, but not entirely inappropriate. There’s a fine line that must be walked between guiding someone and crushing their essential sense of self. I remember once chastising my daughter for using bad language. She quickly shot back, “How I talk is part of who I am. Are you saying you don’t like who I am?” (Boy, did she have my number!) Momentarily nonplussed by this lawyer-like reply, nevertheless, I didn’t think guiding her to more civilized speech would crush her. On the other end of the spectrum are parents who are confronted with issues that are essential to their children’s sense of self that are psychologically complex for all concerned. A child’s homosexuality is a frequent challenge, especially for parents who are not comfortable with the idea and don’t see sexual object choice as something that is innate.

Trying to control our children, much as we want to, often backfires. I remember a conference on eating disorders in which a mother in the audience asked me how, exactly, she should feed her school-age children now to ensure that they would not develop eating disorders later. Ultimately, these disorders have more to do with control, pressure to be perfect, and crucially, sense of self rather than food per se. I felt that this mother’s attitude, no matter how well meant, might be a more dangerous predictor of future eating problems than what kind of diet the children followed.

Recent studies show that if children have a sense that they have some control over how they perform they feel a boost in esteem. For example, kids were divided into two groups. One was told that they did well because they were “smart.” The second group was told they did well because they had “worked hard.” On the next test? The second group did markedly better. In fact, while it has become commonplace to imagine that if we feel good about ourselves we will do better, it turns out the opposite may be more true: if we do well we will feel good about ourselves—and then continue to do better.

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  • Patricia Volin January 25, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Excellent article. It’s a good one to keep on hand and read again, as the quest for healthy self esteem never seems to go away for many of us.

  • Phyl Dupret October 5, 2015 at 8:54 am

    WOW…a wonderful article for everyone to read and absorb…………

  • Deborah Harkins October 1, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    One of the most insightful and helpful articles on an important subject that I’ve ever read.

  • Jeanie October 1, 2015 at 7:52 am

    A very insightful article.

  • Lois Alperstein October 1, 2015 at 7:07 am

    An important issue that I unfortunate see often in my 25 year old daughters friends….this should be shared on social media.