Many clients who come to therapy suffering from feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem are, in the eyes of others, highly successful and competent in every domain. This is because low self-esteem is rarely about what people can or can’t do in practical situations… but really about feeling inferior in a relational way.
Another way of saying this might be that people with low self esteem too easily “doubt themselves.”
Low self esteem is “Self-doubt”
Very often this situation has it’s original roots in childhood experience where a dominating or demanding parent has systematically undermined the child’s confidence. Typically there will have been an insecure or needy parent who has created a situation where, to feel accepted or lovable, the dependent child must bend over and over again to the adult view of a situation and must hide or suppress their own realistic perception of matters. In most instances the adult is not doing it either intentionally or maliciously. They may even delude themselves into believing quite sincerely that they see things correctly (as an adult) and that the child is asked to accept their view “for their own good”.
Some problematic parenting styles:
- Highly critical and demanding parents whose demands create feelings of inferiority or perfectionistic habits in a child
- Highly anxious parent who imposes a view that the world is dangerous and untrustworthy.
- A parent who is over-invested in household management and for whom normal childish imperfection is unacceptable
- Parent or care-giver “who can never be wrong.”
- The parent who is susceptible to extremes of anger or depression and who blames it all on outside forces and makes the child feel responsible.
All these parental patterns are likely to undermine a child and create a sense in the child that they do not understand, that their judgment is faulty and that their perception is not a reliable guide for their behavior.
The blame taker will have learned early and well that their best defense is to end an upsetting interaction by simply accepting the blame whether or not they feel they deserve it. The blame-taking child learns too well and too soon that taking the blame is “survivable”. They build it into their relational repertoire as a habitual way of defusing any and every conflict. This comes at a great psychological cost because the only way to make that psychological position acceptable is to start believing that they ARE as incompetent, selfish, thoughtless, helpless or demanding as their accusers claim… and the feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem begin to solidify.
…and face saving
Children often understand emotionally, that their critical and demanding parents are fragile and vulnerable. They may attempt to protect their parents by preserving their parents’ illusions about themselves. When their parents are actually defective, weak, corrupt, rejecting, or neglectful, but desperately wish to see themselves as strong, superior, loving and caring, children will often feel an obligation to deny or suppress their realistically critical views of their parents.
Roles and Counter-roles
An individual who expects to take the blame because of childhood experiences, will very quickly find that they become the “garbage can” for blame in every new relationship because they offer so little resistance to their partner, colleague or boss’ self-defensive desire to feel blameless.
The Shame-Blame cycle
In this scenario, the partner who has been conditioned by early experience to accept the blame in relationship conflicts may actually dare accuse their partner or colleague of some injustice or unfairness. If their claim strikes a nerve, the partner will feel ashamed and often the shamed partner will respond with rage and counter accusations. The partner’s inner dialogue goes something like this:
- “You have made me feel ashamed of myself and that feels bad.
- You have made me feel bad so you are evil.
- I should attack you for having caused me pain.”
This logic justifies the angry counter-accusations or verbal undermining. The blame-taker will then do what they habitually do… and what their partner knows from previous experience that they will do… accept the blame to keep the peace and stop the escalating conflict.
Low self-esteem and blame-taking
Most individuals with low self-esteem problems actually have much to be proud of. When low self-esteem has held them back from important projects and plans it usually has nothing to do with innate ability, talent or possibilities in the environment. More often there has been a “failure to thrive”… or a fear of beginning because they are ringed around by self-doubt.
In attempting to regain, or perhaps grow for the first time, a sense of entitlement and a sense of self-worth, an important first step is to give back to others appropriate responsibility for their part in failures and conflicts.
It takes two to tango… a third point perspective
In order to see a situation more clearly it is usually helpful to find a vantage point which is a little bit outside habitual feelings and expectations.
- The perspective of a neutral (or sympathetic) observer such as a therapist or uninvolved friend, can be used to see the situation from a new point of view.
- From this privileged vantage point it usually becomes clear how the blame is being inappropriately distributed and how both individuals are contributing to the difficulty.
- It is often helpful to explore the childhood situations that created the habit of blame-taking in the first place in order to understand how it developed and how it was a well-meant defensive response… but one which is actually harmful for the adult.
A happy ending?
The good news is that since low self-esteem rarely has anything to do with actual “worth” or ability, the emotional and attitudinal correction can and should be an internal one. This means that an individual can make other choices about whether or not to accept blame and can develop a less self-blaming point of view about how responsibility for relational strains can be fairly distributed. As an individual learns, sometimes with the help and encouragement of psychotherapy, to be more self-compassionate and confident in their point of view, their feelings of low self-esteem resolve and they feel more and more able to move towards their personally validated goals and take on the challenges of their life… because, in the end, you get self-esteem by being a person you can be proud of.
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