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THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF SELF-ESTEEM
By Joyce Parker Ph.D.

An attractive professional woman was sitting in my office the other day. She had a successful career and was well respected in her field. She was married to a successful professional man and had two happy and healthy children. Yet she was telling me that she felt like a fraud. She never felt good enough. She didn't understand why anyone came to her for advice on her job and she wasn't sure why her husband stayed with her. She didn't think she was a very good mother. I have met many people like this in my psychotherapy practice and in my personal life. They don't seem to be able to see themselves as they really are. In order to understand how they could be carrying around such a distorted picture of themselves, it is necessary to dig deep into their pasts.

Children develop their self concept based on their interactions with significant others, such as parents, relatives, friends, peers and teachers. It is in these interactions that they begin to draw conclusions about who they are and what they are like. These conclusions are developed at a time when they can't really assess how accurate they are. So if important others treat them with caring and concern, are kind to them and accepting of their strengths and weaknesses, they tend to develop a positive picture of themselves. But if significant others, for whatever reasons of their own, devalue them or humiliate them or ignore them, children begin to develop assumptions about themselves that reflect that treatment. Children cannot understand that a parent, for example, might have a problem and, therefore, cannot accurately reflect their positive qualities. So they assume there is something wrong with them. They aren't good enough; they aren't nice enough; they aren't smart enough, etc.

Once children develop an assumption about themselves, such as that they are not good enough, it tends to become embedded in the bedrock of their personality. The mind begins to look for evidence to confirm that belief and discards evidence that disconfirms the belief. If a child gets a C grade on a report card, that can be evidence. But the child will ignore the two A's that were also on that report card. Or if someone says something complimentary to the child, the child will make some excuse to prevent that compliment from affecting the assumption that he/she is not good enough.

By the time we are adults, these assumptions and beliefs are hidden in our unconscious. We do not know where they came from and may not even know what they are. But they continue to influence how we see ourselves and how we think others see us. So we continue to discard any evidence that disconfirms our beliefs and to seize on evidence that confirms them, no matter how distorted and inappropriate. In order to change these assumptions, we need to unearth them. Then we are more able to chip away at them until they are dislodged, so that we can examine them in the light of the day. Usually when we have done this, we can see how inaccurate they are. Still it can take years to change them. We need to continue to keep an eye on the way, in different situations, they obscure the truth about ourselves. As children, we could not control how we were treated. But as adults, we can, with understanding and insight, develop more accurate and positive pictures of ourselves.

Dr. Parker is a psychotherapist in practice in Torrance. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

The author of this article, and founder of the Therapyinla.com website, Joyce Parker, passed away in 2011. To honor her we are keeping her articles posted at this website.

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