Saturday, January 23, 2010


I see a lot of really good people. You could say that most of the people in my practice-- no, make that all of them-- are just great people. Not that some don't have personality problems, or disorders that make them difficult to like, necessarily, or to be around, but if you get to know people, basically, they're pretty lovable.

So it baffles, me, low self-esteem, even though it shouldn't. A therapist like me will be working with a perfectly wonderful person, an individual that most people like, indeed rely upon, the go to guy, girl, and this person doesn't feel he or she measures up. The person I see as kind, good, caring, unprejudiced, compares himself with other people and thinks, I'm so not as good.

I, personally, want to blame society, more-so than the family, the values of the greater culture, the world out there, television, advertising, the movies, movie stars, professional athletes. How can we compete, seriously, with the wealthy, the talented, the beautiful? Most of us equivocate about buying a new purse, new socks.

When I say most, I mean most.

So society knocks us down several notches. And then there are parents. It's not cool to pick on parents anymore (so much else enters into the equation), but parenting matters when it comes to building self-esteem. Kids are vulnerable, look to parents as large people, giants, really, whose judgment means every thing. I told my son recently that I know that I still hope, want, approval from my parents, and feel that's a good thing. It isn't a primary motivation for my behavior, but it's in there, deep inside. And they weren't bad, to tell you the truth. They esteemed me plenty.

Not all of us are great at self-esteem building, even when we think we're doing a great job. It's a humbling job. In fact, we can be perfectly clueless when it comes to values. We really want our kids to learn these things, so we try hard to get our message across, and often it is received and the answer is no. (Like unanswered prayers). But sometimes we're trying to inculcate a value that doesn't need inculcating, like humility. Now there's a value that needs to be reconsidered.

Humility, I've humbly suggested on this blog before, can work against kids, not for them. It's a good thing to understand that in the grand scheme of things, we're very little, that it's not about us. Our contributions are few, and our lives are short. We spend most of our lives becoming, changing, maturing, changing some more, and when we're old enough to really understand the errors of our ways, it's too late. When we get old and sick we lose the power to do anything about it, can no longer start all over again.

So we should be humble, really, because face it, we're so limited.

But a person has to believe in himself. You have to believe in yourself, if you intend to ever accomplish anything. You can't say, Why bother trying? Because if you don't bother you'll never know who you are. You'll never recognize your own skills, your own value. What's the worst thing that can happen? You fail. Aw. Get over it, get over yourself when that happens, no big deal. Brush it off, try something else. Life is long, or it might be.

It can feel huge, failure. Slows us down, is what it does, smashes the ego, forget about deflating the ego, these aren't balloons. Unfortunately, not knowing that potential is immeasurable, failure slows most of us down, sometimes to a crawl, not a good crawl. So it has to be good to brush ourselves off, pick ourselves up, not look back. Learn from it and move on as fast as we can. Let's not dwell here in our failure. The company is depressing.

Ball players know this. A professional football player can play ball with a dislocated shoulder. Not that that's a good thing, but that these men do this is significant, illuminating, really. The human spirit dominates pain, can forget, can get over anything. (For $50,000 a game, I might consider this too, come to think of it.)

Probably the only good thing about humility, actually, and this is a very good thing, is that it tempers conceit. No one finds conceit attractive, indeed it's pretty repulsive, a big ego, which is probably the reason some fiercely believe in beating a kid into humility. Not to argue with religious teaching, discuss this with your clergy-person, please, but you don't want to miss the lesson that most of us will fall somewhere between narcissism and being a nobody. (Jewish joke, remind me to tell you one day).

Thus a little humility is a good thing, but beat the "I" out of a kid only if you want that kid to forever compare himself and come up short. Any beating will do, to facilitate low self-esteem. Just name your abuse of the day-- emotional, verbal, physical, financial, sexual-- they'll all do the job.

The most clever method, of course, often innocent, too, is denying praise. Deny it. Deny this thing called praise. It is in your power, as a parent, to do so. You don't want your kid to grow up with a "big head", right?*

Never say, Great job. For sure don't say, Brilliant! And those little pictures they make in nursery school? Be sure to say, oh, don't worry, one day you'll be better at this.

If your kid is upset about a 'B' be upset, too. Tell him he should have made an 'A'. What an idiot, seriously, for getting a 'B'. He could have done, should do better.

Parents who buy into this method of child rearing tell me that it gives the kid a bar, a standard to strive for, "You'll do better next time, you'll try harder, study more, workout more, practice more." Not all of them will, however, do better. Sometimes you want to go with what you got and see it as good, do your best with what you've got.

Thankfully, most kids are resilient. They know their strengths, and they resent, rightfully, a parent who withholds praise. It feels good, praise, doesn't it? Who doesn't love praise?

Let's not forget, too, that peers at school can be harsh, and siblings merciless. I'm preaching to the choir, you all know this, when I talk about parenting. Anyone interested in being a good parent should be able to do a pretty good job; there are parenting classes at community centers, zillions of websites and blogs to read. If you let your kids carp on one another, beat on one another verbally, physically, sexually, the siblings will do damage. Nothing like brothers and sisters to humble a person.

So what have we got here? And do football players have low self-esteem?

I don't know. But let's review:

(a) there's that comparison thing, looking around and seeing how small we are, how incredibly powerless, and how inferior to others in, well, so, so many things

(b) and there's the social war our egos have to battle, growing up with people who beat on us, remind us how inferior we are (even if we're not), how fat, how dumb. And remember, we're supposed to take failure on the chin, especially as adults, for failure makes us feel like losers. Failure in adulthood can hurt us even more if our parents and siblings have already fertilized the field,

and finally,

(c) the praise-deficiency model, which suggests that we need praise, and without it some of us will never be quite sure of ourselves, won't ever have a solid, I'm good enough feeling. Not that that's always good, feeling good enough. It suits some of us well to feel we could always be better, try harder.

But you don't want to be feeling bad, inferior, not all the time, not to the degree of pining and moping, depression. You just don't. And praise is the antidote for this. It's like water. A little every day, some form or another, and a person thrives.

Apparently there's a movie, can't remember the name, about enlightenment. (oh, someone just told me it's the Celestine Prophesy and the book is by James Redfield). It's sci-fi and the idea is that some people in society are enlightened, they get it, and others don't, and those who do try to keep it to themselves. Apparently enlightenment is understanding that the only thing that really matters is kindness, being a good person, meeting people in a way that communicates acceptance and understanding.

I might be wrong about the message of the movie, because I didn't see it, but that's what I got out of my friend's description. What it means to me is that enlightenment and self-esteem may actually be discrete variables (are very different, don't intersect, necessarily, at least not significantly). People who have all those enlightened qualities don't necessarily feel enlightened, not if their self-esteem is low. Which means that one has nothing to do with the other, maybe.

Okay, so you already knew that. But I thought it was interesting.


*I am being facetious, here, tongue in cheek. Do not withhold praise thinking it a good parenting strategy, and do not abuse children, either.


Anonymous said...

All in all
most people go to therapy so that they can work on their self esteem and confidence so it should not be too much of a surprise that clients say those things to you.

you know, why be in therapy if you think youre the cherry on top?

Lou said...

I'm not a model of mental health I'm sure, but all in all I have a successful, happy life. I was never praised as a child, always told I was not good enough. It gave me an "I'll show you" attitude. I was determined to prove them wrong. So, self talk is important, and some of that is innate personality.

(I think..but maybe I listen to too much Dr. Laura..LOL)

Syd said...

I so wanted to please my parents. It was a heavy burden. And I got some praise from my mother but not from my father. I don't blame them because they had their own personal demons. I am glad to be kinder to myself and others today. I still do my best but I don't feel driven to seek approval.
BTW, I did a post about how therapy helped me. You may have some thoughts on it.

therapydoc said...

Thanks, Syd, Lou. And that's so, so true, about not needing, wanting therapy, as the cherry.

This was really a tough interface issue for me as a young therapydoc with fairly good self-esteem, which is why I bring it up today. I'm assuming that I'm not the only one who ever looked at a person with low self-esteem and thought, This should be easy, and yet, obviously, it's not. When you hear the stories you get it that self-esteem is a truly wonderful gift, one that we get, if we're lucky, via socialization. Otherwise, frankly, there's narcissism. But that, too, narcissism is sometimes a function, if not most of the time a function of abuse. Reaction formation, we call it.

Meansomething said...

Almost two years into teaching high school, I'm fascinated by the different modes of behavior students have settled into--these seem pretty well defined by age 14 or 15. Just among those who are the strongest students academically, there are high achievers who seem driven by panic, as though the world will collapse upon them if they are not perfect; or by aggression, as though their only model for getting through life is grimly driving their way through. And then there are high achievers who seem (always remembering they are adolescents) to think they are basically okay people, not perfect, but as deserving as anyone else of attention and love, whether they score a hundred percent or not, and these are the ones to reckon with, because they are curious, and engaged, and ask great questions, and argue with you not about whether they deserved the extra point, but about whether Shakespeare really meant this or that. All kinds of personalities can be really strong students, but the last group seem to me to have a huge gift just in terms of their orientation to the world and their work.

therapydoc said...

Sure. One sign of self-esteem is just getting it that you can assert, talk back. Asking the teacher to change a grade is my classic example, that and excuse me, sir, the end of the line is actually back there.

TechnoBabe said...

I just blundered along in my life with low self esteem and ignored the signs of depression all while raising three children. They were healthy enough to know I loved them to the max but I was not healthy. I did encourage them and praise them and poured forth from my heart the kindness and caring I was not brought up to see or receive. So in some ways I was able to break the chain. This is a good post and one to think about and re-visit.

Kathie said...

Okay. You might as well just kicked me in the stomach with this post. I had to come back and re-read it. Ouch.

I am the mom of five children, ages 24, 22, 20, 8 and 3. I parented as I was parented, expecting “better” and not giving much positive reinforcement when it was well-deserved. And my parents had the same sort of parents...And so on...

The timing of your post is ironic. Last night, while I was driving with my 8 year old son, Ryan, he told me that I NEVER give him praise. My husband and I are in the process of moving to San Luis Obispo, about 30 minutes from where we now live. We’d spent the day loading then unloading a moving truck. It was just Ryan and me in the car during the drive back to the old house when he said, “Mom, you NEVER tell me when I’m good. I mean, maybe you say something nice, like 3 percent of the time. The other 97 percent of the time you’re either talking to someone else or telling me I need to do something better...Well, maybe 69 percent of the time you’re not really being nice. Like, you’re really demanding and you yell at me. I hate when you yell at me. 31 percent of the time you’re okay... But you really don’t give me credit when I do something good or am helpful. And you think I should do SO MUCH. I mean, I’m only a kid!....”

When Ryan was 6 years old, after comprehensive testing, he was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder, ADHD, and anxiety. He’s also tested (academically) higher than any other child in his grade level and is in the Gifted and Talented Education program at his school. But honestly, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the quality of his school work. He does the bare minimum and homework is an argument every night. His progress reports are lukewarm.

School work aside, my adult children (and others) shake their heads in disbelief when they are around him. His behavior: demanding attention, not listening, always arguing. They often say, “I don’t know how you do it.” Parenting is difficult. But parenting Ryan is beyond words. Difficult doesn’t begin to describe it.

Reading your post had a huge impact on me. I’m already in therapy for my own issues PTSD/Major Depression due to my own broken parents. The thought of repeating the same pattern makes me sick to my stomach. Ryan’s currently on medication (one of many tried over the years) which doesn’t seem to change his behavior one way or another. I’ll now be calling a child behavioral/parenting therapist.

Thank you for the great post.

Samurai Scientist said...

I agree that humility is a double-edged sword that can also work against a person.

I haven't seen the Celestine Prophecy but that's as good a definition of enlightenment as I've ever heard.

onelongjourney said...

So have you read or heard about the book Nurture Shock? I've not read it, but some friends have. Basically says that it is also bad to praise your children too much.

Parenting is hard!


Anonymous said...

This may seem a bit off topic from your post, therapydoc, but it and comments above reminded me of a friend (now deceased) who said she didn't believe it was ever okay to apologize to your child for things you may have said or done that were wrong or harmful. I was stunned by this. I could not understand a parent who would not be willing to admit that they were wrong or had been too hard on a child. She was hard on her daughter and they did not enjoy an easy or relaxed relationship. Seems like one way to counteract the damage done by failure to praise or by saying harmful things might be the capacity to come back later and say, "You know, I thought about this that I said, and I was wrong, I'm sorry" and really mean it and let the child know you'll try to do better in the future.

Sandy at God Speaks Today said...

"What's the worst thing that can happen? You fail. Aw. Get over it, get over yourself when that happens, no big deal. Brush it off, try something else."

Thanks for this...exactly what I needed today.


Jack said...

The joy of being a parent is realizing that there is no roadmap or guidebook. Your Garmin GPS won't get you there.It is just something that you in fits, starts and interruptions.

And if you have more than one child you get to tweak and adapt that path you walk all day long.

Wonderingsoul said...

So well written TD.

On a personal level, the whole topic of self esteem is just too big and too confusing for me.
I fall into a completely bizarre (almost dissociative) state of mind when I start asking myself what I feel about me.
I feel that under the bright, competent mask I wear much of the time, there is nothing more than an utterly worthless person. Under al the layers of should bes and would bes, there is a person who would be met with such disgust if she was properly known.
Then I feel as though it's all unreal and I don't hate myself at all. That instead, I secretly love myself.
I swing between thinking that I think I'm terrible and thinking that I think I am a narcissist.
And yet, my father thinks that there is no end to my capability, repeatedly lavished praise on me as I grew up and has shown more love for me than I think anyone ever possibly could.

How can the way I feel make sense then?

I was bought up in a strongly Catholic family and the church teaches that "I" should, ideally, be eliminated as much as is humanly possible in order to follow the self sacrificing life of Jesus.
In many ways, Christianity requires that we (who profess to believe) aim to be as selfLESS as possible.
Without emphasis on self.

Perhaps I learned ti be disgusted with my self from religion...
As you say, humility is a good thing, but not always.

It could be having stunningly beautiful siblings.
(Ever discussed the profound effect that siblings can have on each other?)

Could be a critical mother.

At any rate, you make such intersting points about self esteem and the source of it that I wanted to respond (though it feels SELFish because my response if personal and therefore, all about ME - self, self, self)

As far s I can see, almost every persont walk the earth suffers from a low self esteem.
It's a worldwide pandemic.

Would liek to hear the Jewish joke about narcisists and nobodies.

Sorry for the ramble.


Shattered said...

So much to think about here...

Parenting is tough for me because I had no proper parenting myself. I strive to love my daughter, care for her but what hit me in your writing is the praise part. I am not absolutely certain that I freely give my praise to her.

Praise is another thing that I grew up without and I learned to adapt; I learned to press on without any sort of praise. However, my daughter is not me and how wonderful it is that I can do this for her. :)

Thank you for this post; it certainly gave me a new perspective.

Melissa said...

Golly, I just remember my wonderful mother telling me I could do whatever I wanted to do. I was so smart, so talented, so supported, the world was my oyster. And I believed her.

I've done some pretty darn great things in my life, but if I hadn't had the encouragement, I'd never have gone off the deep end of letting myself have the experiences.

I've come across so many people who didn't have this, and it just boggles my mind. Why wouldn't you tell your child this?

I have three girls, and I told all of them the same thing as often as I could. And yet, inexplicably, they've gone through such self-esteem crises!!! How did that happen? Maybe my ex had something to do with it, maybe not. Maybe peers... *sigh* There were some really awful "peer" episodes...

blognut said...

Well said, TD. As always.

The Rebbetzin's Husband said...

I enjoyed this article; thanks.

Another cause for unrealistically low self-esteem, in my experience: We live with knowledge of our flaws, and we see the damage they cause for us. Other people tend to be more forgiving of these defects (or, at least, less concerned than we are).

Jew Wishes said...

Praise is a stepping stone and/or foundation for building self-esteem, and should begin at an early age.

Children need to feel good about themselves, which is not to say that they should become arrogant or self-absorbed, and the words of praise, such as "good job", help to enhance their self-image.


Anonymous said...
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therapydoc said...

ANON says, most people go to therapy so that they can work on their self esteem . . .so it should not be too much of a surprise that clients say those things to you. RIGHT! I know. It's a crazy interface I have, and recognize, don't worry. I keep my surprise to myself.

LOU was always told she wasn't good enough. It gave her an "I'll show you" attitude. Would that everyone took criticism that way!

SYD -- I still do my best but I don't feel driven to seek approval-- probably the way most people resolve this over time. It's the time thing that's annoying.

MEANSOMETHING has the range to make this stuff comprehensible.

TECHNOBABE broke the cycle in her family, took a risk and praised the kids. YAY!

KATHIE, I didn't want to kick anyone, seriously. But it does sound like breaking the style of parenting will work for you, and that kid of yours, marvelous. He'll teach you. Pay attention to them, the kids, meaning listen to what they say. From the mouths of babes, I believe it's called.

SAMURAI! Always great to hear your voice.

ONE LONG JOURNEY, yes I've heard of Nurture Shock. And yes, you can praise your kids too much. I'm just saying that you praise when praise is deserved, don't praise when it isn't, and have the wisdom to know the difference :)

ANON, you're so right. The best way to undo damage is to own what you've done. Kids love that and it builds their self-esteem, but more importantly, builds their respect for their parents, people big enough to say they are sorry.

SANDY, glad to help.Blessings back.

JACK-great metaphor, the GPS metaphor. I'm borrowing it.

WONDERING SOUL- being self-less is quintessentially Jewish. The Jewish mother, sitting in the dark. It's okay, don't waste the electricity. (I ruined the joke)

That said, we really believe that . . .If I am not for myself, who will be, and if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? This is a huge topic, but narcissism, conceit is considered a terrible sin, one that erases G-d, and humility is much preferred. But not to the degree that the "I" is ever erased, never. What good is a person who is a nobody?

That said, the joke goes like this:
On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, we fast, eat and drink NOTHING for 25 hours, spend as much of the day and night in the synagogue as we can. We're basically apologizing for being such shnucks, going over our flaws, the things that we were supposed to do but didn't, the things we weren't supposed to do but did.
So three leaders of the community, well-heeled men, are standing in the front row praying, pounding their chests (a thing we do), saying iterations of "I'm nothing," or "I'm a nobody," "I'm nothing!" "A nobody!" It is what we do on Yom Kippur, admit how low we are in the big scheme of things.

A guy who hasn't any money, who hasn't paid synagogue dues, who doesn't sit on the board of directors, is also in the front row. "I'm nothing!" he cries, his hands reaching to heaven. "I'm a nobody! I'm nothing!"

One of the leaders turns to the other two, points at him, the guy with no money and says, "Look who's calling himself a nothing!"

SHATTERED, it's amazing, isn't it, how these things are unconscious.

MELISSA, there's no magic bullet. Indeed there are people who say that telling a kid he or she can do anything is a huge set up, because indeed, maybe it isn't true. I think I tell a story like this somewhere, if not on a post then on a post I never finished :)

BLOGNUT, Thanks.

REBBETZIN'S HUSBAND, this is brilliant, what you're saying. We really do bring ourselves down, much worse than others, and it probably starts pretty young.

therapydoc said...

Forgot LORRI, thanks, as always.

lynette said...

what a wonderful post -- i wish i could share it with my husband, but i blog anonymously, and, um, i am afraid he would recognize me on here. maybe i can excerpt it for him -- he rarely reads and i doubt will go searching.

i have two wonderful amazing unique imperfect beautiful children. i love them completely and unconditionally, and accept their temperaments and personalities, and my relationship with each of them is a unique by-product of who we each are.

they know i love and adore them no matter what. they know i have expectations. they know i am not perfect -- and i do say i am sorry when i believe i have said or done something that has hurt their feelings. they respond in kind.

of course i praise them when they have done something well, or tried really hard, or learned something new, or mastered a challenge. i also criticize bad behavior, do not condone disrespect, and remove privileges when appropriate.

they seem pretty well-adjusted to me :) i hope that i am putting enough thought and love and words and actions into my parenting to counteract the negativity that radiates from my husband. my husband was never praised or hugged or shown love and affection -- he has no idea how to do it.

i hope to send off into the world two lovely young adults with healthy confidence levels who have an awareness and respect of and for others. more than anything, i want them to know they are loved. i want them to trust their decisions and their inner voices. and when they are ready to examine their lives further, i hope they know that i was not perfect, and neither was their dad, but we did the best we could, and love them more than life itself.

i hope they have more confidence and better self-esteem in order to create a richer life for themselves than i ever had the guts to create for me (outside of motherhood, that is. and my career). i would like to get out of therapy and off antidepressants -- i have struggled for years. my life is a shadow of what it should be.

Isle Dance said...

Once again, you are right on. Thanks so much for posting this.

Floral Joy said...

It's so important for kids to have confidence and to be able to face their problems. It's very difficult growing up now compared to 50 years ago. There are more hurdles to overcome and it's really very scary out there. Even as adults we tend to handle things the way we were raised by our own parents.
This reminds me of a article about a woman who was waiting to find out her test results and in order to calm herself down she danced. If you would like to see it, please go to
I am a editor at powderroomgraffiti.vom and I would love for you to join and contribute to our site. We would gladly compensate you for any articles that you would send to us. It would also be great if you would link to our site.

Angeliki Bogosian said...

Thank you for this interesting and insightful post. I’ll check out the movie you mentioned.

I find it difficult when I fail to get over myself and brush it off. I feel sad and disappointed in myself and I spend some or a lot of time reflecting about it. I get over it eventually, but it takes time and it’s not always pleasurable. This doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with you, I totally agree that in order to accomplish anything we must overcome our fear of failure and try. But how can we brush it off when we fail?

Wonderingsoul said...

Hey, T.D?

I really needed that joke...


I am beginningto suspect that my mother is not Catholic at all...
That punchline?
That's her!!



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Lisa said...

Ahhh, the balance between too much and too little. Something that always helps me with this is the Desiderata poem: "Just like the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here." I try to help clients understand that simply because they exist, they are enough...Soooooo hard with the messages they've received in life. It's a message I try to give to my kids too, though I know I falter at times. "Comfortable in our own skin" -such a simple concept, but not so easy to achieve! Thanks for writing this

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Cham said...

TD--- you ever read anything by Alfie Kohn? I read some of his stuff in one of his books titled "unconditional parenting," which kind of relates to this subject. Talks about how by showing kids you love them and think they are great when they achieve, we are simultaneously teaching them that our love for them is conditional, i.e. "wow you got an A, great job!", in other words,” I think you are great when you get A's, the rest of the time not so much.” He says it’s more important to really express interest in kids and value their effort over the product. That way they learn that they are loved whether they achieve or not. It’s kind of hard to explain this stuff well in a comment, but I find his work so interesting and so different than what a lot of people will say about what is “good” parenting.

therapydoc said...

Thanks Cham! I totally agree.

therapydoc said...

Angeliki, I'm going to post on brushing off the failures. Gimme some time, but I've started a draft. Thanks for asking. It's not easy.

Anonymous said...

So, my question is this: How does a 47 yr. old woman who hates herself so much she can't stand to even be with herself ever change this?

therapydoc said...

Therapy, I'd suggest, and patience with the process. It could take quite awhile. There's a lot of work here, a lot to talk about.