We’ve all read the lists! Telling us that if we just value ourselves enough, things will be okay; the Internet and self-help books are ripe with checklists to help us nail that ever-elusive confidence that we so crave.
We are advised to know ourselves, to write our positive affirmations on the mirror, and to quit negative thinking. Easier said than done, right?!
To understand why these changes are so difficult to establish and then maintain we need to rewind the clock a little and understand how we as children develop self-esteem. I know what you’re thinking, yes everything always boils down to your childhood…
The psychologist John Bowlby, along with significant contributions from Mary Ainsworth, developed the Attachment Theory, and at its center is the belief that children need a Secure Base to develop a healthy sense of self and healthy relationships with others. This secure base allows us to learn two behaviors (attachment and exploration) that later form the basis of our self-esteem.
So, what is a Secure Base?
This secure base is usually a safe, consistent, and warm parent. Some luckier children can find a secure base in both parents, and for some that security cannot be found at all.
In this strong relationship with our caregiver(s) we find comfort and reassurance. When a situation increases our anxiety we seek attachment and closeness to our parents to bring the anxiety back down.
Once attachment is achieved and balance is restored the child can then resume play/exploration.
When we trust the reliability of our base we begin to venture out, knowing that we can always return when we need to.
Now, what does this have to do with self-esteem?
Pillar One: The Value of Our Being
Through our attachment and relationship with our base we find a reflection of our self and we begin to see ourselves as either lovable or shameful, a joy or a burden, important or unwelcome. The positive messages that we receive through our base are eventually internalized. The unfortunate thing is that negative messages are internalized as well. This forms the first pillar of our identify- the value of our being
Pillar Two: The Value of Our Doing
If we trust the reliability of our base and begin to explore, that is when we start to build the second pillar: the value of our doing. We are either encouraged to venture out and explore and learn, or we are treated with control and anxiety and we begin to doubt our own capacity to learn and develop mastery over our skills and the world. We either learn fear, doubt and guilt, or instead we learn the values of practice, patience and perseverance. We then learn that it is okay to make mistakes; we learn that perfection is paralyzing and that we do not need to do a job perfectly to do it at all. We learn to trust in our abilities and our instincts, and we learn to appreciate the process of learning.
One pillar on its own leaves us with just a shell of confidence but without the necessary foundations to support us through life. Feeling worthy but doubting our capabilities gives way to a feeling of entitlement; believing that we deserve the best in life but lacking the resources to help us achieve them (pillar one without pillar two). Feeling competent but unlovable or unwanted (pillar two without pillar one) we might steam engine through life seeking accomplishments and validations without being able to enjoy them and share them in connections and attachments with others around us.
So what happens if you missed the opportunity during childhood to build a robust self esteem? Is that it?
Self-esteem is often mistaken for something constant. We often believe that it feels a certain way and looks a certain way. We believe that whatever happens confidence should survive. We seldom appreciate how relational confidence is. It is affected by the world we live in, shaped and molded through our experiences.
As children we didn’t have a choice over the base that our caregivers created for us. But now we do. Now we have a say. Throughout all the stages of life we continue to build bases for ourselves.
As adults however, we carry the responsibility of forming attachments and relationships that are good to us, relationships that we can turn to for reassurance and support. These are not childhood needs. We continue to need security throughout all stages of life.
Take a minute to reflect on your relationships now, including the relationship that you have with yourself.
Do you choose a base that nurtures your capacity to grow and explore and venture out, or one that makes you feel guilty for doing so?
Do you choose a base that criticizes your shortcomings or helps you find new ways of mastering them?
Do you support yourself and encourage exploration and learning? When you struggle or stumble, are you kind and compassionate with yourself just like a warm parent would be, or are you harsh and punishing?
We are no longer young and helpless given a base that we cannot change but can merely adapt to. We are now in control of our lives and responsible for the bases we create and the impact they exert on our sense of self.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. London: Routledge.
The Center for Parenting Education offers an online workshop on the 2 pillars of self-esteem that you might want to download for more examples and tips on parenting that promotes a healthy self-esteem.