The predominant response to my last post on recovering the core self pointed out that the work should not be confined to those who have suffered emotional abuse at home or at work. That is certainly true. While emotional abuse victims are more likely to feel as if they've lost themselves, everyone, including psychological professionals, can use some core self work. This follow-up is for everyone.
In addition to temperament, which was addressed in the last post, there are four components of the core self that can easily erode in the stresses of modern living. These are: self-concept, identity, self-efficacy, and self-value.
Self-concept consists of emotionally-charged beliefs about yourself. Emotionally-charged is the key. Your capacity to love is likely to be part of your self-concept; your ability to drive a car probably is not.
Self-esteem is inextricably linked to self-concept, and both are linked to behavior, which is why attempts to raise the former without changing the latter fail. (Saying, "I'm a good person," can actually lower self-esteem, if you do not behave in the way you believe a good person does.) But self-concept goes well beyond how you feel about yourself.
Your brain uses self-concept as a guide for interpreting the world. We tend to process only the information that confirms self-concept and filter out anything that contradicts it. If you think you're incompetent, you'll focus exclusively on your mistakes and overlook the vast majority of tasks you do well. If you believe you're a hard-worker, you'll notice evidence that supports your self-concept - you go to work, clean the house, mow the lawn, cook dinner, etc., and discount your tendency to procrastinate or take more than the allowed breaks at work.
Identity is an umbrella term in psychology, used variously to label everything about the self. In regard to our discussion of core self, it's useful to define identity as an image of the self that helps us know how to behave. My identity reinforces certain qualities and helps me play certain roles. For instance, I might identify with being a teacher, artist, or sportsman, with qualities of loyalty, intelligence, perseverance, etc. These roles and qualities become guides for how I behave. When I falter, I experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
Identity also defines how we want others to perceive us. If I have a diffuse identity, I'll spend a lot of effort trying to manipulate the impressions of others, to avoid the guilt and shame I feel when the world lets me know that I'm not all that artistic, talented, intelligent, or compassionate.
The external aspect of identity produces most of the ill feeling about the self and makes us susceptible to abuse. If someone you care about says that you're a lousy parent, you may be crushed, feel abused, and want to retaliate.
One goal of core self work is to become impervious to emotional abuse, while remaining open to useful feed-back. If someone you care about says you're a bad parent, but you believe that you're a good parent, you will want to know why he/she thinks that, but you'll deflect any unreasonable or abusive behavior. It will seem like a ridiculous accusation, equivalent to, "You have green hair." You may perceive the accuser as a child in a temper tantrum.
A person with a strong core self cannot be verbally or emotionally abused. But the relationship with an abusive person most certainly will be damaged. This bears repeating: Your partner - or anyone else - cannot emotionally abuse you once your are in touch with your core self and your core values; only relationships can be emotionally abused. Abuse and other forms of betrayal make it impossible for relationships to thrive.
Self-efficacy is the perceived capacity to make a difference. It requires the ability to set goals and meet them. The key to self- efficacy is emotional regulation skill to convert negative emotions into constructive motivation. People with poor emotional regulation skills must rely on things going smoothly in their environment to achieve what they set out to do. They often try to manipulate other people - or become doormats themselves - in vain attempts to ensure that things run smoothly. Their high degree of reactivity to others often leads to failure. For example, I might plan a great presentation, only to lose concentration - and my audience - when I see someone yawn. The dread of failure is so great for those with low self-efficacy that they often stop setting goals and eventually quit thinking about the future completely.
Self-Value is a more useful concept than self-esteem. The latter, simply put, is how you feel about yourself. But it's not an entity that you need to "work on." It's more like a temperature reading of the interplay of self-concept, self-efficacy, and identity. Self-esteem can be improved only by improving self-concept, identity, and self-efficacy. Research has shown that Pollyanna programs to raise self-esteem - "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" - always fail. While the indiscriminate praise of children ("You're special! You're one of kind!) does not raise their self-esteem, it can make them narcissistic. They'll cut in front of you in line because they're "special!"
Self-value is about how you regard and treat yourself. Remember, value is very much a matter of regard and behavior. If you value a da Vinci painting, you appreciate its beauty and design, which are not diminished in your eyes by the cracks in the canvas. Above all, you treat it well, making sure that it is maintained in ideal conditions of temperature and humidity. Similarly, people with high self-value appreciate their better qualities - while trying to improve their lesser ones - and take care of their physical and psychological health, growth, and development.