Earlier today, I read Deborah Ward's "High Sensitivity, Low Self-Esteem" blog post and found myself nodding in agreement. I wanted to elaborate on one of her points. Her main thesis is that being a highly sensitive person (or child) doesn't equate to low self-esteem—and I agree fully. However, what it does do is make you more susceptible to experiencing the world more deeply, including feeling bad about yourself.
The Self Esteem Question
Hardly anyone I know is even clear on what self-esteem is. I define self-esteem as how you feel about yourself in one discrete moment. You can feel fantastic as you leave the beauty salon and terrible when you fail your nursing exams (for the second time).
It behooves us to realize that most children are creating a sense of their worth and self-esteem (how they usually feel about themselves). Highly sensitive children "need more help" to create a positive and enduring sense of self-esteem.
Avoiding the "Swiss Cheese Syndrome"
In Deborah Ward's blog post, she mentioned that "it's no wonder a highly sensitive person's self-esteem starts to resemble Swiss cheese" when they seek to please everyone else except themselves. Highly sensitive children are so attuned to what people around them are saying, feeling, thinking and the general atmosphere of their surroundings that everything around them makes a deep impression (for better or worse).
Here are some pointers to help you boost a highly sensitive child's sense of self-esteem:
- More Encouragement - The highly sensitive child needs more positive encouragement that they are talented and supported as who they are and accepted as who they are not. This consistent and unwavering encouragement forms the basis of their positive self-esteem. For example, my neighbor's daughter is 8 years old, displays many qualities of the highly sensitive child and is an extraordinary painter. However, she consistently fails her math exams. I've worked with her parents to celebrate her for who she is. The good news is that she is very happy with herself most days, indicating the emergence of positive self-esteem.
- Sensitivity as a Strength - The highly sensitive child needs more messages that his or her sensitivity is a positive attribute rather than a nuisance. For example, one of my clients named Owen is a highly sensitive child and told me, "Moe, I knew not to go into the bathroom at lunch. Later I found out that one boy was being bullied in there—and it could have been me!" So I praised Owen for his ability to listen to himself, and honor his intuition. Highly sensitive children tend to be very intuitive, creative, compassionate, and intelligent so they need to be reminded of how valuable those qualities are and how such talents can help them navigate their world. Because too often, I hear of highly sensitive children getting the wrong messages, like: Why are you so picky? Stop crying! Can't you be just like everyone else?
- Developing Strengths - The highly sensitive child needs to express him or herself. Sarah McLachlan, the well-known musician, has been quoted as saying she had a very insecure child and then music gave her something to feel good about. All children need to see themselves succeed, but highly sensitive children's creative expression is often where they find their true north. Your highly sensitive child may be particularly adept at mathematics, writing short stories or tap dancing—the specifics aren't as important as them seeing themselves succeed at something and feeling good about who they are just as they are.
Being a highly sensitive adult or child doesn't equate to having low self-esteem, but it might predispose you to that experience. The antidote, of course, is to have more people, places and things surround you (or your child) that celebrate you exactly as you are—sensitivities and all.