What Do You Mean, Self-Esteem?

Esteem isn't the point: it's the self that matters

Posted Oct 15, 2016

We use the word all the time. We say that one young person ‘lacks self-esteem’, that another ‘suffers from low self-esteem’ and another ‘has self-esteem issues’. We say it. We write it. We seem to know what we mean. It sounds simple, as if young people deemed to be ‘lacking self-esteem’ just need a bit of extra praise or to be taken aside and convinced that, really, they’re not that bad. If they can somehow edge their way across the wobbly rope bridge, urged on by an instructor and a few muddy peers shouting encouragement from the riverbank below, then their ‘self-esteem’ will increase and they’ll grow into confident citizens.

Of course, important work goes on all the time in schools, youth centres, hospitals, prisons: wherever dedicated, compassionate adults are supporting troubled and troublesome young people. And as part of that work, praise, reassurance, challenge and achievement all matter enormously. But it’s rarely that simple. Ideas as complex as a young person’s sense of self and sense of their own significance in the world are in danger of being reduced to a single word (‘self-esteem’) and, probably, to a brief set of behavioural interventions. When a young person’s underlying ‘self’ is badly damaged or is incomplete in some way, our well-meaning attempts to bolster that young person’s ‘self-esteem’ can often make little impression.

We’re not born with a sense of self. Rather, that sense emerges out of relationships and depends on the quality of those relationships…. A new-born baby is physically and psychologically merged with its mother. It begins to develop a sense of itself as a separate person by looking in the mirror. But a baby with a wobbly neck can’t get out of its cot in order to adjust its quiff in the bathroom mirror! Instead, the mirror that the baby looks into is the mirror of the face looking down at it, reflecting it back to itself. Put a baby in front of any us and instinctively we start imitating, reflecting back the baby’s frowns and gurgles, its crying and its smiling. Before long, we start to broaden its repertoire, suggesting new expressions and sounds to the baby, adding little flourishes as the baby gazes back, absorbing all this.

The theory goes that if a baby gets enough of this attuned, attentive mirroring, it internalises the ability to mirror itself. In other words, it no longer needs another person to be physically present to confirm that it exists because it’s learnt to reflect on itself, to be aware of its own moods and feelings. The baby can relax, safe in the knowledge that it exists as a person in its own right. And the baby’s sense of itself as a person will be a collection of all the moods, feelings and gestures that have been recognised and reflected back to it, all the things internalised by the baby. “So that’s who I am!”

However, if the mirroring face reflects and responds only to the baby’s anger, for example, the baby becomes merely The Angry Person. If the mirroring face is always worried, the baby becomes The Worried, Anxious Person. Our sense of ourselves is narrowed or broadened by what we see in the mirror presented to us. We become adaptive and creative, seeing ourselves as interesting and worthwhile depending on what other people have recognised in us. And that’s why popular notions of ‘self-esteem’ are so dependent on the development of a much earlier sense of self. Never mind the esteem, what about the self in the first place? How insecure or narrow has that self become? How can a person’s basic sense of self feel more secure, more flexible? A secure sense of self depends, not on praise, not on surviving behavioural challenges, but on other people recognising and spending time with us, being interested and listening, understanding and reflecting us back to ourselves. There’s a substitute for that. Never a quick fix.

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