Building Self-Esteem After a Difficult Childhood
by Michelle Farris, LMFT
Many people find it difficult to feel good about themselves.
Without a foundation of healthy self-esteem, we lack confidence in various situations. For instance, when we feel like we don’t deserve to ask for what we need at work or at home, we make decisions based more on what other people want rather than what’s best for us.
The impact of building your self-esteem is significant. When you feel good about yourself, you’ll have an easier time choosing healthy romantic partners, setting boundaries, asking for promotions at work, standing up for yourself, and even parenting your kids.
Self-esteem doesn’t have to be a struggle.
In this article, you’ll learn the principles for how to build self-esteem, especially if you had a difficult childhood, without relying on outside sources to validate you.
What Is Healthy Self-Esteem?
When someone has healthy self-esteem, they can:
- take care of themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually
- love and accept themselves, regardless of mistakes
- accept the love, attention and praise others give them
All of these traits are equally important. Developing healthy self-esteem means making a conscious effort to be kind to ourselves. Just like relationships with others, we will always have to work to maintain a healthy relationship with ourselves. It’s a daily practice.
The Origins of Self-Esteem
People begin to develop self-esteem patterns (both healthy and unhealthy) during childhood. These patterns have a huge impact on how we live our lives. Our caregivers provide the first examples of how adults should treat themselves. Unfortunately, when adults can’t model healthy self-esteem, their children will also struggle to feel good about themselves.
Those who grow up in situations of abuse or neglect often struggle with low self-esteem. For example, when families don’t celebrate children’s accomplishments and strengths, don’t make an effort to show up for their sporting events or back-to-school nights, and ignore or hurt them (physically or emotionally), children learn that who they are and what they need isn’t important. The seeds of self-doubt are planted. As a result, children can’t feel a sense of healthy pride in themselves and their accomplishments. They learn to discount their abilities and often become overachievers and perfectionists. Compliments are painful because they haven’t learned to see the good in themselves.
These patterns get passed down through the generations from one to the next. Those who grew up with parents who didn’t model healthy self-worth may not know how to teach their children how to feel good about themselves. In fact, some may even believe that exhibiting healthy self-esteem is actually being boastful or arrogant.
Parents aren’t the only ones that can influence self-esteem in children. Teachers and other caregivers, and even peers, also contribute to children’s self-esteem either negatively or positively.
The Connection Between Codependency and Low Self-Esteem
When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we often get involved with people who also don’t feel good about themselves. For example, we might be drawn to someone who also has low self-esteem or someone who tries to control us. We might settle for unsupportive relationships out of the fear that we don’t deserve better.
When our self-esteem is lacking, we will try to get our self-worth from others — through taking care of others and needing their approval and validation, which are the hallmarks of codependency.
Unfortunately, if we can’t esteem ourselves, seeking approval from others will never fill that void. When we get praised for being selfless, we assume that the only way to get love is through self-sacrifice. Always being the giver creates an unhealthy imbalance that makes prioritizing self-care difficult. When we don’t prioritize our needs and feelings, we unknowingly teach others that our needs and feelings don’t matter.
How to Recover from Low Self-esteem
No one chooses to feel bad about themselves. Although we are powerless over what happened to us as children, as adults we have the power to heal. Acknowledging this power can be the first step towards positive change.
Here are a few key principles when re-establishing positive self-esteem.
In order to feel good about yourself, you have to face what you don’t like about yourself. Take time to consider whether certain negative beliefs belong to you. Letting others define us has lasting consequences. Instead, be willing to look closely at your own behavior and how that behavior impacts your ability to love and respect yourself.
Self-esteem isn’t about being arrogant or feeling superior. We are no better and no worse than other people. True self-love begins as a daily practice of accepting ourselves without having to constantly prove our worth. We can be equal without striving to be better than or less than others.
Everyone makes mistakes – those mistakes are part of being human. In order to develop self-esteem, we have to nurture ourselves with gentle kindness like parents to children, giving ourselves that unconditional nurturing and acceptance as the perfectly imperfect beings we all are.
Some Ways to Improve Your Self-Esteem:
- Treat yourself like someone you admire.
- Listen to the way that you talk to yourself: negative self-talk is damaging to self-esteem. Would you let someone talk to a loved one the way you talk to yourself?
- When someone compliments you, accept the compliment without arguing.
- If you have trouble acknowledging your gifts, ask trusted members of your support circle for feedback. This can help you get started, but don’t rely on other people for all of your validation.
- Make lists or journal about what is getting in your way. What drives your negative belief that you aren’t good enough? Try to trace it back to its source.
Self-Esteem Is an Inside Job
In part, we may struggle with low self-esteem if we base how we see ourselves on external things, such as our relationship status or how financially successful we are. Many people feel secure when life is going well, however, those things are not always in our control. If you base your self-esteem on external things, you may struggle when things change. For example, when a job or relationship ends your self-esteem may plummet if you don’t have a firm grasp on who you are. Essentially, self-esteem is an inside job.
Though childhood sets the foundation for self-esteem, we can take responsibility for how we see ourselves as adults. We can practice making decisions based on what we want or need, rather than putting too much emphasis on the approval and actions of others. Self-esteem is at the heart of the relationship we have with ourselves. If that connection is strong, it creates a foundation for a healthy and resilient life.
If you are struggling with low self-esteem, it’s important to face that struggle directly and to begin to explore how you feel about yourself. You might also consider seeking therapy as part of the recovery process. There is no quick fix that will repair low self-esteem. Self-esteem is a practice that needs to be maintained through a committed effort to taking care of and valuing yourself.
4 Essential Steps for Building Your Confidence (free ebook)
Michelle Farris is a marriage and family therapist who specializes in codependency and anger management. She believes in “walking her talk” and shows others how to make small but significant changes in their relationships. She writes a weekly blog and offers online courses on relationships, anger, and codependency. Sign-up for Michelle and Sharon’s free “Codependency and Coffee” video where they answer frequently asked questions about codependency, setting boundaries, and healthy relationships.