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Transcript of
Nathaniel Branden's Honoring the Self - Side 3

To some extent, we all depend on our environment for successful growth. Although it is possible for people to rise above a bad environment, our ability is not unlimited. It’s important to understand the kinds of interactions that support or undermine the emergence of self-confidence and self-respect.

Let me begin with a general observation: a child needs to make sense out of his or her world, and when that need is frustrated again and again, a tragic sense of self and of life is often the result.

I remember discussing this issue one day with the distinguished family therapist Virginia Satir . She gave an exquisite and appalling illustration of the kind of craziness so many of us grow up with.

She said, “Imagine a scene among a child, a mother and a father. Seeing the look of unhappiness on mother’s face, the child says, ‘What’s the matter mommy? You look sad.’

Mother answers, her voice tight and constricted, ‘Nothing’s the matter! I’m fine.’

Then father says angrily, ‘Don’t upset your mother!’

The child looks back and forth between mother and father, utterly bewildered and unable to understand the rebuke. The child begins to cry. Then mother shouts at father, ‘Now look what you’ve done!’”

Well, let’s consider this scene more closely. The child correctly perceives that something is bothering mother, and responds appropriately. Mother acts by invalidating the child’s correct perception of reality. Maybe she does this to protect the child, because she does not know how to handle her unhappiness. If she had said, “Yes, mummy is feeling a little sad right now, thank you for noticing,” she would have validated the child’s perception. By acknowledging her own unhappiness simply and openly, she would have reinforced the child’s compassion and taught him something profoundly important concerning a healthy attitude toward pain.

Father, perhaps to protect mother, or maybe out of guilt because mother’s sadness concerns him, rebukes the child, and this adds to the child’s confusion. If mother is not sad, why would a simple question be upsetting? And why should it be upsetting anyway?

The child, feeling hurt and helpless, begins to cry. Then mother screams at father, implying that she does not approve of his scolding the child. Contradictions compounded. Incongruities within incongruities. How can a child make any sense out of a situation like this?

Maybe the child will run outside, frantically looking for something to do or someone to play with, trying to forget about the incident as quickly as possible, repressing both feelings and perceptions.

And if the child flees into unconsciousness to escape the terrifying sense of being trapped in a nightmare, do we blame his well meaning parents for encouraging him to feel that sight is dangerous and that there is safety in blindness? An ordinary story, without villains.

It’s unlikely that the parents are trying to be destructive. But in choosing to deny simple reality, they give the child the impression that he exists in an incomprehensible world, where perception in untrustworthy and thought is futile.

There are many parental messages that can have a detrimental effect on a child’s self-esteem.

But the one I encounter most often in the course of my work is some version of the idea: you are not enough. Unfortunately, early in life all too many of us receive this message from parents and teachers. You may have potential, but you are unacceptable as you are. You need to be fixed.

“Here, let me fix your hair”

“Your clothes aren’t right”

“Smile, honey”

“Stand straighter”

“Lower your voice”

“Don’t get so excited”

One day you may be enough, but not now. You’ll be enough only if and when you live up to our expectations.

Sometimes the message ‘you are not enough’, is communicated not by criticism, but by excessive praise. The child feels over-praised if his or her accomplishments are exaggerated by loving parents. The result is a feeling of psychological invisibility and the sense that who I really am is not enough.

The tragedy of many people’s lives is that by accepting the verdict that they are not enough, they may spend their years exhausting themselves in pursuit of the holy grail of ‘enoughness’.

“If I have a good marriage, then I’ll be enough”

“If I make two hundred thousand dollars a year, then I’ll be enough”

“One more sexual conquest, one more doubling of my assets, one more person telling me I’m lovable. Then I’ll be enough.”

You can never win the battle for enoughness on these terms. The battle was lost on the day you decided that there was anything that needed to be proved. You can free yourself from the negative verdict that burdens your existence, only by rejecting this premise.

Children who are loved and accepted as they are, who do not feel their basic worth is continually on trial at their parent’s eyes, have a priceless advantage in the formation of healthy self-esteem.

The work of Virginia Satir , Haim Ginott and Stanley Coopersmith , just to name three specialists in the field, testifies to this fact.

The best work that psychologists in general have done with regards to self esteem, has been in the area of child-parent relations, with the emphasis on what parents can do to contribute to the growth of healthy self-esteem.

Stanley Coopersmith’s book, The Antithesis of Self-Esteem, is the most scholarly and best researched study in this area. One of the most interesting facts of the Coopersmith’s study, is a negative finding. Namely, that a child’s self-esteem is not related to family wealth, education, geographic living area, social class, father’s occupation, or always having mother at home. What is significant is the quality of the relationship that exists between the child and the significant adults in his or her life.

Coopersmith found four conditions most often associated with high self-esteem in children:

1) The child experiences full acceptance of thoughts, feelings, and the value of his or her being.

2) The child operates in a context of clearly defined and enforced limits that are fair, non-oppressive, and negotiable. But the child is not given unrestricted freedom. In consequence, the child experiences a sense of security and a clear basis for evaluating his or her behavior. Further, the limits generally entail high standards, and the confidence that the child will be able to meet them, with the consequence that the child usually does.

3) The child experiences respect for his or her dignity as a human being. The parents take the child’s needs and wishes seriously. The parents are willing to negotiate family rules within carefully drawn limits. In other words, authority, but not authoritarianism is in operation.

As an expression of this same overall attitude, the parents are less inclined to punish the child, and there tends to be less need for punishment. Instead, they are more inclined to put the emphasis on rewarding and reinforcing positive, desirable behavior.

The parents show an interest in the child in his or her social and academic life, and they are generally available for discussion when the child wants it.

4) The parents themselves tend to enjoy a high level of self-esteem.

Since the way we treat others generally reflects the way we treat ourselves, this last finding is hardly surprising. Yet, and this is most important, some children have emerged from the most horribly oppressive childhood environments with their sense of self heroically intact, and their self-esteem high. Other children from warm, supportive environments grow up ridden with self-doubts and insecurities.

Coopersmith goes on to observe that there are “virtually no parental patterns of behavior or parental attitudes that are common to all parents of children with high self-esteem”. Parents and teachers are not omnipotent with regard to a child’s self-esteem, but neither are they powerless.

Let’s continue to look at the influence they can and do have.

I often tell parents, “Be careful what you say to your children. They may agree with you.”

Before calling a child stupid, or clumsy, or bad, or a disappointment, it’s important for a parent to consider the question, “Is this how I want my child to experience him or herself?”

If a child is repeatedly told that he or she mustn’t feel this, or mustn’t feel that, the child is being encouraged to deny and disown feelings or emotions, in order to please the parents.

Normal expressions of excitement, anger, happiness, sexuality, longing, and fear are treated as sinful or distasteful to parents, and the child may disown and repudiate more and more of his or herself in order to belong, to be loved, and to avoid the terror of abandonment.

Overprotective parents may also cripple self-esteem in a child. Children may be forbidden the risk-taking and exploration essential for healthy development. As a result, the child believes that he or she is inadequate to the normal challenges of life – inherently unfit for independent survival.

Sometimes when a child’s parent dies or the parents divorce, the child feels painfully abandoned and may conclude that somehow it was his or her fault. Unless the child is helped to understand that the death or divorce was in no way caused by the child’s behavior, a verdict of ‘I am not enough’ may spread like a poison within the child’s psyche.

To a child who has little or no experience of being treated with respect, of being seen, attended to, listened to and trusted, such self-disrespect feels natural. We tend to go on giving ourselves the messages that our parents once gave us. If you want your child to feel self-respect, let the child experience respect from you.

Several years ago, while researching the essential nutrients for healthy growth and self-esteem, I developed a set of questions that I’ve since explored in depth with a number of psychotherapy clients. The questions, which you’ll hear in a moment, all have significance for the emergence of self-confidence and self-respect. They are a device for journeying into the childhood origins of your self-concept in general, and your self-esteem in particular.

As you listen to the questions, I’d like you to answer them as best you can, and think of examples to support your answers. Then describe to yourself all the emotions that the memory of those examples invoke. Finally, meditate on the conclusions you draw from these childhood experiences.

I am not assuming that all the conclusions you developed in childhood are drawn from experiences with your parents. I do consider this to be one worthwhile avenue of investigation, however. Remember, the significance of these questions will be most apparent if you attempt to answer them personally. You could spend many profitable and productive hours just replaying and meditating on the questions you are about to hear.

1) When you were a child, did your parents’ manner of behaving and of dealing with you, give you the impression that you were living in a world that was rational, predictable, and intelligible? Or rather, a world that was contradictory, bewildering and unknowable?

2) Were you taught the importance of learning to think and cultivating your intelligence? Did your parents provide you with intellectual stimulation, and convey the idea that using your mind can be an exciting adventure?

3) Were you encouraged to think independently, to develop your critical faculty? Or were you instead encouraged to be obedient, rather than mentally active and questioning? Did your parents project that it was more important to conform to what other people believe, than to discover what is true? When your parents wanted you to do something, did they give you reasons when possible? Or did they say in effect, “Do it because I say so”?

4) Did you feel free to express your views openly without fear of punishment?

5) Did your parents communicate their disapproval of your thoughts, desires or behavior, by means of humor, teasing, or sarcasm?

6) Did your parents treat you with respect? Were your thoughts, needs and feelings given consideration? Was your dignity as a human being acknowledged? When you expressed ideas and opinions, were they taken seriously? Were your likes and dislikes, whether or not they were approved of, treated with respect? Were your desires responded to thoughtfully and with respect?

7) Did you feel that you were psychologically visible to your parents? By which I mean, seen and understood by them. Did you feel real to them? Did your parents seem to make a genuine effort to understand you? Did your parents seem authentically interested in you as a person? Could you talk to your parents about issues of importance, and receive concerned, meaningful understanding from them? All of this is what is meant by the question, ‘Did you feel you were psychologically visible to your parents?’

8) Did you feel loved and valued by your parents, in the sense that you experienced yourself as a pleasure to them? Or rather, did you feel unwanted, or perhaps a burden? Or did you even feel hated? Or did you feel that you were simply an object of indifference?

9) Did your parents deal with you fairly and justly? Did your parents resort to threats in order to control your behavior? Either threats of immediate punishment, threats in terms of long range consequences for your life, or threats of supernatural punishments, such as going to Hell? Were you praised when you performed well, or merely criticized when you performed badly? Were your parents willing to admit it when they were wrong?

10) Was it your parents' practice to punish you or discipline you by striking or beating you?

11) Did your parents project that they believed in your basic goodness, or that they saw you as bad, worthless, or even evil?

12) Did your parents convey the sense that they believed in your intellectual and creative potentialities? Or did they project that they saw you as mediocre, stupid, or inadequate?

13) In your parents’ expectations of your behavior and performance, did they recognize your knowledge, needs, interests, and circumstances? Or did they see you as mediocre, stupid, or inadequate?

14) Did your parents’ behavior and manner of dealing with you tend to produce guilt in you?

15) Did your parents’ behavior and manner of dealing with you tend to produce fear in you?

16) Did your parents respect your intellectual and physical privacy?

17) Did your parents project that it was desirable for you to think well of yourself, in effect, to have self-esteem? Or were you cautioned against valuing yourself, and encouraged to be humble?

18) Did your parents convey that what you made of your life was important? Did they project that great things are possible for human beings, and specifically that great things are possible for you? Did your parents give you the impression life could be exciting, challenging, a rewarding adventure?

19) Did your parents instill in you a fear of the world and a fear of other people? Or were you encouraged to face the world with an attitude of relaxed, confident benevolence?

20) Were you encouraged to be open in the expression of your emotions and desires? Or did your parents’ behavior make you fear emotional self assertiveness and openness?

21) Were your mistakes accepted as a normal part of the learning process? Or, as something you were taught to associate with contempt, ridicule, and punishment?

22) Did your parents encourage you in the direction of having a healthy, affirmative attitude towards sex and toward your own body? A negative attitude? Or did they treat the entire subject as non-existent?

23) Did your parents’ manner of dealing with you tend to develop and strengthen your sense of masculinity or femininity? Or, to frustrate and diminish it?


24) Did your parents encourage you to feel that your life belonged to you? Or, were you encouraged to believe that you were merely a family asset, and that your achievements were significant only if they brought glory to your parents? Were you treated as a family resource, or as an end in yourself?

Almost everything psychology has learned about the environmental conditions that support healthy self-esteem is reflected in the questions you just heard. All significantly affect a child’s sense of self.

I’d like to go back now to question seven. The issue of whether or not a child feels visible to his or her parents. Let’s think about that in a bit more detail.

A child has a natural desire to be seen, heard, understood and responded to appropriately. This is the need for psychological visibility. Of course, when we discuss psychological visibility, we are always operating within the context of degree. From childhood on, we receive some measure of appropriate feedback from other people. Without it, we could hardly survive. Statistically however, few children experience a high degree of appropriate visibility from adults. For example, a child who experiences his or her excitement as good and valuable, but is then punished or rebuked for it by adults, undergoes the bewildering experience of invisibility and disorientation. Similarly, a child who is praised for “always being an angel”, but knows it’s not true, also experiences invisibility and disorientation. In neither case does the response make sense, feel appropriate, fit the child’s experience.

Working with clients in psychotherapy, and with students at my intensive workshops on self-esteem and the art of being, I am often struck by how often the pain of invisibility at home in childhood is clearly central to developmental problems and insecurities and inadequacies in adult relationships.

I am not implying that first you get an independent sense of identity, and only then seek visibility by interacting with others. Obviously, our relationships and the responses and feedback we receive over time contribute to the sense of self we acquire, especially in the early years. All of us, to a profoundly important extent, experience who we are in the context of our relationships. Consequently, when you meet a new person, your personality contains among other things, the consequences of many past encounters, many past experiences, the internalization of many responses and feedbacks from others, that have now become incorporated into your sense of self, your sense of identity. And you keep growing through these encounters as your sense of identity undergoes change over time.

Nonetheless, the basic principle remains: you need and desire the experience of psychological visibility in your encounters with others. You normally have a sense of your own identity, but it is experienced more as a diffuse feeling, than an isolated thought. Your self-concept is not literally a single concept, but rather a cluster of images and abstract perspectives on your various real or imagined traits and characteristics. In very simple, un-technical language, your self-concept is your internal vision and experience of who you are.

In the course of your life, your values, goals and visions are first conceived in your mind. To the extent that your life is successful, you then translate them into action and objective reality. They become part of the ‘out there’ of the world you perceive.


End of side 3

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