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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. Its 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
mothers face, the child says, Whats the
matter mommy? You look sad.
Mother answers, her voice tight and constricted,
Nothings the matter! Im fine.
Then father says angrily, Dont upset your
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 youve done!
Well, lets consider this scene more closely. The
child correctly perceives that something is bothering
mother, and responds appropriately. Mother acts by
invalidating the childs 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 childs perception. By acknowledging
her own unhappiness simply and openly, she would have
reinforced the childs compassion and taught him
something profoundly important concerning a healthy
attitude toward pain.
Father, perhaps to protect mother, or maybe out of guilt
because mothers sadness concerns him, rebukes the
child, and this adds to the childs 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.
Its 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 childs 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 arent right
Lower your voice
Dont get so excited
One day you may be enough, but not now. Youll 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 peoples 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 Ill be
If I make two hundred thousand dollars a year,
then Ill be enough
One more sexual conquest, one more doubling of
my assets, one more person telling me Im
lovable. Then Ill 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 parents 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
Stanley Coopersmiths 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 Coopersmiths study, is a negative finding.
Namely, that a childs self-esteem is not related to
family wealth, education, geographic living area, social
class, fathers 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
childs 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
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
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 childs
self-esteem, but neither are they powerless.
Lets continue to look at the influence they can and
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, its 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 mustnt
feel this, or mustnt 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
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 childs 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 childs behavior, a
verdict of I am not enough may spread like a
poison within the childs 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
Several years ago, while researching the essential
nutrients for healthy growth and self-esteem, I developed
a set of questions that Ive since explored in depth
with a number of psychotherapy clients. The questions,
which youll 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, Id 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 childs sense of self.
Id like to go back now to question seven. The issue
of whether or not a child feels visible to his or her
parents. Lets think about that in a bit more
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 its not true, also experiences invisibility
and disorientation. In neither case does the response
make sense, feel appropriate, fit the childs
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
Intelligence | Empathy
Emotional Abuse | Understanding
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