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Nathaniel Branden's Honoring the Self - Side 4
was a genius at teaching parents and teachers how to
interact with children to provide an enriched sense of
visibility and self esteem. A favorite anecdote of mine
taken from Ginotts book, Between Parent and
Teacher, illustrates some of the principles Ive
been discussing and has special relevance for the issue
Ginott writes: David, age seventeen, was interviewed
for a summer job but was rejected. He returned home
disappointed and depressed. Father felt sympathy for his
son and conveyed it effectively.
Father: You really wanted this job, didnt
David: Yeah, I sure did.
Father: And you were so well equipped for it, too.
David: Yeah. A lot of good that did me.
Father: What a disappointment.
David: Sure is, dad.
Father: Wanting a job and not getting is really
David: Yeah, I know. Its not the end of the
world. Ill find another job.
Lets think about this interaction for a moment. Its
very likely that while the boy is feeling disappointed
and depressed, he is also resisting the feeling of
disappointment and depression. He tenses his body against
it to shut off and deny his emotions. By recognizing what
the boy feels, by naming it in words, and by
communicating acceptance and respect, the father is in
effect, permitting the boy to experience his emotions
fully to accept and integrate them into conscious
The boy has received much more from the father than
sympathy. He feels better because his feelings dont
remain trapped inside him. He can assimilate the painful
experience and therefore move beyond it. His natural
healthy sense of reality is now able to assert itself. In
this way, the fathers response has a great healing
Most parents do not respond to such situations like
the father in Ginotts example. Instead they respond
in a manner likely to prolong and aggravate the
depression. Ginott gives seven examples of destructive
responses often given by parents.
What did you expect, to get the first job you
wanted? Life isnt like that. You may have to go to
five or even ten interviews before you get hired.
When I was your age, I went looking for my first
job. I shined my shoes, got a haircut, put on clean
clothes and carried the Wall Street Journal. I knew how
to make a good impression.
I dont know why youre so depressed. One
job didnt work out. Big deal! Its not even
worth talking about.
Im so sorry dear. I dont know what to
tell you. My heart breaks. Life is so much a matter of
luck. Its not what you know, its who you
know. And we dont know anybody.
All these responses have one thing in common: they
encourage the child to deny and repress feelings. They
convey lack of confidence in the childs ability to
arrive at a healthy, balanced perspective. They alienate
the child from his or her experience, and they leave the
child feeling invisible.
These are the kind of responses that most of us received
over and over again, in the course of growing up. None of
them serves the needs of healthy development or positive
A child who experiences invisibility in the early years
of life is caught in a universe that is not only painful
but bewildering. The same result occurs if the child
feels badly frustrated with regard to other basic needs,
like physical contact, affection, respect, recognition,
love, or confidence in his or her strengths. The child
has almost no way to understand his or her suffering, and
this makes the suffering harder to bear. In addition to
feeling pain, the child feels helpless.
You can hardly expect a child or four or five to
think, I understand why daddy wont play with
me or allow me to sit on his knee. No need for me to take
it personally. Its just that daddys father
was a terribly repressed man, cut off from his own
feelings and emotions. He was so cold and unfeeling in
the way he brought up daddy, that when daddy was a little
boy, he shut down emotionally. He numbed himself in order
not to feel the pain. He kept himself numb through his
whole life and now he doesnt know what to do. Its
not that he intends to hurt me. But if he were to open
himself to me and to my needs, he would have to reconnect
with the small, lonely abandoned little boy in himself.
And that would just be too painful for daddy.
A little girl could hardly be expected to say, I
understand why mommy shouts and screams so much. Its
not really me shes angry at. Its just that
daddys coldness and lack of affection is tormenting
her unbearably, and she doesnt know what to do. Her
nerves are torn to shreds, so she explodes over anything
and everything, and its easier to get mad at me
than at daddy.
No. This is not the typical thinking of children. From
their point of view, what is happening is
incomprehensible. All they know for certain is that they
hurt. It would make them powerless to feel that their
hurt is just an effect of their parents own
unresolved problems. If their hurt bears no important
relation to their own actions, what can they do? They cant
solve their parents problems. At this point, their
need for understanding, and the need for an experience of
effectiveness, act against the child.
The child often comes to a solution that
gives short term benefits, while laying the foundation
for a long-term disaster, in which the self esteem turns
against itself. The need for the experience of
effectiveness, so natural to a child, turns into a tool
for self-destruction. The unhappy solution the
tragic solution that the child often forms in
response to this kind of unhappy treatment, is some
version of the following idea:
Theres something wrong with me. Its my
fault. Im bad. Im wrong. Im not enough.
Im unlovable. Im undeserving.
For the child, this self-condemnation is a survival
strategy. The child is attacked at one level, to protect
some sense of efficacy at another. An analogy may be
When human beings developed the notion of a god who was
omniscient and omnipotent, they quickly added the
attribute all good. It would be too
terrifying to imagine a capricious or sadistic god.
Therefore, if some bad thing happens, the fault must be
ours. Someone or something must be sacrificed to appease
this god. A childs relationship to his parents is
in some way like our relationship to this god. The
problem is compounded by the fact that when we begin to
think that we are bad, we usually proceed to prove
ourselves right. We strike a younger sibling, we smash a
friends toy, we tell lies, we get pregnant at age
fourteen, we get arrested for reckless driving at age
sixteen, and so on.
In the early years of practicing psychotherapy I remember
being puzzled by the intense attachment the clients
seemed to have for their own guilt. They would come to
therapy, talk about feeling bad or unworthy or unlovable
or undeserving. When I would ask what was wrong with
them, they would rarely give examples that would remotely
equal the degree of their self condemnation. When I
suggested that perhaps they were being too harsh on
themselves, they looked at me as if I were annoying,
irrelevant, and insensitive to the reality of the
situation which in a way, I was.
I hadnt yet discovered the usefulness to them, of
their self condemnation (the usefulness, that is to say,
within the context of their private model of self in the
world). Slowly, I began to realize the survival value of
their self-blame: It helped to make the world
intelligible. It helped to make them feel not quite so
helpless and powerless. Unless, as adults, they came to
see that better alternatives for living were possible for
them, they would not abandon the only life belt they had
When I began working with my sentence completion
technique, I found a way to demonstrate to myself and my
clients the use of much of their self condemnation, in
other words, the unconscious purpose it was serving.
This is how the technique works: The client is given a
sentence stem by the therapist, and asked to keep
repeating the stem, adding a different ending each time.
He or she is asked to go as rapidly as possible without
worrying whether each ending is literally true, and
without worrying whether one ending might conflict with
another. Just find some grammatical completion for the
sentence, and keep going.
Whenever I suspected the problem Ive been
discussing here, I asked the individual to work with this
If it turns out, Im not a bad person and never was
Here are the kinds of endings Ive heard over and
If it turns out, Im not a bad person and
what has my whole life been about?
my father was crazy!
I dont understand anything or anybody.
then whats the matter with my parents?!
I want to kill my mother.
Im so angry!
my whole life has been a joke.
then its not fair.
why did they do the things they did?
how am I ever going to understand anything?
no, no! This is too frightening to even think
Im alone. Im alone. Im alone.
It can be difficult for the child within us to let go
of the self-condemnation used to make sense of out of the
world, and to help allow the child to survive. Its
not easy to let go of the notion of badness. We cling to
the strategy of self-blame and perpetuate it by behavior
that we as adults ourselves condemn. We dont notice
that the strategy that may have helped us at age five is
killing us at age thirty five, forty five, fifty five, or
When clients in therapy come to understand this, they
begin to realize that the most courageous task life may
ever ask of them is to relinquish their attachment to the
vision of themselves as inadequate, unworthy, or not
On the day they give up that strategy, they will stand
face to face with the fact of their own aloneness, and
with a need to accept responsibility for their own
existence as self-responsible adults.
As adults, there are many additional payoffs to self
blame beyond what Ive said so far. People can tell
themselves that they have higher standards than others.
They can manipulate others into feeling sorry for them,
and assure them that they are better than they think. I
mean, if I tell you Im rotten, I can get you to
tell me, I know youre not rotten. Youre
terrific. They can send out the signal to
themselves and to others: Expect nothing of me; Im
inadequate. They can remain where they are --
stuck, paralyzed, passive, irresponsible, and
unresponsive to the challenges of life.
So you can see, there can be a lot of very important
payoffs for self blame, self-condemnation, and guilt. Dont
be so quick to assume that self-blame reflects a virtue.
One of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is a
belief in the childs competence and worth. In the
same way, one of the greatest gifts you can give another
human being is not to buy at face value his or her
negative self esteem. When you deal with people as if you
expect them to be rational, you increase the probability
that they will be rational. When you deal with people as
if you expect them to be honest, you increase the
probability that they will be honest. And the same
principle holds true for self responsibility or any other
virtue you wish to encourage.
On the other hand, if you deal with people as if you
expect the worst, you tend to get it. It becomes a self
fulfilling prophecy. This principle has been most
intensively studied in the context of parent-child and
teacher-student relationships, but it applies to all
human encounters. Virtually everything Ive said
about child-parent relationships please understand
this applies to all caring relationships. I could
go still farther and say, applies to all human
One of the characteristics of good relationships
love relationships or friendships is that they
have a mutually enhancing effect on feelings of
self-worth. But sometimes people confuse the desire to
feel seen, visible, understood, or appreciated, with the
desire to be approved of or validated. These are not
quite the same thing. In fact, not the same thing at all.
The desire to be validated, confirmed and approved of in
our being and behavior is normal. I would call it
irrational only when it becomes so important to us, that
we sacrifice honesty and integrity in other to achieve
it, and in such a case, clearly we as suffering from poor
self esteem. But even so, the desire to be validated is
not the same as the desire to be understood or to be
I want to emphasize that the desire for visibility, for
understanding is not an expression of a weak or uncertain
ego, or of low self esteem. On the contrary; the lower
our self esteem, the more we feel a need to hide, and the
more ambivalent our feelings about visibility. We both
long for it, and are terrified by it. In contrast, the
more we take pride in who we are, the more transparent we
are willing to be. I might add, the more transparent we
are eager to be.
One of the characteristics of a self esteem deficiency is
an excess of preoccupation with gaining the approval and
avoiding the disapproval of others. There is a hunger for
validation and support at every moment of our existence.
Some people dream of finding this validation and support
in love or in what they call love. But because the
problem is essentially internal, because the person does
not believe in him or herself, no outside source can ever
satisfy this hunger, except momentarily. The hunger is
not for visibility, it is for self esteem. And this
cannot be supplied by others.
To the extent that we have successfully evolved toward
good self esteem, we hope and expect that others will
perceive our value, appreciate our value, not create our
value. We want others to see us as we actually are, even
to help us see ourselves more clearly -- but not to
invent us out of their own fantasies. Even if the other
persons fantasies about us are complimentary,
still, we feel invisible, unseen. We feel unreal to the
person who may be professing to adore us. In the
responses of others, we long for, we need
The unfortunate truth is that most people from childhood
on are the recipients of many inappropriate responses.
They are the survivors of many occasions when they were
misperceived, misunderstood, transparently lied to,
unfairly criticized, when their person was not respected,
their dignity not acknowledged, their thoughts met with
indifference, and their feelings denied or condemned. In
other words, Im talking about an average childhood.
And because this state of affairs is so widespread,
when we meet a person of high self esteem, we are
probably looking at a person who knows how to honor the
self even without much or any external support.
Some psychologists look for the causes of a persons
behavior just in the persons history. They believe
that there are a number of people in our past who made us
what we are today. If they see a person with good self
esteem, they want to know who made or him that way. And
if they see a person with poor self esteem, they want to
know whos responsible, since they assume it cannot
be the person they are looking at.
They overlook that we are active contestants in the drama
of our own lives, and that we bear central and
significant responsibility for the kind of self we evolve
and the level of self esteem we attain. And this leaves
me to a story -- a favorite of mine -- Id like to
conclude this cassette with:
Once upon a time, there were two brothers who aroused the
interest of a psychologist. One brother was an alcoholic
while the other hardly touched liquor at all. The
psychologist was curious about the causes of this
difference, so he interviewed each man separately.
To the alcoholic he said, Youve been an
alcoholic for most of your adult life. Why do you suppose
The man responded, Ha, thats easy to explain.
You see, my father was an alcoholic. You might say I
learned to drink at my fathers knee.
To the man who hardly touched liquor at all, the
psychologist said, You dont like to drink.
The man said, Thats easy to explain. You see,
my father was an alcoholic. You might say I learned very
early in life that alcohol can be poison.
Ultimately, you must take responsibility for the life
decisions you make. You are ultimately responsible for
the conclusions you draw from your experiences. That
responsibility cannot be pushed off onto other people.
The kinds of decisions and conclusions you arrive at,
inevitably reflect the mental operations though which you
process the events of your life -- what you do inside
your own head, with the material of your experience.
Those internal mental operations are the single most
decisive factor to your level of self esteem. Your self
esteem, to say it differently, is a consequence of
actions taking place inside your mind. Ultimately, thats
where self-esteem finds its source.
Lets turn now to the internal sources of self
Intelligence | Empathy
Emotional Abuse | Understanding
Literacy | Feeling Words
Respect | Parenting | Caring
Listening | Invalidation | Hugs
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