I Don’t Like, Admire, or Value Myself

Young woman sitting on a bench in a city parkWhat is it that many people who struggle with individuating have in common? In many cases, it’s lacking the ability to like, admire, and value themselves. Without that capacity, they were deprived of the tools to forge identities as people with self-esteem who know what they want and how to get it.

For many of the people I work with in therapy, it is clear that their early family experiences contributed to making it difficult to say something like, “I’m a valuable human being. I like myself. I deserve admiration and recognition.” What these formative experiences tend to have in common are communications from loved ones that conveyed critical, devaluing, or untrustworthy messages that failed to provide necessary developmental cues that build self-confidence and self-esteem. In some families—in contrast to negative communication—the absence of positive communication failed to give the child the building blocks to become a person with good feelings about himself or herself.

When I think about these childhood experiences, I remember hearing about many negative consequences that limited some people’s abilities to think well of themselves and to successfully navigate their relationships in the world. These children grew up with concerns about failure, worry about being spoiled, fear of shame and humiliation, fear of being seen as full of themselves or stupid, expectations of criticism, emotional neglect or lack of interest—sadly, the list can go on.

Some common family behaviors that interfere with positive self-feelings include:

  • Parents who are critical
  • Parents who are self-involved
  • Lack of recognition for a child’s special talents
  • Emotionally abandoning a child at a young age
  • Lack of protection for a child from an abusive parent
  • Disrespect toward a child
  • Intrusiveness with a child
  • Unrealistic praise for a child

Not every child who grows up in a family where he or she encounters these dynamics in a parent-child relationship has problems with self-confidence and self-esteem, but many struggle as adults to develop positive self-feelings that are best developed in early childhood. To illustrate the struggle to become individuated from family and learn to see oneself as valuable, I am going to briefly discuss my work with Oliver. He is a person I work with in therapy whose parents were unable to recognize his special talent of writing. In his case, their overall inability to recognize any of his fine attributes—his humor, kindness, or curiosity—were a serious detriment to positive self-experience.

Lack of Recognition for the Child’s Talents and Special Personhood

Oliver is a writer. At least, that’s how I think about him. If you ask him about himself and what he does, he will tell you, “I work for magazines and newspapers.” When Oliver came to see me, he was 29 years old and struggling to write his second novel. Three years ago, he had decided to destroy the manuscript of his first novel after it was rejected by a publisher. He vowed never to write another novel. But six months before he came to see me, he began work on a second novel. He found himself facing blank pages and unable to move forward with his work.

Oliver declared himself depressed when we first met. He was also angry with himself and his parents. In an early session, tearing up and ranting, he softly shouted, “I don’t know why I think I can write a novel. I should have listened to my parents. They never made anything of my writing. They never said it was good or bad. They discouraged me from pursuing creative writing, especially as I got older. They never read most of my work and they just kept focusing on how writers don’t make a living. Now I’m like them. I can’t seem to believe in myself. “

I asked Oliver how he managed to pursue writing with so little encouragement from his parents. He told me, “I had some teachers who really thought I was a terrific writer. Even as early as elementary school, teachers would proclaim how creative I was. I loved their praise, but it was never easy to fully believe. Still, by high school I was on the newspaper and the creative writing journal. I majored in English in college and even won awards for my writing. Even so, especially since high school, I’ve had a lot of self-doubt. I would always hand things in late because I never thought anything was good enough. When my novel was rejected, that was absolute confirmation.”

I responded, “It seems to me you don’t fully believe you can’t do it. Rather, you have some conflict about whether or not you have what it takes as a creative writer. You started another novel last year. What are your thoughts about how you were able to do that?”

“I don’t know, exactly. Even in high school I would love and hate working on the paper or journal. It was hard to believe my stuff was any good even when it got published. One day I think I have it, and the next I know I don’t and never did. When I was working as a fact-checker for a magazine last year, a friend of mine told me about a freelance opportunity to write some articles based on interviews with people in the tech industry. I decided to do it since it felt straightforward and didn’t need a lot of creativity. When I completed the assignment, I felt really good. It did seem creative, and I got good feedback. I think it gave me a high, and I started the new book. Since then I’ve crashed. Who am I kidding? I’ve been out of college for seven years now. I’m going to turn 30. Nothing is happening. Honestly, I don’t believe I’m much good at anything right now. I don’t have a permanent job, I don’t have a girlfriend, and my relationships with my family are awful. Thank goodness I have a few good friends. I can’t seem to get what I want and I don’t even know what that is.”

Oliver described his inability to believe he has the capacity to get what he wants from life. He doubts his ability to be a creative writer, and he is negative about himself and conveys no sense of valuing or liking himself. As we continued to talk, Oliver explained how his parents were short on praise and encouragement in most areas of his life. He sounded bitter as he stated, “It wasn’t only about writing. My parents were short on extolling my virtues. They weren’t really critical; they just never said anything very positive. They always commented about people having swelled heads or bragging if they said something positive about themselves. I guess I believed them and tried to be sure I kept the size of my head to a minimum.”

Oliver and I have work to do. My job will be to help Oliver recognize the ways in which these early communications affected the negative expectations he developed about himself. He needs to become aware of how the lack of admiration I believe it is important for all children to feel that their parents see them as special—certainly not all the time, but frequently enough. Being seen as special contributes to bolstering a child’s development of a positive self as he or she goes through all the challenging life experiences that raise questions about how special, valuable, or capable he or she is.and recognition from his parents—not just for his creativity, but for all his valuable qualities—interfered with his ability to see himself as a worthwhile, competent, talented man. As he increasingly recognizes the effects of his past on his present and it becomes real emotionally, Oliver will be more able to develop his self and feel as if he is not the person his parents defined, but rather a person of his own making.

It is vital for adults who struggle with negative self-feelings to be able to discover the ways in which old family dynamics sent messages both consciously and unconsciously. Parents function as mirrors for their children so they can see their reflections and learn about themselves, and it’s how children come to define and know themselves in their positive and negative aspects. When there is little positive reflected back to a child, the development of a poor self-image and low self-esteem is likely. It is extremely difficult to develop and believe in a sense of self that is contrary to the parents’ negative definitions of who a child is.

I believe it is important for all children to feel that their parents see them as special—certainly not all the time, but frequently enough. Being seen as special contributes to bolstering a child’s development of a positive self as he or she goes through all the challenging life experiences that raise questions about how special, valuable, or capable he or she is. When that is not part of a person’s childhood experience, the task as an adult becomes to learn how to provide it for oneself.

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 16 comments
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  • Josie

    Josie

    November 24th, 2015 at 8:46 AM

    Sometimes we are the only ones who will believe in ourselves. If we are not willing to give that back to ourselves then we have to know that it is not up to anyone else to do that. This is just so sad! To imagine going through life feeling unworthy and under valued.

  • هلال جندلة

    هلال جندلة

    November 24th, 2015 at 9:20 AM

    I sadly committed most of the above mistakes done to Oliver by his parents to my eleven years old daughter .. And I am always sorry for that .. Is it too late for me to fix up what I’ve destroyed?
    Pease feed me back.

  • Stephanie

    Stephanie

    November 24th, 2015 at 4:10 PM

    Reading this then reading your comment, I cried. If you recognize that you have done these things, it’s not too late. I am 37 and I would give anything for my mom to feel the way you do. And things would change for me, even at this age, if she came to me trying to fix things. It’s never too late to help your child. Thank you for admitting your shortcomings and don’t let it hurt you – let it teach you.

  • Vaughn

    Vaughn

    November 24th, 2015 at 2:38 PM

    I will admit that I had a terrible childhood with alcoholic parents who also were abusive. Ok? I didn’t have a great life growing up.
    I cam to a point though where I understood that for anyone to love me, for me to ever have a change in my life that I wanted then I had to learn to love me first.
    Not so easy when you have grown up hearing all of these things that you are or are not but that are never good, but I did it. I worked at it and i did it. I understand now that to ever feel love from another that I first must give it to myself.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    November 24th, 2015 at 4:34 PM

    Dear Vaughn,

    Thank you for your comment. The GoodTherapy.org Team is not qualified to offer professional advice, but if you would like to talk to a therapist or counselor about your childhood, or any other area of concern, please know you can use our site to locate one in your area by entering your ZIP code here:

    https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html

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    Please know that help is available, and we wish you the best of luck in your search.

    Kind regards,

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  • Lynne

    Lynne

    November 28th, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    Vaughn did the work and reaped the benefits!

  • gloria

    gloria

    November 24th, 2015 at 4:15 PM

    Holy moly!! Change his name to my name and that story pretty much sums up how I felt, and still feel! Now, what can I read or do to help change and address this issue?

  • Terri

    Terri

    November 25th, 2015 at 9:57 AM

    There is one thing about it, growing up like that teaches you to be tough.
    But not so much how to love yourself and take care of helping others feel love in their lives too.
    But if you ever want to break free from the past you have to set some new and attainable goals for the future.
    It might not be that easy to change the way you have always thought, but is something to work on, work toward, and feel good about in the end.

  • Frances

    Frances

    November 25th, 2015 at 12:08 PM

    I sometimes sit back and wonder why people who are so intent on making everyone in their lives feel so worthless and useless choose to add more people into their sickness. So you aren’t happy, then fine, be that way, but why add another person to the misery? Life should be about living and enjoying it., not being intent on making others miserable.

  • Keely

    Keely

    November 25th, 2015 at 2:26 PM

    I too agree that too am 36 and if my dad could admit or just recognise his mistakes and want to put things right I would welcome him with open arms… It is NEVER too late… Please do what you can to love your child the way they deserve x

  • Kerrington

    Kerrington

    November 26th, 2015 at 6:23 AM

    My parents were always pretty self involved. They just always seemed to have other things on their minds than us kids. I think that for all of us that took a real toll on us, not only how we see ourselves now but also how we have developed relationships with other people. I guess that most people look back on their time of how they grew up as a way to show then what it is like to be in a home where people care for one another but I don’t think that any of us feel like we have that to look back on as our guide so to speak.

  • ronald

    ronald

    November 27th, 2015 at 7:32 AM

    I guess I must have had the ideal parents form so many perspectives because I don’t feel like I ever lacked and I think that they gave me the confidence that I needed to make it through even the hardest of times.

  • Sally

    Sally

    November 28th, 2015 at 4:27 AM

    I came from an extremely authoritative home where my voice was not welcomed or recognized. Through my own work with a wonderful spiritual counselor I was finally ready to accept them and know that they were broken and wounded. Does not excuse but makes room for love to enter and healing to begin.

  • Paulette

    Paulette

    November 28th, 2015 at 8:22 AM

    One of the most valuable things that we as parents could ever do for our children it to teach them how to love themselves. It is such an easy thing to teach but then it is an easy thing to shatter within a person as well. If you teach someone to love themselves from a very early age this thing of wonder can help them all throughout their lives. Even when things are hard, they will always have this one certainty to fall back on.

  • adelaide

    adelaide

    November 30th, 2015 at 7:39 AM

    There has to be something pretty deep that you are battling to have those types of ambivalent feelings about yourself.

  • Bexave

    Bexave

    December 5th, 2015 at 7:23 AM

    Great article! For me, this article serves as a reminder. A reminder to not become my parents and to heal from the damage they caused in me and my siblings. I grew up in a strict religious family who favored their sons and shamed and limited their daughters. My father was absent most of the time and an alcoholic. I’m 31 years old now and am just now learning to love myself and value my talents. I’m not 100% there, but I can forgive myself.

    This is also a reminder to teach my daughter to love herself. Not to shame her for being a girl, but to teach her to love and care for herself so she builds self-compassion and a high self-esteem. While having compassion for others of course. I think it’s important to use these words with her, when she’s ready, so she understands them and can pass them on to her children.

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