What 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.
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.
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