Why do I feel inadequate?
Low self-esteem: The source of unhappiness
What is it?
If you were to ask someone how to define low self-esteem, for some the answer might be difficult to articulate but the feeling can easily be felt. Others might be able to describe the feeling, but the words that capture their unique experience is different for each person. The following is my sense of what low self-esteem feels like, and these descriptions are in no way intended to be exhaustive. It is a feeling of being inadequate or insufficient, a feeling of being flawed or defective, a feeling of being lacking and deficient, a feeling of not being “good enough” or being “less than” what others are; it is a feeling of being unappealing, undesirable, unattractive, unlikeable, unacceptable or unlovable at one’s core. As you can imagine from this list, having low self-esteem and feeling this way can cause great distress and unhappiness. It would make sense that a person carrying these negative feelings deep inside would be affected in some kind of dramatic way, and so the presence of low self esteem (LSE) would be important to identify so that it can begin to be addressed.
In what way is it helpful to recognize the existence of low self-esteem?
The answer is really quite simple. If we feel bad about ourselves we will do things automatically and act reflexively to defend against this feeling. We are often not conscious or aware of the reasons underlying our behavior because the motivation is to protect our ego and therefore remains hidden from awareness. What this means, is that if a person experiences him or her self as inadequate, this feeling of deficiency or defect is ever present, like gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. A person afflicted would therefore welcome a relief from these negative feelings, and they may for example, stumble upon that very relief through the numbing experience created by substances. All substances, either directly or indirectly, stimulate the release of a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine affects the reward or ‘feel good’ center of the brain so that when it is released it masks bad feelings, and like a magician can briefly make them disappear. The numbing of emotional pain is such a relief that the behavior producing this relief will now be reinforced, and learning theory shows that any behavior that is reinforced will be repeated.
Even though we are higher-order beings, just like simple organisms we move instinctively away from that which causes pain, and towards that which causes pleasure. This renders us vulnerable to those behaviors that provide temporary relief from pain and discomfort in the short term but create phobias in the long run or “feel good” behaviors that provide pleasure in the moment but result in addictions in the long term. An example of avoiding pain would be the suppression of negative emotions. You may be wondering why this is such a bad thing, since denying these kinds of feelings would eliminate the experience of pain. The problem however, is that feelings need to be felt and released, and if they are bottled up they will be expressed in unexpected, and often self-defeating ways. I compare this to sitting on an inflatable plastic ball in a swimming pool where pressure is being exerted down and the ball is exerting pressure up. You would therefore have to continuously shift your position in order to maintain your balance, and if not the ball will shoot up in the air and you will be toppled over into the water. This outcome is inevitable since balancing the ball takes a lot of energy and focused attention, which cannot be sustained indefinitely. Let us apply this metaphor to the act of living. If we are expending all this effort trying to suppress something from coming into conscious awareness we would need to rigidly structure our lives in an attempt to maintain perfect control because if anything unexpected were to happen it would pull attention away from this impossible task. Absolute control, however, is not possible, since events in life are often unpredictable, and the behaviors and attitudes of others are not in our control. Denying the existence of uncomfortable feelings is therefore not the solution. These feelings become trapped inside, and like an encapsulated body of water, in which bacteria will grow and flourish, our disowned feelings will eventually create problems in our lives.
If we are able to put a name to what we feel, and recognize what we do or how we behave with these feelings then we can bring our actions under conscious control so that the feeling does not act like a bull in a china shop, running amock, and causing destruction. Shame is a good example of a feeling that is often pushed out of conscious awareness because it causes such emotional distress. It is the experience of being internally flawed and unacceptable in a fundamental way. Shame, however, when suppressed doesn’t disappear, it simply goes inside, and remains hidden until it gets activated, and when this happens the feeling is one of intense humiliation that one’s perceived internal defect has been exposed. The mind therefore wants to erase the memory of this experience from the past by endeavoring to create a different kind of experience in the present. To use a metaphor, if life is a play, the traumatic event from the past would be a scene re-enacted in the present but this time, the individual takes on a different, and opposite role so that a new experience can be created to paste over the earlier painful one. Since this process is not conscious, it often creates a way of relating in relationships that is destructive.
For example, when shame, a feeling of inadequacy gets activated in some individuals, a common response is to defensively lash out with aggression.
This person, when they feel the sting of shame will say or do something impulsively with the intention to belittle and demean in an attempt to restore their self-esteem. This type of behavior will obviously alienate others, and cause them to keep their distance. The emotional distancing sadly, and ironically is now seen as evidence of their felt defect. Without these kinds of insights however, they are likely to believe that they are being victimized. Without insight they will be unable to recognize their contribution and will continue to feel righteously indignant and blame others for the problems in their life. And so in a nutshell, the unconscious belief of one’s unworthiness provokes harmful behaviors, which in turn provokes the kinds of responses that will then be used as confirmation of their perceived deficiency.
What happens in life for this negative view to be formed?
The answer is not so simple, and there are likely a combination of inter-related factors involved such as genetics, environment, and temperament. There are also certain critical periods within development during which certain experiences, or a lack thereof, can leave a significant negative imprint on the psyche. These experiences, if they were to occur at less vulnerable periods of development, might not have had the same impact. I think its best to look to answer this question from several different perspectives.
Cognitive perspective as a way to understand the origins of a negative self-image
From a cognitive perspective, young children are egocentric, and so they see themselves as being the cause of everything that happens, both good and bad. They also have limited cognitive abilities, and so are not able to consider multiple variables at the same time, and so are only capable of drawing simple cause- effect conclusions. What this means is that if they are treated in an “unloving way”, they believe it is because they are “undeserving” of love. Unloving behavior falls on a spectrum ranging from abuse on the one end of the continuum to neglect on the other end. Neglect is not as easy to define as abuse because of its subtle manifestations. An example of this would be a child whose feelings are ignored. Since feelings are the essence of who we are, if our feelings seem not to matter, then we can easily conclude that we don’t matter either. When our pain, whether it is felt as sadness, fear, self-doubt, depression or anxiety, is dismissed, ridiculed or criticized by those who are important to us, that is felt as unloving but it would be a mistake to conclude that we are being treated this way because we are unlovable. Oftentimes, parents are unable to tolerate their child’s feelings, and so unfortunately will act in an unloving way by turning away, hoping unconsciously that if they ignore these feelings they will disappear. This fantasy, of course, is a type of denial that enables a person to see what they want to see.
Based on our past, we all have our own way of seeing and understanding situations. This unique way of looking at the world, is based on the collection of our experiences and expectations, and is called one’s perception. Our perception is therefore like wearing glasses with a particular colored lens, as unique as a fingerprint, through which reality is filtered. Unlike sunglasses though, which can be removed, perceptions originate from within and so are felt to be an accurate reflection of reality, an indication of truth rather than something created by our own personal experiences and beliefs. Once expectations are formed they create self-fulfilling prophecies. You will see what you expect to see even if this means you shape reality the way a sculptor molds a block of clay. I’m reminded of the fairy tale, Cinderella, the dark version, in which each of the ugly stepsisters is determined to make the glass slipper fit feet that are just too big, and so one cuts off a big toe and the other a heel and both exclaim that the shoe fits. This is a great metaphor depicting how we will even grotesquely distort reality in order to convince ourselves that something is true.
So, going back to perceptions, if we perceive ourselves to be a certain way we are likely to believe that others will also see us the same way. It is human nature that when confronted with an ambiguous experience, one that has multiple possible meanings, we use our personal belief systems to make sense of the information, and similar to the way blood gets filtered through the kidneys and altered, so too is information altered, and therefore our conclusions are often drawn from distorted information.
The following is an example illustrating my point about how a person’s filter distorts reality.
Let’s imagine that a young child has to undergo a medical procedure, how might this young mind, developmentally capable of only simplistic, one-dimensional interpretations, interpret this event? Is it possible that they may think they are bad, and that this is a punishment, something they deserve because of their “badness”? If this is their belief system, a parent will possibly be experienced as abandoning, and the child may experience him or her self as unlovable, because their parent failed to protect them. This clearly is not accurate but a narrative is created that others are uncaring and untrustworthy and that they are bad and unacceptable. With this narrative, both others and the self are seen in a negative light.
Understanding negative self-image from a psychodynamic perspective.
We can also look from a psychodynamic perspective to understand how a negative sense of self is formed. This perspective is influenced by the notion that the quality of interactions from the past shapes one’s personality and influences one’s expectations and responses. Consistent with this perspective is the belief that if a child receives sufficient attention, interest in what they do, and concern for their feelings they will internalize a feeling of positive self-regard. Positive self-regard is the felt experience of value and worth. Positive self-regard is the belief that you are, at your core, an acceptable and worthwhile human being. This is the necessary foundation on which self-esteem is built.
If this feeling is not internalized then one’s ego or self-esteem begins to form on unstable ground, making external validation essential as a means to stabilize one’s faltering sense of worth. External validation, whether in the form of approval, admiration or adoration is like helium expanding a latex balloon. With gas, the balloon is inflated and floats high, but without it the balloon looses its form and sinks to the ground. Just like a continuous supply of helium is needed to keep the balloon floating, so is external validation needed to maintain a positive sense of self. If validation is absent, or criticism and disapproval is present, this will immediately cause a person to loose their self-esteem.
Since we know emotional supplies are needed in order to establish a positive sense of self, what if a child, due to his or her unique inherited temperament requires more than what most would consider to be a “reasonable” amount? Will the attention they receive feel insufficient, will they feel that they have been failed, and will they therefore fail to internalize a feeling of self-worth? What if a child is not able to accept and “take in” what a parent is offering because it causes them emotional discomfort?
This might be a person who rejects compliments because they see themselves as undeserving. A compliment, therefore, creates an internal tension, because two conflicting perceptions are presented at the same time.
This tension creates what’s called a cognitive dissonance and therefore must be reduced, and so the mind achieves this by dismissing one of the points of view as false. For a person who has not internalized a sense of positive self-regard, the perception retained is that of an unworthy self. Since loving feelings are ignored, a parent is unlikely to be experienced as loving. Continuing along this same vein, and introducing the idea of a concept called “goodness-of- fit”, sometimes what is felt as loving by a parent is not felt as loving by a child. What if there is a mismatch, and a parent’s love is experienced as suffocating, and so they are pushed away with anger? In this condition, a child would metaphorically be left empty, not because love wasn’t available but because the child was not able to take it in and make use of what was offered.
Let’s consider this scenario. Many of us, by the time we go off to college, have had the experience of having wisdom teeth removed. If you think back, perhaps you can remember how you were unable to eat food that required chewing for a couple of days. You could have been offered a feast but still would not have been able to eat what lay before you, unless it was soft, and if not, despite the abundance, you would have remained hungry.
Understanding self-image from a Psychoanalytic perspective
Another way to try and understand the origin of negative self-worth is from a psychoanalytic perspective. From this perspective, the unconscious mind is seen as playing a significant role in structuring interactions. A child is believed to have an internal mental world at birth, perhaps from the intra-uterine experience or perhaps from their unique genetic contribution, which determines many factors, including the intensity of one’s aggressive drive. This existing internal mental world shapes the perception of the external world, resulting in a dynamic interplay between the two, where both influence and are influenced at the same time. Imagine that the internal world is like a cutout or a template that gets projected onto the external world. To better understand this concept, imagine superimposing a cut out on a picture in a book or perhaps a painting hanging on the wall.
If you didn’t know before what the image was you would have to guess, since what you see is incomplete, some parts of the underlying image are exposed while other parts remain hidden. I remember once watching a film in which Picasso was shown drawing a simple pencil sketch. He began drawing the image with lines and curves that were initially disconnected and disjointed. I had no idea what he was drawing and so I was forced to use my imagination to fill in what I was unable to see, and whenever he added another element my perception would change. It was only at the very end, when he connected a few lines that the image took on a recognizable form. What I thought I knew turned out to be wrong many times over.
So, turning back to the idea of an internal and external reality, if a cutout represents a person’s unique internal world then each cut out would be different, and if each of them were projected onto the exact same image, what is hidden and what is exposed would obviously be different too. Each person would automatically fill in the missing parts with their own imaginations comprised of their own beliefs and expectations. In this way, it is therefore hard to know whether external reality is objective or whether reality is always influenced by one’s subjectivity.
If our experiences in life and our interactions with others influence our expectations, and if our expectations create the filters through which we process information, then it would be easy to misperceive and misinterpret the actions of others. Perceptions and expectations are intertwined, and so what we expect to see influences what we do see, similar to the way a fun house mirror changes the image reflected in it.
If you have a disparaging view of yourself, it is easy to believe that others see you in the same devalued way. If you feel unacceptable it is likely that you will be vulnerable to perceiving slight and rejection even when it does not exist. If you see yourself in a more positive way you won’t automatically believe that others are looking down on you as being inferior, and so are less likely to experience sudden “jolts” of insecurity. Another possibility is that there is inconsistency between how you see yourself, and how you believe others see you, and so you live in constant fear of exposing your “real” inadequate self.
Along the same vein, if a person with low positive self regard experiences disappointment they often conclude it is because they are a disappointment. They convince themselves that if they were seen as worthwhile, then those important others would want to please them and make them happy. Their disappointment is seen as evidence that they are not valued in the relationship.
Since what we believe is felt to be the undeniable “truth”, it’s extremely difficult to consider the possibility that others have their own ‘truths’. A great illustration of this comes from a photo of a dress that went viral on the Internet on February 26, 2015, when there was disagreement and heated argument over whether the colors of this particular dress were black and blue or white and gold. The photo originated from a photograph of the dress posted on social media. In the first week, more than 10 million tweets mentioned the dress because half the people saw one color combination while the other half saw the other color combination. Even though the dress clearly couldn’t be both, each group was convinced that what they saw was a reflection of reality. The dress was actually confirmed to be blue and black.
Another great example of how people see things differently is a question about an image posted on www.cnet.com, of whether the cat in the picture is going up or down the stairs. If you look at the image, and interpret the gray square as a ceiling you will see the cat as going up the stairs. However, if you interpret the gray square as a floor then you will see the cat as going down the stairs. How you interpret what you see will influence what you believe, and if you apply this to social interactions, then what you believe will influence what you feel, which in turn will influence how you act, and how you act will then influence how you are perceived by others.
Returning to the notion then of an existing internal world, I believe that this may explain how for some, the world is perceived as an unpredictable and dangerous place, and those in it are perceived as untrustworthy and cruel, and how they themselves are perceived as undeserving of love.
Understanding low self-esteem from a developmental perspective
There exist certain innate basic human needs that must be met in order for a feeling of self-worth to be internalized. If these needs are not met then a child might come to believe that they are flawed, and it is because of this internal flaw that they didn’t receive the type of care and attention that a worthwhile human being deserves.
The following are an example of basic human primal needs:
Need for safety and security
I can’t help but think of the current civil war in Syria in which a significant number of the population have been killed or forced to flee. Those inside the country live constantly under threat of death and those who flee also risk their lives trying to find safety in other countries. How could anyone living in these circumstances feel safe? This is an extreme example of course, but there are many other kinds of situations in which this fundamental need can also not be met.
Let’s look at the inner cities, like Chicago, for example, in which gang violence is endemic, and it is not uncommon to be caught in the crossfire while simply walking down the street. Or perhaps, being bullied. School has often become a place in which a child is singled out and tormented for being too tall, short, thin, fat, smart, talented or shy. How can a child who is victim to this kind of aggression or even a child who bears witness, and feels powerless to intercede, feel safe? In all these examples, the danger originates from the outside, but what if the danger comes from the inside, within the home? What if a parent’s behavior is volatile and violent? What If a parent, who is meant to provide love and protection, is also the source of fear and distress? That child would likely experience a state of anxiety, in which they literally fear a threat to their survival.
If you look up annihilation in the dictionary, the definition is, complete destruction or obliteration. Since a child is intrinsically dependent, their wellbeing and survival is literally dependent on the adults in their life, and so a parent who is experienced as threatening would understandably create a sense of danger to their survival, which would therefore produce an anxiety of annihilation. This feeling is so distressing that a child would need to devise a way of coping. They would need to employ some kind of strategy to diminish this intense anxiety, and, unfortunately, the strategy devised is to assume responsibility and blame for their mistreatment.
The unconscious reasoning is that, if they are to blame, if they are the cause, then by changing what they do, and who they are, they should be able to create a different type of outcome, and in this convoluted way they can establish a feeling of security. For this to happen though, a child would need to believe that the caregiver is good and that they are the bad one, and if they can figure out how to be good and loveable then they would be treated lovingly.
To internalize self-worth there is a need to experience a general feeling of affirmation from those who are important to us
Affirmation is a general term that I use to describe a collection of ‘felt experiences’ such as approval, admiration, joy and pride. If this need for affirming validation is not sufficiently met, a child is deprived of receiving the necessary “emotional nutrients”, so to speak, to feel worthy. The absence of these kinds of experiences creates a sadness and emptiness, originating from the belief that they are, in fact, lacking in a fundamental way and will, therefore, never be wanted because they are un-loveable. What comes to mind are images of abandoned dogs at the pound, whose sad expressions seem to convey a longing for someone to recognize that even though they were abandoned, they are worthy of being loved.
Sometimes when emotional deprivation occurs, what can manifest is an attitude of entitlement that others need to make up or compensate for what was missing during their childhood. Without conscious awareness, they may look to others, believing that these others have an obligation to make them happy. They expect that whatever they do should be unconditionally accepted, and if what they want is not gratified they feel mistreated and see others as being selfish and uncaring.
Since these expectations are unreasonable and unrealistic, they set others up to fail them, and the disappointment experienced as a result will then be used to reinforce the belief that others are purposely withholding because they are unworthy. What is ironic is that this is a repetition of the original trauma from childhood. It is the experience that no matter what they did, or how hard they tried, it was never enough to fully capture their parent’s attention and approval.
This expectation, which was established in the past, is projected onto current relationships, whether they are friendships or intimate relationships, and this is why a person coming from an experience of “not getting enough” will find it difficult to see those in front of them as ever “giving enough”. What they are longing for is a “do-over”, for the person in the present to relate to them not as an equal (where both sets of needs are equally as important) but rather as a child, whose mother is always available and responsive and able to intuit and satisfy her infant’s every need.
A person such as this, who feels empty and disconnected, is desperately looking to turn down the volume of the self-recriminating voice that they are a “failure”. In response to this anguished mental state, it is not uncommon to resort to using substances or engaging in other self-defeating behaviors in order to numb the ever-present painful negative feelings. A more constructive approach would be to actively build self-confidence by engaging in personal development and doing things outside of one’s comfort zone, rather than looking for ways to mask the feelings of inadequacy.