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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Overcoming Low Self Esteem

As a psychotherapist, I often see clients who come to psychotherapy because they want to overcome low self esteem. In my prior psychotherapy blog posts I've addressed issues of self esteem from different vantage points. In this post, I would like to discuss the link between self esteem, a sense of self mastery (also called self efficacy) and learning the life skill of self discipline.

Overcoming Low Self Esteem

The Importance of Learning Self Discipline, Self Mastery and Developing Healthy Personal Habits as Children:
Having a sense of self discipline, developing healthy personal habits, and a sense of self mastery are important to personal development and our sense of self esteem. These traits begin to develop, without our realizing it, when we're children.

When children learn to develop healthy habits like learning to put away their toys after they play, doing simple age-appropriate chores around the house, keeping their word about the commitments that they make, and so on, they're learning important life skills that are essential to their development beyond the particular chore or event that is involved. They're also learning to be responsible and deal with certain aspects of life that they might not want to do but that are essential to every day life as well as their personal growth and development.

Learning Healthy Habits as Children

When children don't learn to master certain chores or develop healthy personal habits like the importance of getting up on time, doing homework and turning it in when it's due, keeping their word about a commitment that they've made (and so on), they often have a much harder time as adults dealing with more mature issues in their work and personal lives than children who have gradually learned these life skills over time when they were growing up. Not learning these skills can also have a profound effect on a person's self esteem as well as how others view them as adults.

As a psychotherapist, I hear from many adult clients who talk about how frustrated they feel that their teenagers and young adult children have not developed healthy personal habits and self discipline and how this has affected the children's self esteem. These clients are often concerned that their children's lack of self discipline will not bode well for their chances out in the world with regard to personal relationships, school, and career.

 They fear that their children are just drifting without purpose and that they might have a hard time setting goals, holding onto a job or maintaining healthy relationships later in life. They talk about children who only want to do chores when they want to do them (or not at all), who spend most of the weekend loafing around or playing video games, who have no healthy routines, and they worry: "How is my child going to make his way in the world?"

When I hear clients who express these concerns about their teenagers or young adult children, I can understand why they're concerned. As any responsible adult knows, there are many things that we might not want to do, but we know that we must as essential parts of our lives. For instance, even if you think you have the most interesting job in the world, there are often parts of work that you don't like or you might find boring or unfulfilling.

 Imagine telling your boss that you just "didn't feel like" doing those aspects of your job, or you procrastinated doing them so that your boss had to come to you several times to ask about them, or if you pretended not to hear your boss because you were listening to your music (some of you who have teens might relate to this). After a while, you might not have that job for long. Aside from how your boss and colleagues might feel about you, you probably would not feel good about yourself and it would start to erode your self esteem.

Learning to develop healthy habits and self discipline should start gradually when you're young. Even young children can begin by learning to do simple tasks. Is it possible that they might grumble, pout or cry when you ask them to do simple things like learning to put away their toys when they're done playing? They might. They might question you as to "why" they need to do this or tell you that they don't want to do it.

They might test the boundaries with you in many ways. As a parent, you might even tell yourself that you would do it better and quicker and use that as an excuse to yourself to avoid having a confrontation with your child. But the importance of your child learning to do these simple chores is not only about the chores themselves--it's about their learning self discipline, responsibility and a sense of self mastery. They are probably too young to realize this but, as an adult, you know it.

Learning to do simple tasks, as a child, as well as learning to keep your word is also about learning to deal with your emotions when you feel annoyed and frustrated about something that you don't want to do--or just life, in general. Whether it's about learning to make your bed, practicing the piano or doing other things that you might not want to do at the moment because you're thinking about doing more interesting things, the skills that you learn by doing these tasks anyway (even when you don't want to do them) become part of your emotional development as well because you learn how to tolerate frustration.

We've all witnessed or experienced two year old children when they are having temper tantrums. The parent who is able to withstand the child's temper tantrum with love and patience, while the parent stands his or her ground, is helping that child to develop emotionally. For instance, when a child doesn't want to leave the park when it's time to go home or doesn't want to get in the carriage and a parent sets limits with the child (in a loving way), that child, without realizing it, is gradually developing a tolerance for acceptable amounts of frustration.

In these situations, the child has tested the boundaries with his mother, the mother demonstrates that she knows best, the child has a temper tantrum for a while (maybe a long while) but, in the end, the child learns that he must do something that he doesn't want to do.

 More importantly, he learns that he has survived in this ordeal, and that his mother has survived as well (although she might feel inwardly exasperated), and he learns that his mother still loves him and he still loves her. Can the two year old articulate these lessons? No. But, over time, we see the evidence of this in his personal development as he grows and continues to learn these important lessons in life skills. We can see it as the child learns to take on bigger, more complex age-appropriate responsibilities as they grow. We also see it in their sense of confidence.

Similarly, when a child learns life skills like keeping her word and following through with commitments , she will be better equipped as an adult to maintain her adult commitments. But when a child doesn't learn to develop these skills when they're younger, it's harder for them to keep their commitments when they're adults.

 If they haven't learned to develop a sense of the importance of keeping commitments and they only do certain things when they want to do them, they will probably struggle as adults. Lacking guidance from their parents as a child, they won't have internalized it as an adult. They will lack the internal emotional resources to deal with commitments and their only own internal "guide" might be whether they feel like it or not, which won't be acceptable in many circumstances in the outside world.

Lacking these internal resources as an adult will also affect how they feel about themselves. It's hard to feel confident, resourceful, and effective as an adult if your only guide to dealing with your responsibilities and commitments is whether you feel like it or not. You're definitely on shaky ground if this is your compass for functioning in the world. After a while, as friends, romantic partners and work supervisors refuse to put up with this, it reinforces an internal sense of incompetence and failure.

Conversely, when children learn to stick with their commitments and see the results of their efforts and diligence, it increases their self esteem and sense of self mastery.

 For instance, the child who learns to stick with practicing the piano on a regular basis (even though he would prefer to play video games at the moment) begins to make the link between practice, being diligent and responsible and a sense of self mastery. He sees that, over time, his time and effort has led to being able to play a certain piece of music with increasing skill. It becomes gratifying to him.

 He also learns to translate this into other areas of his life: Studying and doing his homework, which might be boring in the short term, produces better academic results. Better academic results often leads to a more successful career. These life skills become an important part of his personal growth and development as well as his sense of self confidence.

It's certainly possible to learn to develop these life skills as an adult. I often work with clients in my psychotherapy practice helping them to learn these skills and this leads to a greater sense of self esteem. However, it's harder to learn when you're an adult and, often, by the time an adult comes to psychotherapy to deal with self esteem issues related to the lack of these related life skills, they have often struggled for a while in their relationships and career.

Getting Help
If you're struggling with a sense of low esteem and you see that continuing on the same path has hindered your personal growth, you might benefit from working with a licensed psychotherapist.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist. 

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome low self esteem to lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

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