We often think of successful people as inherently confident and possessed of high self-esteem. While that may be true for some, it’s equally true that many high-achievers struggle with feelings of low self-esteem. Because self-esteem is built on others’ evaluation of oneself, there is a need to keep doing and striving to win validation. Low self-esteem coupled with a high desire for validation can create strong drive and ambition. Yet, the very thing that drives and motivates also creates misery and dissatisfaction. Because at the heart of low self-esteem is a belief that “I, and my accomplishments, are not good enough.” So we must keep doing more and being more in order to win that far-off sense of validation and acceptance by others, and most of all, ourselves.
confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect.
Successful people with low self-esteem often do more, work harder, and persevere after others call it quits. There is a hunger that keeps them going. And even when they achieve a goal, they can’t pause there. They often move the finish line further out and keep going because no accomplishment is “ever good enough.” Or we sabotage ourselves, turning a self-critical eye to dissecting our accomplishments and finding ways we could have done “better.”
Where do these beliefs come from? What is the heart of low self-esteem? As with many other personality and psychological characteristics it’s often rooted in childhood. Many adults with low self-esteem did not receive appropriate validation and acceptance from their parents. When our parents do not accept us for who we are, we lack a blueprint for self-acceptance. Naturally, all parents shape their children’s behavior and provide a guide for is, and isn’t, appropriate. We must learn social cues, and to manage our aggression, in order to survive and be successful in our society.
Yet, parents who struggle with their own feelings of worth often project that onto their children. The behavior may be subtle, such as grooming a child to fulfill the parent’s own wish for academic or career achievements. These parents may present as somewhat narcissistic in nature, and are unable to separate their child’s needs and wants from their own. Therefore, they may push their child in a specific direction, such as valuing achievement and academics above all else. They send the message that their child must be a “good girl” or “star athlete” or “successful” in order to win the parent’s approval.
Or the parental behavior may be very direct, explicitly telling a child they’re “bad” and that the parent is “embarrassed” by them or their efforts. These parents often use shame and guilt to break down a child’s sense of worth and put the child in the position of constantly having to work harder and harder to attempt to win a parent’s approval. Except that approval never comes. A lifetime of hard work and achievements can come to pass yet the child never wins true parental approval. And even if parents praise the child’s achievements the validation feels hollow because it does not represent true acceptance of the child’s temperament and personality.
That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what he really is. Most people love you for who you pretend to be. To keep their love, you keep pretending – performing. You get to love your pretense. It’s true, we’re locked in an image, an act – and the sad thing is, people get so used to their image, they grow attached to their masks. They love their chains. They forget all about who they really are. Jim Morrison
So now that we have a sense of how low self-esteem may have developed you may be asking, “What do I do about it?” The first step is to become aware of what you’re doing. It may be helpful to look at the reasons you’re working harder and taking on tasks and projects. Do you have genuine joy and fulfillment in what you’re doing? Or are you pushing yourself to win others’ approval?
Another way to view self-esteem is through the lens of self-compassion. This can involve a lifelong journey of self-acceptance of yourself, just as you are. You may also realize that you’re likely far more critical of yourself than others would ever be.
You work hard but do you actually accept validation? Think of the last time you received a compliment for your work. Can you really let yourself accept that? As opposed to “throwing it away” or telling yourself you “don’t deserve it.” Or maybe you think, “It wasn’t that hard, anyone could have done it.”
Self-acceptance and accepting others’ regard of you can help you develop self-respect. Joseph Burgo writes eloquently about the difference between authentic self-esteem and and narcissism. It’s about knowing yourself well and acknowledging your strengths, as well as your capacity for destructiveness.
Finally, part of the work of improving self-esteem is giving up on the idea that our parents will accept us if we do just one more thing. It’s very likely that their limitations prevent them from true acceptance of their children. It may be possible to address that in family therapy, and it also may not. As a child you did not have a choice in how your parents’ treated you, and related to you. As an adult you have options in setting appropriate boundaries, engaging in self-care, and focusing on your own healing process. The goal of improved self-esteem isn’t about unfettered self-confidence or moving through the world with narcissism, it’s about allowing yourself to step off the relentless train of driving yourself harder and harder. It’s about allowing yourself to finally feel some sense of “good enough.”
Highly recommended: The Self-Acceptance Series by Sounds True. This is a free series. Scroll down to register, after registration you will be taken to another screen where you can listen or watch the segments.
Katrina Taylor, LMFT-Associate. 512-270-9002
Disclaimer: The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. Reading articles and content on this website does not constitute a therapeutic relationship.