Layers of Self Esteem

Originally appeared on The Skinless Project Blog

Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem

Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem

When I start a unit on self-esteem with young girls and women, I talk about factors that impact it, positively and negatively.  And the group comes to the conclusion that aside from the obvious factors such as media, friends, and peers, there are others that subconsciously affect our self-esteem, and those factors can be the most important: a void.  When Gloria Steinem talks about self-esteem[1], she mentions two components, akin to two rivers that converge into one large body.  From birth into infancy (and possibly very early childhood), we experience an unconditional love from our parents.  We are loved and are lovable ‘as we are’ and are genuinely happy: she defines this as ‘core self esteem’.  While babies may not receive rewards for rolling over, walking or popping out teeth, we give them smiles, kisses, hugs, and take photos.  They know they did something truly amazing, and seek to inspire that love and affection again by repeating whatever it was they did.  It’s a mutual sense of satisfaction and achievement.  However as infants become young children and grow older, she describes a different type of self esteem she calls ‘situational self esteem’.  Here is where I believe culture can clash and create systemic issues that can impact girls and boys alike into adulthood.  And here is where our self esteem is dependent upon something else, an idea that we are good at something or that we meet society’s expectations of something.  It is a time when we can discover new abilities, new talents and being successful at something new improves that sense of self worth (self-efficacy).  We are excited to grow and try new things, color our hair, learn skateboarding, whatever your heart desires!  Lets consider where culture can potentially clash here.  For example, imagine a conservative culture towards girls. Let’s suppose she’s encouraged to stay indoors and not play outside in order to keep her skin color light (I’ve actually heard this from a friend!) or because ‘girls don’t play outside’.  Yet she has a yearning to be outside, play, or run the backyard races with her neighbors.  She’s inherently taught that her own desires are not worthy of her time and that she’s better off inside.  Since this decision was made for her, she will have lost the ability to decide for herself among choices presented to her in the future, good or bad, and she has lost the opportunity to trust her own instinct.  Thus a false sense of self is created and she is discouraged from exploring and developing any sort of inner strength.  Because her culture has a taboo on girls playing outside, maybe with boys and possibly getting dirty, she has an internal dilemma.  When families don’t foster that initial core self esteem, of loving and valuing their child as they are, and they portion out this secondary, situational self esteem, the child is made to feel as if something is inherently wrong with their own likes, desires or abilities.  Children then look to their peers and community at large to fill that void, and that can be either a positive or negative experience (youth groups, faith centers, or gangs).  

Examine your ‘self’ and isolate where you have received core self esteem and situational self esteem, and if you are a parent, can you also isolate the two?  As we grow older, these two layers of self esteem converge into one as we become more confident and secure with our own self.  Often a mistake parents make is ‘re-parenting’ their children the way they were raised, positively or negatively, but most often, psychologists and therapists will claim that the pain is passed on.

If you are a parent, are you re-parenting your child the way you were raised? For some this may ring true, perhaps not so much for others.  If this sounds like your childhood, start with this exercise.  Identify the things (not material things) you wish you had received in your childhood, and what you did not receive.  That list can be the beginning to healing your void of core or situational self esteem not received in childhood, and can open doors to finding out who you truly are, and what makes you, you!


[1] Read more about core and situational self esteem in Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem by Gloria Steinem, 1992.

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