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March 2017
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THE ORIGINS OF SELF-ESTEEM



Why are some people able to give themselves worth, appreciate and be satisfied with themselves, whilst others underestimate themselves or struggle to consider themselves in positive terms?

It is impossible to give a clear answer to this question and in fact scholars have reached various conclusions and have stated that different elements are at the bottom of self-esteem. In this article we will briefly but closely analysis the studies related to this subject, which lead to interesting conclusions... 

William James (1842-1910) is perhaps one of the first scholars who dealt with this topic. The thing that intrigued him and from which his studies began was the fact that he noted the lack of a direct link between the objective qualities of a person and how this person felt satisfied with him/herself: some people are equipped with a presumptuous and unbreakable confidence, whilst others, who are equally as able to succeed in life and are valued by others, do not believe in their qualities and capabilities. From this, James deduced that being happy or not about oneself does not depend on the results and successes of life as such, rather on the criteria one uses to judge these results and successes, that is, on the demands one has about one’s way of being and doing things. By following this logic, we can see that demands which are too high and which are regardless of successes, can inhibit good self-esteem.

Other authors, like Alice Pope for example, argue that self-esteem originates from the image we have of ourselves (self-perception) and the image of what we want to be (our ideal self). In this sense, the further self-perception is from our ideal self and the less value and satisfaction we give to our ideal self, the lower our self-esteem. Vice versa, the more aware we are of our capabilities and the more we are satisfied with our strengths, the higher our self-esteem is.

When do we develop these images of ourselves and where do they come from? Most psychologists agree that a person begins to form self-conceptions, that is, the way he/she considers and defines him/herself in a more or less positive way, at a very early age. Some authors, like Sullivan (1892-1949), Freud (1856-1938) and Horney (1885-1952), claim that the self-images which children develop during early childhood, based on positive and negative relationships with their main caregivers and whether they felt like kids who were worth love and importance or not, affect their lives forever. They argue that fundamental inclinations about love and hate towards oneself are formed during the first six years of life and these ideas then influence a person’s life style, how he/she considers him/herself and his/her self-esteem.

Around the second half of the 1900s and in line with these positions, another author, EH Erikson, proposed a theory about human development being divided into a sequence of stages, spanning the entire life span, during which a mutual adaptation between the individual and the environment is established. 
Within this theory, which aims to comprehend the origins of self-esteem, it is particularly important to focus on what happens in the first of these stages of development which begins at birth and ends approximately after the first year of life. A fundamental task of this phase is to achieve a good balance between basic trust and basic mistrust - the painful counterpart of the first but which is necessary for human development - in oneself and in others. Trust and mistrust, according to Erikson, originate from the quality of the relationship a child experiences with his/her mother and must be modulated by the hope that his/her needs and requests are not rejected, at least not too often in any case, so that the child does not lose hope. Thanks to a balanced integration of trust, distrust and hope, the child can learn how to tolerate frustration and disappointments, constantly redefine their own plans and aspirations, look into the future and maintain, over time, a balanced level of self-esteem.

Around the 1980s, some authors, including Tice and Baumeister, emphasised the importance of early childhood for the development of self-esteem and used a sort of financial model to define the origin: these authors believe that the amount of love we receive during our first years of life constitutes a sort of capital to manage and administer in the years to come.

Using a comparison reported by André and Lelord which explains this opinion, we can say that, like in financial sectors where there are big investors, who begin with important sums of capital and who choose investments that are risky but which often provide significant benefits, in the sector of self-esteem there are people who had plenty of experience with love, attention and encouragement during their childhoods thus they can use attack strategies in life. They do this because they feel more confident therefore they invest more, run bigger risks and take more initiatives. They also know how to risk a lot, but they are also aware of how to gain a lot in terms of money and personal satisfaction and therefore also self-esteem. On the other hand, there are also people who save in the financial sector, people who have never been truly rich and who are afraid to risk and lose the little they have. These people invest with prudence, choosing the reassuring methods. In the same way, there are people who have never experienced love and loads of attention and this makes them become cautious and prudent with their lives: they avoid taking risks and they only do so in safe and predictable contexts. On the one hand, this prevents them from being exposed to delusions and failure but, on the other hand, it gives them less occasions to experience situations that can increase their self-esteem.

In summary, while the quality of our first relationships is fundamental for our self-esteem, the image each person has of him/herself remains fixed and unchangeable. Fortunately (or unfortunately in some cases) this is subject to modification in terms of the experiences we go through, as well as the quality of the relationships we have with significant people who we meet during our lives.

One of the first social theorists, George Herbert Mead (1934), argues that our self-conception is, on the whole, a reflection of the views communicate to us by significant others. From this view point, society provides a sort of mirror in which we can see our reflection, thus we create our image and a possible definition of ourselves. In this sense, implication of birth, changes and maintaining our self-esteem are notable, especially when you consider that people can be very selective in their choice of a ‘mirror’, giving greater importance to certain views and less to others. 
Moreover, if we think about it, most of the time the opinions others have about us makes us reflect. Whatever the source is, even if it is not challenged, the smallest negative comment about us provokes a painful, emotional reaction. At the beginning it seems like a true judgement but then, after reflecting on it, we are able to criticise it or reduce its importance based on the fact that perhaps the source from where the comment came and the judgement itself do not bother us that much. Criticisms, like approvals, do affect us though, and this is because they allow us to retouch the image we have of ourselves. 

From this point of view, as Leon Festinger claims, social comparison is also important when creating and modifying our self-esteem. In fact, in all social situations and at all ages, we compare ourselves to other people, then, as a consequence, we draw conclusions about ourselves. Everyone of us has or will have a model to imitate, a person with whom we get on and to whom we want to be like in one way or another. Spending time with these people and trying to learn from them can contribute to increasing our self-esteem. On the contrary, each one of us will know who we really do not want to be like, however comparing ourselves to this latter individual also helps us to feel good about ourselves. The fact that we favour some people in our social circles over others in one or more ways, which may be right or wrong, is a way to reassure ourselves about our value and reinforce our self-esteem. 

In this respect, looking down on people in a reassuring way and looking up to people as a way to stimulate what we want to be can truly reinforce self-esteem and, of course, when this regards relationships with friends, family or one's partner, all of this is even stronger and has a bigger effect on us. 

The positive opinions we make about ourselves are also influenced by the explicit opinions formed by people who mean something to us. For example, having a partner by our side who believes in our qualities and capabilities and who encourages us to realise our deepest desires, or having people close to us who appreciate, accept and love us as we are can help us to challenge any severe or negative judgements which come our way, even though they cannot actually replace our positive thoughts about ourselves and our qualities.

We can conclude that the self-esteem we have depends on:

  • the expectation we have of ourselves;
  • whether we become like our role models or not;
  • the quality of the relationships we have during life and the references we receive from our social, working and love-life contexts.

It is important to note that self-esteem is susceptible to change, does not remain constant over time and can be increased and sustained in order to become a functional part of feeling good about ourselves and others: let us remember this, especially when we think we have not done enough to give ourselves any worth!

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