We are what we think of ourselves

Imagine the following situation: You are a teacher in school. The annual curriculum of the school must be written. It’s about one hundred pages of material which coordinates all school activities. You have health problems but the principle once again charges you with the task of writing it. Which of the following answers reveals a stable sense of self-worth and why:

  1. OK, but this year I’m going to write it for the last time. I have a poor health.
  2. I’m sorry, I’ve written it for so many years but this year I have a poor health and I won’t be able to write it. I’ll help with ideas and counsel.
  3. By no means. My health is poor. I quit.

(B: Healthy self-esteem. The person has the courage to refuse but also takes into consideration the needs of the school; A: Low self-worth. The person gives in to pressure; C: Low self-worth. The person uses aggression to affirm his decision.)

What is self-worth?

We are what we think of ourselves.

The Psychology Encyclopedia gives the following definition: “Self-esteem – the way a person feels in terms of himself/herself including the level of self-respect and self-perception. Self-esteem is the sense of personal value and competence which people connect with their self-concept”.

Self-image: self-esteem, self-respect, self-acceptance, self-concept, self-worth.

Counselor David Seamands says: “Your self-image is based on a whole system of pictures and feelings you have put together about yourself… For self-concept includes both mental pictures and emotional feelings… The way you look at yourself and feel about yourself, way down deep in the heart of your personality – so you will be and so you will become.” – David Seemands, Healing for Damaged Emotions, p. 60. The wise man Solomon confirmed the close connection between what we think about ourselves and what we are and what we may become: “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” – Proverbs 23:7

How can we find out our own attitude to ourselves?

Today psychological testing is very popular but there are also other possible ways. For example, observe your response under stress. If you are inclined to give in to bossy people too often or you react too aggressively in a not-so-provoking situations, you have a problem with your sense of self-worth.

Building of self-concept

Abraham Maslow, a world renowned psychologist for his hierarchy of needs, says: “A positive self-image and healthy self-esteem is based on approval, acceptance and recognition from others; but also upon actual accomplishments, achievements and success upon the realistic self-confidence which ensues.” (emphasis added)

George Herbert Meed, an influential American sociologist and psychologist, uses an interesting phrase to describe a person’s relationship to the outer world – “the looking glass self” – created by the American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley in 1902.

“Our pictures and our feelings about ourselves come largely from the pictures and the feelings we see reflected in our family members – what we watch in their expressions, hear from the tone in their voices, and see from their actions. These reflections tell us not only who we are but also what are we going to become. As the reflections gradually become part of us, we take on the shape of the person we see in the family looking glass.” (emphasis added) – David Seamands, Healing for Damaged Emotions, p. 62.

Dr. Henry Cloud affirms that the relationship building starts immediately after birth. After the crisis of birth the child was deprived of its comfortable and cozy existence it had beforehand. Then mother’s acts – hugging, caressing, breast-feeding, and speaking – calmed the child down. They settle the basis of emotional attachment to her. In time, the child internalizes her actions and attitude and starts storing memories of the reassurance/comfort coming from outside. This process of internalization leads to the phase “emotional object constancy”. This phase allows for the child to feel itself constantly loved and belonging to someone even when the object of love is missing. This gives the child security and determines his future development. – Henry Cloud, Changes That Heal, p. 52.

A negative and a positive example

When my son was a little boy, we used to go to the playgrounds in the parks. Once I witnessed the following situation: A small child took the toy of another child; the second child started crying, as they usually do, and then followed loud shouts and a row. Immediately, the guilty boy’s mother came running and infuriated, pulled him aside and started yelling at him: “You are a bad boy! Why are you behaving like that? You are a bad boy!”

Don’t get me wrong. In no case do I think that children should be allowed to do what they like without adult interference. But why do I call this example negative? Because that mother didn’t consider the boy’s particular behavior in that particular situation teaching him how to behave in a better way. She pronounced him a bad child in all his behavior and in every possible past, present and future situation. Which could be extremely detrimental for his character and sense of self-worth. The child gets the idea that the outer world doesn’t like HIM/HER and the child is bad in its inner self which could make the change for better in the future almost impossible! Instead, it should get the idea that the outer world doesn’t like his/her particular BEHAVIOR which could be changed for better.

Again, when my daughter was a little girl, she liked playing with a neighboring girl of her age. When their came a row situation, which is not uncommon with little girls, the other girl’s mother immediately interfered (me too). We explained to the children what was wrong in their behavior (not in their soul) and taught them how they could play peacefully together taking turns to play with their cherished possessions and letting the other have her share of the fun. Such attitude allows for the children to get the notion of good and bad behavior and to learn to choose the positive way of interacting with their peers. Children also learn that the parents won’t reject them because of their inappropriate behavior and won’t deprive them of their love. Instead, parents will correct them gently and thoughtfully which is crucial for building a healthy sense of self-worth.

The decisive factor

In the course of numberless interactions, the child forms a certain self-concept based, firstly, upon the family looking glass, then upon the attitude of friends/classmates, and finally upon the attitude of society at large. I believe we all know at first hand that conditions are not perfect neither in the families nor in society. None of us is perfect. Consequently, none of us gets the perfect parents reacting absolutely perfectly in each and every case who are able to build a perfectly normal self-image in their kids. Nevertheless, there is a decisive factor fundamental for the healthy psychological development.

“The basic evil is invariably the lack of genuine warmth and affection” states famous psychoanalyst Karen Horney in her famous book The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, p. 80. GENUINE care and love on the part of the parents towards the child will form in them the feeling that they are precious and they can cope with life notwithstanding the mistakes that they might make for the sake of their human imperfections.

The wise man Solomon confirms that “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins”. – Proverbs 10:12

Karen Horney listed several factors which contribute to developing insecurity, hostility, and anxiety within the child: preference for other children, unjust reproaches, unpredictable changes between overindulgence and scornful rejection, unfulfilled promises, and not least important, an attitude toward the child’s needs which goes through all gradations from temporary inconsideration to a consistent interfering with the most legitimate wishes of the child, such as disturbing friendships, ridiculing independent thinking, spoiling its interest in its own pursuits, whether artistic, athletic or mechanical – altogether an attitude of the parents which if not in intention nevertheless in effect means breaking the child’s will.” – Karen Horney, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, p. 80-81.

An example of parental preference

I know a family who have a daughter of about 10 and a son who is around seven years of age. When the boy is becoming whimsical, the girl is always made to yield her desires and fulfil his. Often when the two children have to do something, the boy gets bored and his elder sister has to complete his chore as well. Parents permit one of the children to have his own way and the other to give in in most cases. What impression do you think will get the undervalued daughter? That her brother is more patronized and pushed up, that his desires and needs are more important than hers, and, by and large, she is less worthy than him. In this case, building a sense of low self-worth is almost inevitable.

“Too much management is as bad as too little. The effort to “break the will” of a child is a terrible mistake. Minds are constituted differently; while force may secure outward submission, the result with many children is a more determined rebellion of the heart. Even should the parent or teacher succeed in gaining the control he seeks, the outcome may be no less harmful to the child. The discipline of a human being who has reached the years of intelligence should differ from the training of a dumb animal. The beast is taught only submission to its master. For the beast, the master is mind, judgment, and will. This method, sometimes employed in the training of children, makes them little more than automatons.” – Ellen White, Education, 288.1

Here it is appropriate to emphasize that punishing children when they insolently misconduct and break the civility code is not breaking the will of the child but forming the will in essence. Breaking the will of the child means punishing them or depriving them of something undeservedly with the aim of “training” them to implicit obedience.

Healthy self-image

Dr. Morris Wagner summarizes the three vital elements of the healthy self-image:

  1. A) A sense of belonging to someone and being loved: I feel welcomed, accepted, loved; someone takes care of me and is happy because I exist.
  2. B) A sense of self-worth: I am worthy, I have some good qualities, I am valuable no matter if I succeed or fail to achieve a specific goal.
  3. C) A sense of competence: I can manage to an acceptable degree my assignments, my job, my education, my relationships, etc.

The triad of a sense of belonging, a sense of self-worth, and a sense of competence constitutes the healthy self-image.

Yordanka Deycheva, psychologist