Imagine this scene: A three-year-old asks repeatedly, “Mama, do you love me?” Each time, Mom answers, “Of course I do.” Then the child takes her hand and leads her to a broken vase or shattered toy and looks at Mother questioningly.
Here is a little child, on this earth only three short years, already asking one of the most profound psychological questions any of us can ask: “Is my ability to be loved tied to what I do? Am I the same as my behavior?” The answer for most of us, no matter how old we are, should be the same – “No, indeed!”
The importance of this point cannot be overemphasized. To increase self-worth, it is vital that we respond to behavior while remaining friendly and respectful toward the person. This means that when a child misbehaves, we should not call them a “bad boy” or a “bad girl.” And when a child does what we want them to, we should not say, “What a good child you are!” In either instance, we want to comment on the behavior – with celebration of something done well, or a clear “next time” picture to change the negative behavior – and hug the child.
Psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists are likely to disagree with at least part of this premise, especially when it comes to those with out-of-control mental illnesses – those classified as clinical sociopaths and psychopaths, and those with other mental disorders. And they are correct to disagree. But for the majority of people, we want to make sure that the self-worth is in line with positive, contributive behaviors, and not vice versa.
One other caveat for adults: While we are not simply what we do, our actions are a reflection of what we think. So, if the actions you see yourself taking do not line up with the person you think you are, then perhaps it’s time for some much-needed self-reflection. Step outside yourself and look at what you do and how you act. If it is not what you’d like to see, you do have the power to change.