Salvaging Self-Esteem

dalmatian dog sitting on the street

We all experience shame from time to time, that horrible sinking feeling that strikes at the very center of our being and launches a fundamental assault on our self-esteem. We’ve typically done something that runs contrary to our core values, and we know it. The world around us does not accept that behavior, and lets us know it, as well. Our self-talk reinforces the shame, and down we go.

[Note: To clarify, we are not talking about body-shaming, or fashion-shaming, or the other “surface” shaming that goes on these days. That’s more about bullies trying to mask their own low self-esteem issues than the feelings that come from defying our core values in order to “fit in” or from a momentary disconnect in our decision-making abilities.]

Shame truly does have a damaging effect on the development of healthy self-esteem. It takes a full measure of maturity to salvage our self-esteem, once it’s been damaged. Perhaps the most crucial step we can take to rid the world of this malignant emotion is to avoid raising another generation of shame-based people.

Psychologist Susan Miller once wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “A child’s experience of being someone who counts, comes in large part from the parents’ capacity to empathetically tune into that child.”

That means allowing children to feel what they feel and responding to them in a reasonable way. For parents, it means getting rid of perfectionism, blame, and attempts at constant control. And it means understanding that children have a right to their own thoughts, perceptions and feelings, and a right to make their own choices, within reason, even when they are different from ours.

If we want to raise healthy children who are free from unhealthy shame, the need to feel free to be themselves, without fear, is vital. Children need parents and grandparents who love them and appreciate them just the way they are, while setting reasonable limits and keeping them safe from harm.