The Cause Of Your Low Self Esteem May Not Be What You Expect


By: Brianna | Exist Better

Take a second to imagine little you – running around like the raggamuffin that you were. Imagine as far back as you can remember – back when you were first able to comprehend feedback from parents, teachers, or whatever other authorities were around.

When considering the causes of low self esteem, the most obvious answers lie under the umbrella of past abuse or failure. For example, a parent may have demanded straight A’s, or a spouse may have been emotionally abusive. These are common forms of mistreatment that cause some people’s self esteem to tank. But for those who’ve lived fairly easy lives, while surrounded by reasonably supportive people, low self esteem has no obvious root. What’s worse is that having an issue we don’t understand can make us feel weak or defective, as the problem seems to have no cause.

So if you’ve suffered with low self esteem, whether frequently or in certain situations, researchers have discovered a somewhat surprising link that may ease your mind.

The Little-Known Cause of Low Self Esteem

Maybe you think that Mr. Freud is an absolute dunce. I don’t blame you. But he is right about something, and it’s that what happens to us during childhood shapes us.

Researchers in the Netherlands discovered that parents who praise their children for innate qualities may actually do more harm than good. According to the study, parents should instead praise children for their hard work or effort.

So what’s the difference? It’s hardly possible to distinguish between a mother exclaiming, “Oh you’re such a good reader!” and another who says, “Oh, you worked so hard on your reading assignment!” But apparently, the difference is significant.

Children who were praised for “being” something felt a strange pressure that children who were praised for their behavior didn’t feel. When they failed, they associated the failure with an innate quality, rather than associating it with the amount of effort or quality of work they performed.

As you can imagine, associating your failures with innate flaws instead of just the quality of effort you put in can be damaging to a child’s impressionable self image. Suddenly “I didn’t study enough” becomes “I’m stupid.” “I need more practice with painting” becomes “I’m a bad artist,” etc. The low value falls on the self, not on the action taken.

To put it another way, this kind of praise conditions children to think they are supposed to already be something without practice or trial and error. After falling short of this irrational standard a few times, self esteem can drop quickly. Unfortunately, the researchers also found that parents were more likely to praise children with low self esteem for their innate qualities, thinking it would help give them a much-needed boost. Whoops.

If you’re skeptical, I can vouch for this theory personally. For much of my life, I wouldn’t try anything that I felt I wasn’t “innately” good at. I was big on beginner’s luck and anything I knew how to do intuitively, without much effort. Everything else (especially when hand-eye coordination was involved) could suck it, as far as I was concerned. My parents were not big encouragers of hard work (I was the youngest..and spoiled), so their praises were usually directed at my innate qualities.

Basically, how I behaved & my upbringing exemplified the above theory: I had no understanding of dedication and practice, or how they were key to becoming talented in any area. Instead, I fearfully avoided anything that required practice or failure, and stuck to things for which I felt I had a “natural” knack.

Do You Equate Your Value With the Outcome?

It might be useful to ask yourself: What is my relationship with hard work? Practice? Effort? Not necessarily grueling, unpleasant work – but simply the diligent work that brings you closer to a goal. If you’ve suffered from low self-esteem throughout your life, you may be familiar with shying away from effort. You may be a self-diagnosed quitter. Maybe you felt badly about yourself when you weren’t immediately good at a new task. May you thought you “just didn’t have it in you.” This kind of thinking helps low self esteem spread like wildfire.

The book, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How, does a great job of debunking the “innate talent” myth. The author explains where talent and skill actually come from. (spoiler alert: it’s practice)

“Every expert in every field is the result of around ten thousand hours of committed practice.”

Thus extraordinary innate talent is mostly a myth, perpetuated by meaningless phrases like “you either have it or you don’t!” Of course, it’s safe to say that we all have propensities for certain things, but that does not bar others from practicing and developing that skill too.

So the next time you hold yourself to unrealistic expectations, remember: You are not your effort.

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