Self-Esteem and You-The Beginnings-Part I
In my twenty-four (+) years as an outpatient psychologist,
I have worked with all walks of people, of all ages and beliefs,
of all races and income levels. Every one of the people I work
with has a self-esteem. Every one of these people got that
self-esteem by living day-to-day, absorbing messages about
themselves in every context and activity. How does self-esteem
Self-Esteem does not grow on trees. From where do we get it?
It starts before birth. Yes, we begin to sense "things" in-utero,
although at this stage what we sense is neurological and translates
into experiences of comfort or discomfort. If our intrauterine
environment is hostile (our birth mother was sick, malnourished or
indulged too much in cigarettes, alcohol or drugs), we start out
life with a handicap. This may translate into something relatively
simple, such as lower birth weight. Or, it may create very
difficult health conditions, such as having drug or alcohol toxicity
or dependence. These latter problems compromise how we take in
environmental information. To maximize our self-esteems, we all
need to be as healthy as possible, starting with basic physical
Next comes what we take in from our surroundings. At the
moment of birth, which is thought to be traumatic, our senses are
flooded with information. To the newborn, this is confusing.
Imagine being in a warm, wet, relatively quiet place, then squeezed
and thrust down a narrow passageway into a brightly lit room, with
strangers standing around. Then you get cold, put in water and
moved around a lot. This must be quite a shock. At the center
of this experience is you, undeveloped but recording the experience
with every nerve. At the center of this neurological avalanche is
the beginning you, the being that somehow has to evolve to
incorporate and to make sense of what just happened.
Fast forward. We quickly repress the memory of this abrupt
entrance into our world, or so our psychological theories say.
How would we know, really, because none of us seems to remember our
birth. But not long after this awesome event, most of us start
having experiences we actually remember. Most of us have
"first memories" that date back to age two or so. Some remarkable
individuals claim to remember even earlier events (even birth),
but these are rare folks. Many people have no memories before age
Nonetheless, even at these tender ages, all of us are taking
in messages about ourselves. At birth there are strangers around
us, yes, but there are also loved ones (hopefully) who approve of
our arrival with big smiles, or by making cooing or other parental
sounds. This is supposed to make us feel good, even though we
probably do not know enough to interpret these noises in any
specific way. The messages start, this time from the outside in;
that is, from our new environments come flooding in all kinds of
messages. And, we, being totally narcissistic (we are the center
of our universe at birth, by default) absorb these messages and
magically associate them and all their good or bad feelings to us,
that being the identity that begins to form in the middle of it all.
The process continues and becomes increasingly complex.
We now have to be fed, changed, clothed, put to bed, awakened,
taken to doctors, etc., etc., etc. At every place, there are now
more and more people, events, activities; in short, stimulation.
This makes our senses grow and at the same time offers a plethora
of new information that has to be integrated. That means,
associated to self in a meaningful way. If we have brothers and
sisters, or larger social networks (aunts, uncles, grandparents),
the pattern of interaction becomes even more complex.
At every juncture, there are messages about us, just waiting
to be interpreted. Does this "big" person smile at me? Does
this "little" person sneer? What is that gooey, cold and slimy
substance my brother put on me? Do I really smell this bad?
"I'm hungry" is what we know. We just cannot tell someone yet.
What does that mean about me?
For more on the development of self-esteem, see Part II.