6. How Self-Esteem is Developed - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Go to content

Main menu:

6. How Self-Esteem is Developed

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Mirror Mirror- Self-Esteem Relationships

Mirror Mirror… Reflections of Self-Esteem in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

While there are many potential elements and influences, low self-esteem and a poor sense of personal power are highly significant in a relationship.  This is an intuitive conclusion for many people.  Terry and Bert, as much they may blame each other for short-comings, they both lose self-esteem as the co-parents and mature adults that they wish to be.  Unable to control feeling control oneself and the other parent, further self-esteem damage ensues.  They remind a co-parenting couple or partnership although their intimate relationship came apart.  Failing again in collaboration and effective advocacy and parenting in the new relationship has more at stake- the children’s well-being.  Each of them have another relationship- that with the children which qualitatively can be problematic.  Theorists from both humanistic and cognitive orientations also concur about the importance of self-esteem on the couple's relationship.  "...both person-centered (Rogers, 1959) and rational–emotive (Ellis, 1977) theories have suggested that greater self-acceptance should bring about greater relationship satisfaction.  Person-centered theory has postulated that self acceptance facilitates accepting others, which results in more satisfying and enriching relationships, including romantic relationships.  Rational–emotive theory has claimed that global evaluation of oneself, others, or both is irrational.  One reason for this is that global evaluation seems to imply that this judgment is a composite index made up of evaluating all the activities a person has engaged in.  Conducting such an evaluation would be a formidable, if not impractical, task.  Global evaluation is also reflected in the irrational belief that people should be punished for their errors (blame proneness), which Eidelson and Epstein (1982) found inversely associated with relationship satisfaction" (Cramer, 2003, page 88).

Self-enhancement and self-verification help explain the positive effects of supporting self-esteem support on healthy relationships.  Individuals favor and enjoy a relationship that fulfills fundamental self-evaluation needs.  Positive self-evaluation needs are served when the individual gains positive enhancement of self-relevant information- that is, by self-enhancing strategies.  With self-enhancement, the person seeks to enhance positive views of oneself, while protecting oneself from negative views.  Entering therapy thus can be inherently dangerous.  In individual therapy, the therapist may be confrontive about current and past behavior and choices.  The therapeutic mirror continually reflects back observations of relationship dysfunction.  In family, one or more other members may bring up and criticize what has been otherwise hidden from public scrutiny.  Any of this can happen in couple therapy, and it is even more of risk to positive self when Terry and Bert come to therapy with well-established grievances that rather than resolved are probably calcified.  Yet it would not be any different, when or if Terry or Bert as would another partner does or says things that are supportive of- that is, enhances his or her positive self-evaluation it contributes to better relationship stability.  Positive self-evaluation needs are also met when existing self-conceptions are confirmed- that is, by self-verifying strategies.  Individuals seek verification from important others of existing positive conceptions of themselves.  This positive dynamic may have been largely lost between Terry and Bert.  However, it may still be an appropriate goal of therapy for them.  Individuals look for and appreciate positive feedback that confirms both positive and interestingly, negative self-conceptions.  "This perspective suggests that a level of support from partners that confirms pre-existing self-evaluations will be associated with greater marital satisfaction," (Katz et al., 1996, page 347).  The therapist should note the perceived accuracy of the individual of the important other person, and/or partner or family member evaluations of each other.  When an individual is not aware of or in tune with the other person's sense of self whether it is positive or negative, that person may not feel that the first individual "gets it."  That may morph to the misunderstood person being hurt that the individual does not care to get him or her.  False or empty praise or ignoring weaknesses and faults, thus would not serve relationship adjustment.  The therapist should explore with the clients the effects of evaluative communications.  In addition to their accuracy, it is possible that evaluative messages are veiled criticisms of the other person and/or covertly expressed disappointments by the speaker.  The therapist should bring such implicit intentions or interpretations of the messages to the surface for consideration.

Theories of adult self-enhancement, self-verification, and self-esteem are related to the general processes to enhance self-esteem in children.  As the therapist understands child self-esteem theories, they can be adapted to the specific challenges of adult relationships.  Did an individual as a baby and child have high self-esteem?  A newborn is initially in tune to very little more than whether he or she is hungry or uncomfortable.  A newborn doesn't even realize that he or she is separate from the mother- that is, that there are two beings now.  Initially, a baby does not have a sense of self.  Only gradually and later does a baby develop self-awareness.  Earlier he or she just looked blankly at his or her image in the mirror without recognition.  Then one day with new self-awareness, the baby began making faces at him or herself.  Only when the baby has developed a sense of self-awareness, is it possible for self-esteem to develop.  It develops from the simplest of caregiving interactions.  Over and over, the baby feels hunger, gets uncomfortable in his or her diaper, is startled, and the mother, the father, or other caregiver responds with basic care: food, a clean diaper, a hug, a pat on the back.  Over and over, the baby feels, hears, and experiences his or her needs being mirrored and confirmed as important.  Nurtured by feedback that his or her daily living and experiencing fill his or her parents and other special adults with joy, self-esteem grows.  This process essentially describes the premises of attachment theories and resultant attachment styles, including adult attachment.  The well cared for child is well loved, feel he or she matters, and is more likely to become a self-loving individual in adult intimate relationships.  

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
Back to content | Back to main menu