7. Self-Esteem & Socialization - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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7. Self-Esteem & Socialization

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

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

When an individual is constantly neglected, the message he or she receives over and over is that his or her needs, feelings, joys and anxieties do not matter.  In other words, he or she does not matter.  The child develops a sense of self-esteem initially through adult attention to his or her basic needs.  The comparable process in other relationships, including as a couple is when relationship members reciprocally give and gain consistent feedback of worth.  This is a powerful but also potentially fragile dynamic.  While a child may learn to self-love from such messages, he or she also may learn that he or she is "bad" from the comparable but negative feedback.  During the early years, guilt and shame and doubt can begin to make inroads on self-esteem.  A process of potential self-esteem loss may continue reaching its zenith during adolescence.  Much of adult life can become a struggle to regain self-esteem lost during childhood and adolescence.  The good news is that people, both children and adults, have amazing resiliency.  Fortunately, people have the ability to grow and be happy despite often tremendously adverse experiences.

No matter how much the child is loved and full of potential, fulfilling potential happens in the real world.  In many ways, the real world is not the home.  At home, the child hopefully is loved and adored, and mistakes corrected hopefully with love and positive guidance.  Learning differences, distractibility, intensity, and idiosyncratic behavior may be accepted and tolerated by family.  However, outside of the home, there are situations, places, and people who do not love the child or individual unconditionally or with the same tolerance.  Some people may have urgencies, frustrations, needs, and stress that lower, and sometimes eliminate their tolerance of a child's exploration.  The real world means that the individual needs to be able to get along with other people, especially their peers and teachers.  Socialization helps the individual develop the necessary skills in subsequent communities beyond the family-of-origin.  Eventually, that often means in key relationships- especially, in a couple with a partner.  Socialization or the learning of skills and behaviors to function successfully with other people is critical to healthy development.  The socially inept person suffers negative consequences his or her entire life: the disapproval of others, exclusion, "You're fired", and "I'm leaving you."  These can be extremely devastating to self-esteem.  Early negative patterns need to be counterbalanced by more positive experiences.  Therapy often offers this reparative experiences between the therapist and an individual.  Building rapport may extend well beyond initial stages of therapy and could be conceptualized from various theoretical orientations- for example, that positive transference and counter-transference can develop.  In couple and family, the therapist often overtly orchestrates dynamics, activities, and homework to produce positive experiences for partners or members.  The therapist for example, may as Terry and Bert list the things the other person did well or have them verbalize appreciations.  Fortunately, healing restorative experiences can and does happen, in particular in a relationship that activates a reparative process of growth and health.  Terry and Bert’s marriage may have been a mutual attempt to repair their respective attachment losses.  For that matter, developing a successful co-parenting relationship can go long ways to restoring some respect and appreciation in their original relationship.  Simple concepts such as taking turns, saying "please" and "thank you," using a quiet voice, asking before touching, making eye contact, and so forth become critical to acceptance in communities and survival with loved ones.  The individual, couple, or family will present to the therapist a litany of comparable behaviors lacking or inconsistent between or among people in the relationship.  Socialization happens through both positive and negative feedback from the therapist and the important other person about the appropriateness of behavior and communication.  As socialization is a core mission of "parenting" or "teaching," it may be a core function of invested individuals for each other and of individual, couple, or family therapy.

Problematic behavior or choices is often challenged with the question, "Why?  Why did you do that?"  Unfortunately, an individual is often unable to articulate how and why he or she is the person and personality he or she is.  The adult Terry or Bert may declare "That’s how I am," or "Because that’s what I’m comfortable with."  As a child however, and still sometimes with a partner or family member the response becomes hands behind the back, looking down at the floor, and swaying gently side to side.  He or she says sheepishly or sullenly, "I don't know."  Is this non-answer acceptable?  Unfortunately, the other person- a parent or now the partner or other important person scowls and says in an angry voice, "Don't tell me you don't know!  You know why you did that!"  Unable to articulate how he or she made choices, and with "I don't know" made unavailable to him or her, the individual especially as a young child is forced to take the only answer that is left.  Whether verbalized or not, the individual is forced to think to him or herself that, "Why did I do that?  It must be... it must be that...  I am a bad person!"  The "why" question expresses frustration and often instigates further frustration.  The question may be a simple but important inquiry as to the underlying thoughts, beliefs, or feelings to a behavior or message.  "The communication of affective meaning is especially vulnerable to distortion.  Depending on the quality of the interpersonal relationship, personality characteristics, situational conditions, and the kind of affective message, such messages could be encoded more or less ambiguously and decoded more or less 'accurately'"(Trommsdorff and John, 1992, page 42).  It becomes important to shift from a rhetorical "Why?" which is an accusation, rather than a question.  A concrete inquiring "Why?" on the other hand that is open to explanation is often necessary.  Rhetorical questions in general may have become commonplace in a problematic relationship.  They need to be confronted and the actual meaning clearly articulated.  The rhetorical question "Why?" from Terry or Bert for example, may also be a confrontation that may be translated as:

I don't like what you said or did.  

I don't believe or know of any justifiable reason for that action or those words.

I am hurt or insulted by what you said or did.

There is something wrong with you to say or do that.

What you said or did is unacceptable.

The therapist needs to assist individuals in identifying possible personality and situational factors in a message or action.  Individuals may have trouble accurately decoding communications, especially affective messages in highly invested relationship, such as that of a couple.  The therapist may need to offer interpretations or reframes of vague meanings of messages or behaviors.  "Does that mean you're tired of it?" "Do you mean Bert is supposed to do that?"  Or, ask clarifying questions such as "Are you trying to say something about how Terry talks to the kids?"  The therapist can interrupt before a response and ask the inquisitor, "What do you mean 'Why?'" or ask, "What is it about what he or she said or did?"  If the individual insists that he or she just wants to know, the therapist can be more direct and state, "You don't like what he or she said or did," and then ask, "What don't you like about it?"  The implicit feelings and thoughts need to be brought to the forefront.  Individuals intuitively experience underlying accusations and grievances.  They react instinctively without actual consciousness of why they are upset or angry.  The accrual of negative implicit feelings eventually causes negative reactions that neither or no person in the relationship may be fully aware of or aware of where they come from.

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
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