Up until my mid-twenties, I had this pervasive belief that if only I’d had one of those great childhoods that I saw on TV or that I imagined everyone else was having, that I’d have different types of problems – maybe Happy / Together People Problems? – and that I’d also be a happier person. I imagined I’d have more confidence, that I’d be able to cope with disappointment, criticism, conflict and making mistakes, and that I could lean on my family whenever I wanted while having my pick of healthy relationships. I imagined that I’d have more options and opportunities and that I’d basically like myself a whole lot more.
I’m not alone in this thinking. Hell, my own mother had it, so when we had aspects of our childhood that were ‘better’ than hers, like having a good education, material goods etc., she just didn’t ‘get’ why the hell I had her type of problems.
Baggage Reclaim is full of people who have struggled with aspects of themselves but here’s the interesting thing: they come from all walks of life and backgrounds. One of my closest friends has a totally different upbringing to mine. Both parents still together and happy, idyllic childhood (her description), not really wanting for anything whether it was emotional or financial – we’ve had similar self-esteem and relationship issues.
It’s not that having a rough childhood doesn’t impact your self-esteem – quite the opposite – but it doesn’t mean that having a great childhood (whatever that looks like to you), is a ticket to emotional freedom either. I’ve often had readers say that they almost feel guilty for not being able to claim that they’ve had something terrible happen to them!
Self-esteem is about how you think and feel about you, how you react to the things that you experience in life and how these are perceived and tallied up with your sense of self. It’s about whether you consider you to be a worthwhile and valuable person and in turn, it’s about having confidence in you and to be you.
You could end up not liking and loving you even if you had both parents love and support throughout your childhood and didn’t experience any major trauma. If you treat feelings and thoughts as facts even when they’re not, if you have unhealthy and conflicting beliefs that undermine your sense of self and your choices, if you internalise what happens to and around you as an indicator of your worth, capabilities and options, ‘great’ childhood or not, your self-esteem will be impacted.
Sometimes the reason why self-esteem takes a knock is because a person takes disappointment badly because they’ve possibly been sheltered from disappointment or they had certain expectations of themselves or others which may not have been realistic.
A childhood that’s free of neglect, abuse and trauma isn’t an automatic precursor to high self-esteem. It helps a great deal because you’re certainly far more likely to have self-esteem issues if you experience these but, if like me (in the past) you’ve been dining off the long-held belief that your life would be so much better ‘if only’ and that you would be exempt from the choices that you’ve been inclined to make, watch out. It’s this kind of thinking that can leave you feeling powerless.
How you feel about and perceive you is down to your beliefs, which drive your choices and actions. Your childhood tells part of the story but not all of the story and in the end, all it takes is to have one experience as an adult that you struggle to recover from, such as heartbreak, a loss, a bereavement, ‘failing’ at something, a trauma, for a judgement to be made that alters your perception of you and your options, which affects your choices, which has far reaching consequences.
Across all people who struggle with their self-esteem is the need for approval, validation and an excessive reliance on external esteem – people pleasing. Poor childhood or not, we live in a time when many of us are excessively concerned with how we look to others and not being disapproved of in any way. When we suppress our identities and prioritise avoiding conflict, disappointment, criticism and basically anything we deem as ‘unpleasant’, our self-esteem is greatly compromised.
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