I struggled with low self-esteem for most of my life. When I was young, most of the feedback I got from my mother was “You could do better”. If I got a ‘B’ on my report card I was told “You could do better”. It didn’t matter what household chore: dusting, washing dishes, cleaning my room. It was always “You could do better” followed by a series of corrections. Sometimes her reaction was “Can’t you do anything right?”
The meaning I gave to these events was that “I’m not good enough”, “I can never be good enough”, “I’m stupid”, “I’m incompetent”.
No wonder I had low self-esteem!
It took me years to realize that the negative meanings I gave things were wrong.
I could have as easily thought “There is no pleasing her, so don’t worry about it!”, “She’s just a sourpuss. I know I did good for my age.” or even “She’s not fair. She expects me to be able to do what my older brother and sister do. Someday I’ll be able to, but right now I’m too little.”
If I had adopted those meanings when I was young, my life could have been much different. I won’t go into it all, but suffice to say that with this new way of looking at things, I behave much differently. I know I am smart, capable and worthy. That mistakes are nothing to be afraid of. And I act accordingly.
Here’s a story that really illustrates this:
Carl and Cole were twins, so they grew up in the same environment. They had the same parents who treated them the same way. Poorly. But their lives took very different directions.
Their father was an alcoholic but was able to keep a succession of jobs long enough to keep them in a home. Their mother was a passive mouse of a woman who waited on their father.
Dad would often come home from work late and drunk. He would complain about life not being fair or never getting a break. He would complain about how his boss had it in for him. Sometimes when he was drunk, he hit their mother for stupid reasons like serving a dinner he didn’t like.
When dad wasn’t drunk, he would come home on time, ask the boys about their day, and plop himself on the couch and watch TV. Neither parent was involved in the boys lives much.
Cole watched his parents and thought, “My parents are lousy parents. I have to take care of myself. Alcohol really makes people crazy and sometimes dangerous.” Cole grew up to be a police officer with a house, a wife and three children that he always took time to play with and listen to. He developed good self-esteem.
When asked why he was this way, Cole said, “Given the way I grew up, I had to be this way.”
Carl watched the same scenes and thought, “Life is not fair. I’m not good enough for anyone to care about me. It’s no use to work hard; no one will give you a break anyway. When you are drunk, you can get away with just about anything.” He grew up to be an alcoholic and drug addict. He had low self-esteem.
When Carl was asked how he came to be this way, Carl said, “What else could I be with the childhood I had?”
In both cases, their self esteem and the direction of their lives was determined by the meaning they gave to events in their childhood. The events were the same, but the brothers created different meanings for those events.
Here are some other possible interpretations of those events:
- “Dad is a lazy, good-for-nothing drunk. If I stay away from alcohol and work hard, I can be somebody.”
- “My parents don’t care about me. I am worthless.”
- “My parents are worthless, but I’m going to make something of myself! You have to stick up for yourself; no one else will.”
- “My parents don’t know how to be good parents. I am better than they think.”
Re-create your life
If the events themselves had meaning, then there could only be one interpretation. Since the events had different interpretations by different people, the events themselves had no built-in meaning. The meaning is CREATED by each individual. The meaning Carl and Cole created for events in their childhood determined how they lived their lives.
They created the meaning. The meanings create beliefs. Beliefs gave direction to their lives. Therefore, they created their lives. We all do.
We each create our lives by the meanings we give to events in our lives. We all know people that habitually say “I can’t do it.” Or, “It can’t be done.” You might even be one of them! I was! That didn’t mean it was true then. I know, and feel, it is NOT true now. I can do so many things that I had once believed I could not do!
You see how an event can be either positive or negative depending on the meaning you give it? How it can affect your self-esteem? Is the glass half empty or half full? Is it a disaster or a learning experience?
You can improve your self-esteem and re-create your life by changing the meaning and beliefs about your past, present, and future life and yourself.
What kinds of meaning have you given to events in your life? How did that impact you? I’d like to know.