The ego is the pinnacle of self-respect

Of the value of loving yourself

A good, stable one Self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-love are prerequisites for developing inner strength. The foundations for these competencies are laid in childhood. But how does that happen? And what can parents do to empower their children?

Text: Claudia Landolt
Images: Salvatore Vinci / 13 Photo

Maurice lies awake. He can't fall asleep. The ten-year-old boy is not afraid of monsters that might lurk under his bed - no, he is plagued by self-doubt. He worries he hasn't learned enough for tomorrow's test. And is afraid that he will play badly in the team game on the weekend. «Maurice was safraid and full of self-doubt even as a small child"Explains his mother. "He often says he wishes he were a better, more popular boy."

Quite different from Anastasia. The native Ukrainian moved to Switzerland eight years ago. She didn't speak a word of German. Now the 14-year-old is attending the long-term high school and is committed to climate protection in her free time. She says of herself: “Of course I sometimes complain about my appearance or get upset about a bad grade. But actually i think i'm good the way I am."

The boy who doubts in himself, the girl who believes in himself: How does it come that one child thinks that it is not enough, while the other is basically satisfied with himself and the world?

The answer lies in what psychology calls "self-worth". We laypeople call it self-love. What is meant is the balance between “liking oneself” and “feeling competent” or “the subjective feeling of one's own worth, appreciation of one's own personality, satisfaction with oneself”, as the US psychologist put it Morris Rosenberg defined it in 1965.

How does this appreciation for yourself come about? Is it innate or does it develop in childhood? Which factors influence this development? What if Self-Esteem is Low?

Our dossier in the Magazine 12/2019 apart from which this text comes. It also explores what parents can do to empower their children's selves. And tries to find out whether and in what way grades and school influence the child's self-esteem.

Self-love instead of self-love

Let's first clarify the terminology. Self-love seems to be the word of the hour. The hashtag #self love flood Instagram with 510,000 entries - and the trend is steadily increasing. How is self-love portrayed? As a smiling selfie, with a cappuccino in hand with a heart drawn in the milk foam. A look at the Swiss Library Association reveals similar trivialities. There are hundreds of books there with unreservedly affirmative titles such as: "The child in you must find a home", "Marry yourself!" or «healthy ego, strong me».

This has more to do with self-love than with self-love. Self-love stands for an unflattering personality trait: the narcissism. Narcissism is an addiction to oneself. An effort to bring love to oneself. “Ich, icher, am ichsten”, is how the Austrian chief psychiatrist Reinhard Haller describes the narcissistic creed in his book “Die Narzissmusfalle”. «The narcissist needs the applause like an addict to the drug, "explains Haller," he is thoroughly dependent on the admiration of those around him. "

Self-love, on the other hand, is far from: Those who love themselves, according to psychology, accept their own personality with all its facets. A person who really loves himself can accept himself as he is regardless of external applause - especially in difficult times. You can feel intuitively: The world won't end because of that, because I'm basically okay.

The emergence of the "I"

But how does this feeling come about? First of all, you have to a picture of yourself Has. This image in turn is influenced by three factors: First, the idea that how one affects others. Second, the idea how one is valued by others. Thirdly, from your own feelings that you develop in relation to this assessment. All of this means that a person can perceive himself as a person, as "I" and is able to act and think reflect. This takes place in a process that begins at birth.

A child is not born as a personality. It sees the world as a so-called Genotype, as a carrier of genetic material that was given to him by his parents. In the first few weeks of life, the child does not feel as a person in itself, but as one with the mother.

At the same time it makes the experience that its Behavior causes something: When he screams, he is calmed down, when he is hungry, nourished, when he smiles at the caregiver, they smile back. These answers reflect the child's behavior. These are the very first experiences the child has in relation to their own person.

In exchange with this environment, the develops The child's phenotype, the observable expression of the genotype, which encompasses both a person's physical characteristics and behavior. The parental responses on the emotional level are the basis for the small child from which his self-esteem and self-esteem feed. "When things go well, as a newborn, I find out that my parents look at me lovingly and look after me," explains Swiss psychotherapist Verena Kast. The small child stores this experience of feeling good, being noticed, being wanted as so-called basic trust.

And then the big moment: the child discovers himself as a person. It no longer sees a potential playing partner in its reflection, but knows: This is me! 

"The degree of appreciation that the child is accorded in the first six years of life is the most important factor for later self-confidence and self-esteem."

Ulrich Orth, Professor of Developmental Psychology

From then on, the child becomes more independent, learns to walk, eat and dress. It can only have this experience if it does Confidence in his actions and at the same time trust in himself Has. "This trust is only possible if the parents succeed in giving the child warmth, protection, comfort, care and security, supporting them in their autonomous endeavors and promoting their cognitive and social development," says Ulrich Orth, professor for developmental psychology at the University of Bern.

To sum it up in one sentence: "The degree of appreciation that is given to the child in the first six years of life is the most important factor for later self-confidence and self-esteem."

The child should be taught by his or her parents: "The way you are, you are good and wanted." If they have this certainty, it doesn't matter if parents get upset or angry every now and then because the child repeatedly comes home late, does not tidy up his room or argues extensively with the sibling. This does not destroy his basic trust.

It all comes down to social relationships

One of the most important resources of a child is the certainty that he can rely on the support of his caregiver. In an emotionally positive educational climate with adults who are one exemplify constructive handling of burdens, it can experience security, structure and meaningfulness.

His self-esteem is in constant development: From the rather unconscious experiences in toddler age, he extends these with other people, with colleagues, neighbors, babysitters. Friends are formative and become the most important social influencing factor by puberty at the latest. “Overall, we know from many studies that social relationships are the determining factor for self-esteem. They are more important than performance, grades, profession or prestige, ”says Ulrich Orth.

We know from our own experience how important they are. What adult does not suffer when they are given a basket in love? And which child is not disappointed if they are not invited to a birthday party? These Necessity of "belonging" is based on evolutionary historical necessities: To be socially integrated was of vital importance in early human cultures, exclusion from the community was an existential threat.

Statements by third parties shape the child's self-acceptance

"Social rejection lowers self-esteem, the feeling of being well integrated raises it," writes US psychologist Mark Leary in a widely acclaimed study. Leary also says that after being rejected, everything is usually done to restore the acceptance of others.

But: While the regulatory process seems to work well for most people, people with low self-esteem show that they often react with socially unfavorable behaviors that are not helpful, but rather aggravate the difficulties. For example, they tend to rate the rejecting people as not very sympathetic, or to question their competence. They also tend to withdraw even more socially.

Especially in children, expressions by third parties play a major role in the development of self-acceptance. You cannot (yet) avoid these evaluations of your person or classify them. In addition: every girl, every boy evokes certain reactions with their nature and behavior. Depending on the type of assessment, these trigger positive or negative feelings in the child.

The frequency with which the child is confronted with negative reviews also plays a role. “Impulsive children, for example, hear utterances like 'No', 'Don't do it' or 'Take care' more often than reluctant children,” explains Urs Meier, curative teacher and lecturer at the Intercantonal University of Curative Education in Zurich. The child saves these evaluations in itself.

The older the child gets, the more numerous their experiences with these assessments become. As a rule, they then select fields that correspond to their talents, their interests, their personality - and in which they can gain experience that strengthens their self-esteem. The genes have an influence on our lives, but ultimately only define a space of possibilities in which we are. The rest depends on individual behavior, own decisions and suggestions from the environment from.

“I've never tried that before. So I'm absolutely sure that I can do it. "

Pippi Longstocking

Less self-confident children often withdraw in new or ambiguous situations, more than is necessary, says Orth. "In general, people with low self-esteem show more avoidance behavior, so they are more cautious about contacts and tend to shy away from taking on challenges at work or in social life."

Maurice, the boy in our example, knows that too. He has a stomachache when faced with a new situation and would like to stay at home. Anastasia, on the other hand, has experienced many unfamiliar situations and coped with them well. What was different for her? "There are many personality factors that influence how people cope with difficult situations or failure," explains Orth. "The decisive factor is the conviction of self-efficacy, i.e. the expectation of being able to master certain situations, even if you don't yet know how."

But self-esteem also has an influence. Who his Self-respect too much on external factors support, such as success at work, it will be a great burden if he fails in this area. People who get their self-worth from multiple sources are better able to cope with situations where failure occurs in an important area of ​​life.

Other variables that can strengthen the child's self-esteem are Praise and recognition. Children who are afraid of bad grades cannot go to an exam situation stress-free and are therefore likely to achieve poorer results.

Parents and educators can reduce this fear by increasing the child's self-esteem. New Zealand education researcher John Hattie believes that feedback is a very powerful tool in building a child's self-worth. «Wrong answers are not bad, they help with learning. However, too often the school focuses on negative feedback. If someone is good, they don't get any feedback, ”says Hattie.

Indeed it has authentic praise a positive effect on self-worth. This is what the psychologist Eddie Brummelman from the University of Amsterdam found out. In an experiment he examined the connection between praise and self-confidence. His results show that self-confidence is boosted when one Praising children for their efforts and strategies rather than for their successes: "You chose a nice blue for your picture!" Then they don't doubt their abilities, but try again and again despite some unsuccessful attempts. And they choose difficult challenges rather than easy tasks. It all depends on how it is praised, writes Brummelman on the specialist website

How do you support children who are less confident?

And what can parents of a less self-confident child do in everyday life? “First of all, it's about finding out what a child is particularly good at, that is Emphasize strengthsinstead of messing around with weaknesses, ”explains Basil Eckert, head school psychologist for the canton of Schwyz.

“Parents can think about which positive character traits it has and what it is particularly interested in. These strengths should be praised and encouraged. Maybe it blossoms with a certain hobby, in a sports club or in music. In this way, parents experience their child from a different, more self-confident side. "

If you want to strengthen children sustainably, the psychologist Sarah Zanoni recommends parents to talk to their child about their strengths on a regular basis. You can be certain: Progress comes with practice. The goal is to be recognized as valuable. That sounds easy, but it is difficult, because corresponding beliefs such as “I will not be able to solve this task” or “The others do not want to spend time with me” have been trained over the years.

Fortunately, our entire development stands by our side in the struggle with self-doubt. Because "the average self-esteem increases continuously from the youth and reaches its peak at the age of about 60 to 70 years", says Ulrich Orth.

In order to maintain or achieve mental health, experts recommend using “self-compassion” as well. The Australian psychologist Sarah L. Marshall found in a study with 2,500 young people that the negative effects of low self-esteem can be mitigated if you treat yourself sympathetically and with understanding, even in a crisis. This is so good news because it is easier for people to do that Self-compassion to increase than self-esteem.

So if your son or daughter has doubts about themselves at some point, you can strengthen his or her empathy. Acknowledge what is: "This is just a difficult situation now," "It hurts!" or «That went really stupid». And then ask: "What would you be doing right now?"

Take a break together. Take a deep breath. Write down what the child was particularly happy about or what he was proud of. And stay tuned. Cultivating benevolence takes time.

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