By Nathaniel Branden
If we are to consider how self-esteem is best nurtured in young people, we must first be clear on what we mean by “self-esteem.” So I shall begin with a definition. Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life, and as being worthy of happiness. Thus, it consists of two components: (1) self-efficacy — confidence in one’s ability to think, learn, choose, and make appropriate decisions; and (2) self-respect — confidence that love, friendship, achievement, success — in a word, happiness — are natural and appropriate (Branden, 1994).
If a person felt inadequate to face the normal challenges of life, if he or she lacked fundamental self-trust or confidence in his or her mind, we would recognize the presence of a self-esteem deficiency, no matter what other assets the person possessed. The same would be true if a person lacked a basic sense of self-respect, felt unworthy of the love or respect of others, felt undeserving of happiness, or was fearful of asserting thoughts, wants, or needs.
Self-esteem is not the euphoria or buoyancy that may be temporarily induced by a drug, a compliment, or a love affair. If it is not grounded in reality, if it is only a delusion in someone’s consciousness — if it is not built over time through such practices as living consciously, self-responsibly, and with integrity, discussed below — it is not self-esteem (Branden, 1997).
We cannot “give” a child self-esteem; but we can support the practices that will lead a child to self-esteem, and abstain from the actions that tend to undermine a child’s self-esteem.
Over more than four decades of practicing psychotherapy, I have been preoccupied with the question of what people are doing right when they are strengthening their self-esteem and what they are doing wrong when they are undermining it. In “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem,” I examine the six practices that I have found to be essential for nurturing self-esteem, and that have been indispensable to my work as a therapist. Here, I can only suggest the briefest essence of “the six pillars.”
The practice of living consciously: respect for facts; being present to what we are doing while we are doing it; seeking and being eagerly open to any information, knowledge or feedback that bears on our interests, values, goals, and projects; seeking to understand not only the world external to self but also our inner world, so that we do not act out of self-made blindness (Branden, 1999).
The practice of self-acceptance: the willingness to own, experience, and take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions, without evasion, denial, or disowning — and also without self-repudiation; the virtue of realism applied to the self.
The practice of self-responsibility: realizing that we are the author of our choices and actions; that each one of us is responsible for our life and well-being, and for the attainment of our goals; and that if we need the cooperation of other people to achieve our goals, we must offer values in exchange, since no one exists merely to serve us (Branden, 1997).
The practice of self-assertiveness: being authentic in dealings with others; treating our values and person with decent respect in our social interactions; willingness to stand up for our ideas and ourselves in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts.
The practice of living purposefully: identifying our short-term and long-term goals or purposes and the actions needed to attain them (formulating an action-plan); organizing behavior in the service of those goals; monitoring action to be sure we stay on track; and paying attention to outcome to recognize if we need to go back to the drawing board. The practice of personal integrity: living with congruence between what we know, what we profess, and what we do; manifesting our professed values in action.
One of the simplest applications of living consciously and being self-responsible is being conscious of — and taking responsibility for — the words coming out of one’s mouth. If adults did so, they would not be so prone to make the kind of statement’s that can devastate a young person’s self-esteem. “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you do anything right?” When I hear adults talking to a child abusively, I inquire, “What is your purpose? Have you found that insulting a child’s intelligence raises the level of performance?” I ask teachers: “Have you found ridicule to be an effective tool for facilitating learning?” Pay attention to outcome!
Or, a lesson in self-acceptance: Five-year-old Jennie bursts into the room and screams, “I hate my brother!” Mother number one says, “What a terrible thing to say! You don’t mean it! You can’t hate him! He’s your brother!” What is she teaching? Self-alienation and self-doubt. Mother number two says, “Wow! You’re really feeling mad at your brother right now! Want to tell me about it, sweetheart? “What is she teaching? Self-acceptance and the non-catastrophizing of negative emotions (Branden, 1987).
Clearly, parents and teachers can make it easier or harder for a young person to develop self-esteem. They can make it easier or harder for a young person to learn the six practices and make them an integral part of his or her life. However, they cannot inspire these practices in young people if they do not manifest them in their own behavior. In this area, modeling is essential to effective teaching. According to Stanley Coopersmith’s landmark study of the family origins of self-esteem, the parents of children with high self-esteem tend to have high self-esteem themselves (Coopersmith, 1967).
The six practices provide a standard for assessing parental and teaching policies. Do these policies encourage or discourage consciousness, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, purposefulness, and integrity? Do they raise or lower the probability that a young person will learn self-esteem-supporting behaviors? The issue of what supports — or subverts — self-esteem is present virtually from the beginning of life. A child has no more basic requirement, a far as parental behavior is concerned, then that of safety and security. This entails the satisfaction of physiological needs, protection from the elements, and basic caretaking in all its obvious respects. It entails the creation of an environment in which the child can feel nurtured and safe.
In this context, the process of separation and individuation can unfold (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman, 1975). A mind that can later learn to trust itself can begin to emerge. A person with a confident sense of boundaries can develop.
Today we know that touch is essential for a child’s healthy development. Through touch we send sensory stimulation that helps the infant’s brain to develop. Through touch we convey love, caring, comfort, support, nurturing.
As the process of growth continues, a child who is treated with love tends to internalize the feeling and to experience him or herself as lovable. Love is conveyed by verbal expression, nurturing actions, and the pleasure and joy parents show in the sheer fact of the child’s being.
An effective parent can convey anger or disappointment without signaling withdrawal of love — and can teach without resorting to rejection, humiliating behavior, or physical or emotional abuse, all of which can damage a child’s fragile sense of self.
A child whose thoughts and feelings are treated with acceptance tends to internalize the response and to learn self-acceptance. Acceptance is conveyed, not necessarily by agreement, which is not always possible, but by listening to and acknowledging the child’s thoughts and feelings, and by not chastising, arguing, lecturing, psychologizing, or insulting.
A child who is treated with respect tends to learn self-respect. Stated simply, respect is conveyed by addressing the child with the same good-mannered courtesy one normally extends to adults. A home or a classroom in which people talk to one another with benevolent respect is an environment that supports self-esteem.
When praise is in order, convey appreciation of behavior, and do so realistically. Do not make extravagant, global statements about the child’s intelligence or ability — because they make the child feel anxious and unseen. When criticism of behavior is necessary, do so respectfully, with regard for the dignity of the recipient. Do not indulge in character assassination (Ginott, 1972).
When parents express their pleasure in and appreciation of a child’s questions or observations or thoughtfulness, they are encouraging the exercise of consciousness or mindfulness. When they respond positively and respectfully to a child’s efforts at self-expression, or invite such self-expression, they encourage self-assertiveness. When they acknowledge and show appreciation for a child’s truthfulness, they encourage integrity. In short, catch a child doing something right and convey pleasure and appreciation at the sight of it.
How parents respond when children make mistakes can be fateful for self-esteem. If a child is ridiculed or chastised or punished for making a mistake—or if a parent steps in impatiently, saying “Here, let me do it!”- the child cannot feel free to struggle and learn. A natural process of growth is sabotaged. A child who does not feel accepted by parents if he or she makes a mistake may learn to practice self-rejection in response to mistakes. Consciousness is muted, self-acceptance is undermined, self-assertiveness and self-responsibility are suppressed. It is more useful to ask, “What have you learned? What might you do differently next time?”
An effective way to stimulate expanded consciousness in young people is to avoid asking questions that can be answered with a yes or no and to ask instead questions that require thought. For instance, instead of asking, “Did you have a good time at the circus?” — ask, “What was the most interesting (or exciting) thing you saw at the circus?” Or: “What’s your favorite book (or class) and what do you like about it?”
There is no end to the possible ways one might encourage the six practices in young people; here, it has been possible to indicate only a few. I turn now to some of the ways in which teachers can contribute to the development of self-esteem in their students.
To many students, school represents a “second chance” – an opportunity to acquire a better sense of self and a better vision of life than was offered in their home. A teacher who projects confidence in a child’s competence and goodness can be a powerful antidote to a family in which such confidence is lacking and which perhaps the opposite perspective is being conveyed. A teacher who treats boys and girls with respect can provide enlightenment for a child struggling to understand human relationships and who comes from a home where such respect does not exist. A teacher who refuses to accept a child’s negative self-concept and relentlessly holds to a better view of the child’s potential has the power-sometimes-to save a life. A client once said to me, “It was my fourth grade teacher who made me aware a different kind of humanity existed than my family-she gave me a vision to inspire me.”
“Feel good” notions of self-esteem are harmful rather than helpful. Yet if one examines the proposals offered to teachers on how to raise students’ self-esteem, many are the kind of trivial nonsense that gives self-esteem a bad name, such as praising and applauding a child for virtually everything he or she does, dismissing the importance of objective accomplishments, handing out gold stars on every possible occasion and propounding an “entitlement” idea of self-esteem that leaves it divorced from both behavior and character. One of the consequences of this approach is to expose to ridicule the whole self-esteem movement in the schools.
A few words, as an aside, on the relationship of self-esteem to external achievements in school or beyond. To observe that the practice of living purposefully is essential to well-realized self-esteem should not be understood to mean that the measure of a person’s worth is his or her external achievements. We admire achievements-in ourselves and in others-and it is natural and appropriate to do so. But this is not the same thing as saying that our achievements are the measure or ground of our self-esteem. The root of our self-esteem, as I have discussed at length elsewhere (Branden, 1994) is not our achievements, but those internally generated practices that, among other things, make it possible for us to achieve all the self-virtues mentioned above.
If the proper goal of education is to provide students with a foundation in the basics needed to function effectively in the modern world, then nothing is more important than building courses on the art of critical thinking into every school curriculum. And if self-esteem means confidence in our ability to cope with the challenges of life, is anything more important that learning how to use one’s mind? This means learning, not what to think, but how to think.
In an information-age economy, where everyone’s chief capital asset is what they carry between their ears, the ability to think independently is valued far above mere obedience. Individual teachers and designers of curricula need to ask themselves: How does my work contribute to the process of young people becoming thinking, innovative, creative human beings?
To give a child the experience of being accepted and respected does not mean to signal that “I expect nothing of you. “Teachers who want children to give their best must convey that that is what they expect. Children often interpret the absence of such expectations as evidence of contempt.
We know that a teacher’s expectations tend to turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. If a teacher expects a student to get an A-or a D-either way, expectations tend to become realities. If a teacher knows how to convey, “I am absolutely convinced you can master this subject and I expect you to, and I will give you all the help you need,” the child feels nurtured, supported, and inspired.
If a proper education has to include an understanding of thinking, it also has to include an understanding of feelings. A teacher is in a position to teach children a rational respect for feelings coupled with an awareness that one can accept a feeling without having to be ruled by it. For self-esteem, this is an issue of the highest importance. Students can learn to own when they are afraid, and accept it, and (for instance) still go to the dentist when it is necessary to do so. They can learn to admit when they are angry, and talk about it, and not resort to fists. They can learn to recognize when they are hurt, and own the feeling, and not put on a phony act of indifference. They can learn to witness their feelings of impatience and excitement, and breathe into them, and yet not go out to play until they have finished their homework. They can learn to recognize their sexual feelings, and accept them, and not be controlled by them in self-destructive ways. They can learn to recognize and accept their emotions without losing their minds.
The last issue I will mention, equally applicable to parents and teachers, is the need to ask, “What do I want from this child, obedience or cooperativeness?” If I want obedience, fear may be an appropriate feeling to encourage. If I want cooperativeness, then I must speak not to a child’s fear, but to a child’s mind.
If, in dealing with a young person, we remember that we are addressing a mind, the simplest conversation can be a vehicle for supporting and strengthening self-esteem. Such are a few of the ways in which parents and teachers can contribute to the self-esteem of young people.