Low self-esteem and how to grow self-esteem

The emotion of shame, of feeling flawed (‘there’s something wrong with me’), is a feeling first experienced between the ages of 18-24 months. This feeling can be easily triggered in adult life when being criticised or put down in some way.

The effect of feeling shame at an early age led to our creating a story about how the world works and our place in it. We might have decided at the age of seven, for example, that the world is frightening, dangerous and that people are untrustworthy, or we may have told ourselves that we are unlovable and need to behave in ways to please other people, or we might have decided that the whole thing is out of control and that when we are older we will make sure that we control life and the people around us. These stories or scripts were then set in our subconscious, and influenced how we behaved and who we became to the outside world.

As adults, our scripts may no longer be working. Our friends and family do not appreciate our trying to control them and our partners are tired of our trying to make them happy.

Eric Berne created a theoretical model describing our internal parts of self that still influence how we react in relationships. He identified adult, parent and child parts that react when circumstances trigger us.

The parent, adult, child labels include a nurturing parent part, a critical parent part, the adult parts and two child parts, the adaptive child and the rebellious child. All these parts still exist within us and can be accessed in daily life.

I will describe the ‘nurturing parent’ part and the ‘free to be me’ child part.

To help understand the label of the nurturing parent part, imagine that a friend of yours is feeling upset and you want to help them. Taking on the qualities of a ‘nurturing parent’, you might offer careful listening to really hear how they are feeling, comfort them, give them more attention or ask if there is anything you could do to help.

The ‘nurturing parent’ part provides the messages we’ve had of nurture, support, acceptance and understanding. The ‘nurturing parent’ part grows ‘the free to be just me’ child  part of us.

The ‘free child’ part feels loved and accepted and accepts him or herself. She is spontaneous, confident, ok with herself, accepting of her own values and boundaries, playful, energetic. Free to be me.  She feels known and valued by others for who she is without having to perform, or adapt.

As adults, we can access our own ‘nurturing parent’ part and our own ‘free to be me’ child part.  When we feel hurt we can access our own internal ‘nurturing parent’ part and self-soothe. 

So instead of judging ourselves, we need to have compassion for ourselves, self-compassion, accept how we are feeling and not to beat ourselves up. 

On the other side is the insecure attachment of the ‘critical or controlling parent’ part. The messages heard here were of criticism, disappointment and disapproval. These messages may have been ‘why can’t you sit up properly’, ‘you’re too fat and should lose weight’, ‘why didn’t you get straight A’s like the neighbours' children'.

These messages may have come from a parent, a teacher, a friend, bullies at school, our culture, the TV or social media, and later in life heard from colleagues, unhelpful ‘friends’ or from controlling partners.

The critical or controlling parent grows the ‘ashamed to be me’ adaptive/rebellious child part. Primarily we can feel empty inside and not good enough; worthless, and broken. We want to hide. We hide from ourselves and our friends, putting on a false front. We hide from our husbands, our wives, saying we feel ok when we don’t, from our children, our colleagues and even from those we turn to for help –hiding from our counsellors, doctors, vicars etc.

Feeling shame, we might pick up an addiction, blame others, become high achievers and perfectionists, fall into depression, or try self-harming to rid ourselves of the pain of shame. All these reinforce the pain of shame.

Relief can be found in knowing how you are actually feeling at any given time, and by knowing that the shame is not who we truly are, but a lie. At this point we need to access the adult part of our psyche.

The adult part is the part that takes in all the information, the part that can recognise where you are in the here and now. It is logical, practical, factual and represents who we are as adults.

The adult part recognises when you have been triggered into the ‘I’m not ok’ adaptive child part, and are feeling that internal sense of shame. At the point of being triggered and feeling like you need to adapt to someone else’s version of you, your ‘critical parent’ part wants to speak up, saying - ‘see, I told you, you can’t get anything right’ and criticise, judge and condemn you, but actually what you need is your ‘nurturing parent’ part to validate and soothe you.

What you need is some self-acceptance, self-nurturing and self-soothing. Say things like ‘It’s ok - everyone gets things wrong sometimes’, or ‘It’s ok, you’re valid in expressing your own boundaries’, so this ‘adult part’ directs you into a good place.

Counselling can help to explore all the parts of self and the triggered reactions. Growing self-awareness enables you to access the nurturing, validating parts of yourself, growing your self-esteem, and esteeming yourself.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Putney SW15 & Witney OX29
Written by Fran Jeffes, BA (Hons) Integrative Counsellor MBACP
Putney SW15 & Witney OX29

Are you experiencing a feeling you no longer want, or is there a situation you would like to change?    I can help you to find better ways of living.  People see me for support with a range of issues affecting the way they think and feel about things in life, from stress, anxiety and...

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Low self-esteem

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals