How to Increase Self-Esteem (and Other Emotionally Distressing Woes)

by Jennifer M. Ryan, M.Ed.

in Attachment, Marriage and Relationships

«It's good to be with mom!»
Creative Commons License photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar (not much online)

Reader’s Question :  I am tired of feeling inferior to others, and would like to increase my self esteem.  My husband, whom I love a great deal, also has very low self esteem. The only thing he is confident about is his worthlessness. I find that part of him unattractive and even more worse, that he plays the role of victim rather than working on improving himself.  Furthermore, I find myself attracted to confident men, and even though I’d never betray my husband, I’m wondering why I am so attracted to them.  Is it so I can get my “fix” from them, or am I leaning on them because it’s something I lack in myself?

My Take: This is a great question.  Most of us want to know why we pick the partners we do, and later, we want to know we why find ourselves then attracted to someone who is totally opposite from our mate.  This is very common, and also very frustrating!

Many clues are hidden in our past.   One theory says our earliest relationships creates a “blueprint” for all subsequent relationships in our lives.  “Earliest” means before the age of 3 years old – a time most of us don’t even remember!

Low self-esteem and being drawn to those who are confident and strong-willed can be clues into those early relationships with primary caregivers.  In fact, adults give clues into their childhood all the time. The theory is called:  Attachment.  The question to ask is, “Was I securely attached to my primary caregiver?”

Secure versus Insecure Attachment

This theory is highly debated, but it’s also extensively researched and hard to dispute. When a child is born, how parents choose to interact with the child (and the child’s temperment) sets the stage for success or failure in many relationships to come.  There are three types of attachment:

1. A Secure Attachment. The child who is securely attached seeks comfort and reassurance from their primary caregiver, and they get it.  Children feel secure knowing they can explore the world around them, and when they become frightened, they will always have their primary caregiver to take care of them – sometimes called a “secure base”.   Securely attached children develop trust in their environment and primary caregiver, and as an adult they trust their partners and people they get into relationships with.  Securely attached children have secure relationships as a general rule.

2.  Avoidant Attachment. This child has an environment that is unstable.  Meaning, they can’t be sure if mom will reassure and comfort them when in need or not.  Sometimes Mom will be there, sometimes she won’t.  Sometimes she’ll “blow up” when frustrated and angry, and not tend to her child’s needs, and sometimes she is calm, cool, collected and picks up the child when in distress.  The child learns that he can’t trust his primary caregiver.  He never knows if Mom will be available to him or not, and soon he simply stops trying.  As an adult, this person can have very low expectations and learn not to seek assistance from those around them.  Or in the extreme opposite, this person may have expectations of others that are too high and they develop a grandiose “I don’t need help, I can do it all!” mentality.

3.  Ambivalant Attachment. This child had a parent that was passive and who failed to understand the importance of emotional connection. Mom may have provided basic needs – food, shelter, clothing – but the closeness needed that builds trust in a child isn’t there. As an adult, this person is extremely lonely.  They are afraid to get close to others, and they worry the people in their lives won’t stay with them because they don’t really love them. The adult that is insecurely attached becomes too obsessive and depended on key people in their lives, deathly afraid of them leaving.

As we try to ask hard questions in our life like, “Why am I like this?, Why did I choose this partner?, Why is my partner like that?, and How can I change so I feel better?” it might be a good exercise to examine those early attachments.

As humans, we never outgrow the need for unconditional love, respect, and positive regard.  There is never a time that we don’t need to be “parented”, and for those who missed out on these key emotional needs as a baby and young child, it’s a lifelong struggle to try to achieve just that – it looks very much like low self-esttem (as the above reader questions), depression, hopelessness, anxiety and fear.

This reader, wondering why she is so attracted to “confident and secure” men might get her question answered as she thinks back to her early parental relationship.

  • Did she feel she could depend on her mom?
  • Did mom instill confidence and security, allowing her to freely explore her surroundings, or did she get shamed when she did so?
  • Does my longing for confidence and security in my current partner suggest I didn’t have it growing up?

Being securely attached has strong implications as an adult, but even stronger for a parent. Our children are the adults of the future, and we want them to feel unconditional love, security, respect, and nurturing. As an adult, as yourself how you can now get that (especially if it was missed in childhood). And if you’re a parent, ask yourself, “How can I most instill this in my child?”  Or better yet… “How can I give this to my inner child, now?”


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