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

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

«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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About the Author:

Jennifer Slingerland Ryan knows a thing or two about kids and families. First, she knows they are joyous, exhilarating, loving and so darn fun. Second, she knows they suck your life dry and make you weep like a baby. By day she’s a psychotherapist; by night she’s a mom and wife. She claims to love therapizing couples, educating parents, reading dystopian fiction and sleeping in her free time (read: she never sleeps). Jennifer has spent over 12 years in private practice working with individuals, couples, and parents who are faced with kid-drama, mamma-drama, and family-drama, and she claims that although some stories make a grown woman cry, she loves it.


  1. Sharon August 27, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    The ambivalant attachment pretty much sums me up! To this day I am not attached to my dad at all. I know he loves me and I certainly love him but he is just not emotionally there.

    I’m a parent (twins too!) and I have tried very hard to be there for my boys. Hopefully I have done a much better job than my father did. My husband is more like my father than he wants to admit so hopefully they will not have the same issues that I have struggled with for years.

    Good post!

    • Jennifer M. Ryan, M.Ed. September 8, 2009 at 10:28 pm

      Sharon – a fellow twin mom! Welcome. =) So the question I have then: Who were you attached to growing up, if not dad? And, who are you attached to now? Are you able to see how you may somehow “need” your husband to be more like your father? Sometimes we try recreating those relationships (unconsciously of course – darn the luck!) in an attempt to “repair” the relationship difficulties we had early on.

      Thanks for posting! I hope to continue the discussion…

  2. Laurie September 8, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Looking back at my childhood, I remember times when my mom would pull the car over and threaten to put me out on the road. I also remember a time when she was “calling” the orphanage to come pick me up. I guess I had been bad. I don’t remember but do remember pleading with her not to give me away.

    I know my mom loved me…She had some issues due to her parents. But I do have problems with rejection and abandonment. Those terrify me and I will do almost anything to not be abandoned.

    • Jennifer M. Ryan, M.Ed. September 8, 2009 at 10:13 pm

      Laurie – thank you for your candid comment. One of the *most* said statements in my office are, “I know my mom loved me…” As an adult, you process information differently than as a child. You have the cognitive ability to look back on your childhood (and even more so as a mom, I think – it gives you even MORE perspective!) and understand it from a different viewpoint.

      But as a child, you didn’t rationalize the way you do now. You took in information, but you were a “feeling person” where you used your senses more and were in the process of making sense of relationships, language, and what people meant when they did what they did. All babies want to be held, loved on, and coddled, and they quickly learn if they’ll receive that or not based on the behavior of their parents.

      So, the reality is…. yes, I’m sure mom DID love you, just as you loved your boys. And there is absolutely NO blame – that is unproductive 100%. However, it’s good to have the awareness that as a child, you didn’t receive the message that made you the MOST secure, and unfortunately, it shaped you in ways that have stayed with you into adulthood.

      You’ll be seeing a post to your second question (“how to give this to your inner child”) in a few days. You’ll get more information there, so keep watching for it! Thanks, Laurie. =)

  3. Laurie September 8, 2009 at 8:58 am

    I meant to add this question:
    So how do you give this to your inner child now?

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