“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.”
– Frederick Douglass, African-American social reformer and abolitionist
“What the hell were you thinking?” snarled the man.
“I don’t know,” replied the boy, tears welling up in his eyes.
“You don’t know?” spat the man. “You never know, do you?”
The boy tried in vain to fight back the sobs that began to rack his body.
“Dry up, boy,” warned the man, “or I’ll give you something to cry about!”
This exchange may sound familiar. Perhaps it mirrors a conversation you had as a child. What we experience as children can have an enormous impact upon our self-esteem. When the experiences are positive, they can help us to grow healthy and resourceful – resilient in the face of adversity. When the experiences are harmful – as in my real-life example above – they can lead us to feel weak, inadequate, unworthy, and unable to deal effectively with life.
These early childhood experiences set the foundation upon which an individual will erect a life. Hopefully it will be a happy and successful one, but, as with a building, if the foundation is unstable, the structure stands a higher chance of collapse or damage. Your life is no different.
If, as a child, you were repeatedly told that you were smart, creative and capable, your response to the world and especially crisis would be vastly different from the people who were told they’re stupid, useless or don’t know a damn thing. It is worth pointing out that even praise in and of itself isn’t enough; it must be appropriate and evidential (based on evidence), as praise for the sake of praise does not build self-esteem. Hollow praise serves only to strengthen the ego and create a sense of entitlement. It does little to foster courage, resourcefulness or resiliency.
The temperament of an individual also play a role in the long-term effects of early programming. I was a timid and sensitive child, so cruel words and actions had a devastating effect on my self-esteem. It took me years to overcome some of my negative early programmings, and there is still damage that I have yet to transcend. That said, there are also people who have gone past their poor early programming and have even used it as a source of inspiration.
Years ago, I read an insightful book by corporate motivator and facilitator, Pat Lynch – originator of the term Thinking Outside the Box – entitled The Five Secrets. The title may also sound familiar as I’ve referenced the book often over the years. In it, Lynch explained that changing early programming can prove exceptionally challenging as “an estimated 80 percent of our belief system is in place by the time we are 10 years old, and only 10 per cent of us will ever raise our awareness and re-examine those beliefs.” I am not sure how Lynch arrived at those figures or whether, in fact, they are indeed accurate, but I agree, few people are willing to put their beliefs under the microscope; that takes tremendous courage and responsibility.
To me, our level of self-esteem reflects where we’ve placed our faith. Not faith in religious terms, but faith or trust in a set of positive and well-considered beliefs and values. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to have faith in yourself and move successfully through life if you’ve invested heavily in a set of negative or self-defeating beliefs, values and perceptions.
“Never say anything to yourself,” declared motivational speaker and author, Brian Tracy, “that you don’t want to come true.” Think about what it is you say to yourself and seriously think about why. Could it be some poor early programming?
Remember, the choice is yours: to live with your poor early programming and its consequences or to own it, examine it, move through it, and ultimately, rise above it.
Murray Fuhrer is a self esteem columnist