Wellness & Fitness

Upbringing will affect self-esteem in people


Q “Is there a treatment for inferiority, and what causes it because I often feel looked down upon by some colleagues at work?”


Your question seeks to better understand the origins of low self-esteem and more importantly how to treat the condition. Before we answer the question, you might want to know that we can think of three types of self-esteem. The first is described as inflated, the second is high and the third is the type you seem to have, which is low self-esteem. The other thing you might want to know right at the outset is that inflated self-esteem sometimes occurs in disease states such as manic episodes and low self-esteem is common in people with depression as an illness.

Following treatment, individuals’ self-esteem then goes back to normal. For most people, this is a state of self-acceptance in which an individual is able to cope with the normal stresses of life and is able to contribute to the affairs of his community in a meaningful manner. This is indeed the description of normal mental well-being. Now follows a sad story.

A few years ago we saw a 39-year-old mother of two who was very much like you. She had felt inferior to other people all her life. She was the last born in a family of six, and had always felt that she was born a mistake and that her parents had wanted fewer children. In childhood, she felt alone and lonely because her older siblings seemed to know and like each other and as she was to say later, she felt like an appendix all her life. She did not fit well at home but school went to make things even worse.

At the age of seven she was shipped off to a boarding school, which she hated. The food was horrible, the weather freezing and the nuns looked like they were on earth to finish the self-esteem of those under their charge. The girls could do nothing right. They were either too fast, or too slow in whatever they did, too loud or too soft in their speech and they were not good enough in class. When she got to do KCPE, she did not get enough marks to get to the school chosen by her parents and for four years she was told how much she had let them down because she had not made it to a national school, like her parents and siblings.

Then came the matatu man. On the way home one day a man seemed to notice her. He asked her what her name was and where she was going. He helped her with the language she was carrying and wanted to know her phone number. As they say, one thing led to another and in time a relationship started. This was the first time that she had felt loved and not judged. With him she could be herself and there was no need to pretend to be what others had wanted her to be. Her happiness was short lived. He died a few months later in a tragic road accident.

She later met a neighbour whose wife had died of cancer. He proposed marriage, she accepted as a way of escaping from her family and the misery they caused her. Two children later, life was still unbearable. Not even the church could give her the solace she yearned for. Life was for her worse than death. She cried daily for the life she had not lived, and blamed God for having created her.

We saw her in hospital a few weeks after she had tried to kill herself by taking an overdose. In therapy she spoke of the failure that had followed her all her life. She did not do well at home as a child, school was hell, and the only man she loved let her down by dying.

The man she married was cruel and beat her often. She felt so useless that she could not even kill herself, she sobbed. It was clear that we were dealing with a woman who had known nothing but sadness all her life. She also had a severe depressive illness. It took many months of therapy to get her back on her feet.

This rather sad story illustrates the complex nature of life in relation to self-esteem and the possible consequences of upbringing in difficult family settings. It also serves to make the point that sometimes low self-esteem can lead to life choices that can lead to further complications. It should also get you to appreciate that even at the lowest point in your life, help can be found.