Health & Fitness

How early childhood shapes self-esteem

self esteem
Circumstances under which one grows up determines greatly self esteem. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Qn. How can I build my self-esteem without being arrogant and overbearing? I struggle to strike a balance of these two and my close friends notice it.

A few years ago, we saw a lady in her 30s who came to us because her boyfriend had beaten her so badly that she had lost a twin pregnancy at five months. Understandably, she was in great shock, was depressed, tearful and was mourning the death of her babies!

She was admitted to a private clinic where she remained for three weeks. At the end of her stay, a number of issues became clear. One that resonated well with her was a conversation about self-esteem, and how she had all her life felt that she did not deserve anything “good” in her life. She felt that the education she had achieved, the job she had and even some of her friends were simply too good for her! She often felt uneasy whenever she felt happy. The irony in her life was that she felt happiest when she was sad. How can she be happy when sad? Is that not a contradiction? In her case, this was not.

At the age of 10, she was very close to her father. He loved her to death, as the saying goes. He took her to school, played with her and her friends and defended her from her mother who was a disciplinarian who often beat her for “leaving things lying all over the place.”

She knew something was wrong between her parents but as a child, did not know how bad things were.


One day her father made the ultimate act of abandonment. He died suddenly without a word of goodbye. He was stabbed by the husband of the woman he was having an affair with. In a flash, the only person who protected the young child was dead.

As fate would have it, her mother remarried and her stepfather’s mother took her in as one of her own. She felt loved and cared for in the way only a grandmother can do. The new grandmother taught her all things about young women and they became very close indeed.

Many evenings and nights were spent one in embrace of the other. Two years later, the old woman died in her sleep. The girl was then a teenager and had taken notice of one particular boy in the neighbourhood.

Her grandmother had guided her on how to relate and how not to relate to boys at her age. She felt confident and followed her grandmother’s advice to the letter.

In a moment of grief, after the death of the old lady, she had no support from any adult. Father and new grandmother were dead, and her mother was preoccupied with her new husband.

She began to enjoy the embrace of her boyfriend. At 16 she became pregnant. The boy took off, and was later found dead following a road accident. She soon lost this, her first pregnancy! Years later when we saw her in her 30s, she had not healed from this teenage trauma.

Through the end of High School and university she got herself in relationships that ended up hurting her. In therapy it became clear that she was looking for men to replace her father. Many were older, initially treated her as one would a child and this made her feel loved. In time, at least three of the men took off suddenly when she became extremely clingy, much as a two-year old does to her mother going out shopping.

If the man did not pick her call at the second ring, or if he was late for a date or if he seemed to look elsewhere, this would lead to outbursts of extreme fear and anxiety. Any sign of abandonment brought back the fear she felt after the three deaths in childhood.

As you can see, self-esteem has origins in early life and can be undermined by many early life experiences. Being confident and aware of personal rights is not being arrogant or overbearing. Low self-esteem demands further evaluation. It is important to learn that one can, and should achieve a sense of self fulfillment and self-worth. It might be helpful for you to talk to a therapist.