How do we develop a healthy Sense of Worth?
Our sense of worth includes the ability to know and remember who we are, and our inherent value despite our current life circumstances and the aspects of ourselves we find most challenging.
This is a great question for parents as they try valiantly to raise healthy kids, but it’s also a question for many of us adults who struggle with owning our sense of worth in a culture of comparisons and performance based self-esteem.
So I’d like to write about one of the basic building blocks in our sense of who we are: Mirroring. The concept of mirroring is exactly as it sounds. We know who we are by the reflections we receive from important people in our lives reflecting us back to us. This is not complementing. Complements are made to flatter; they do not have to be accurate to do their job.
Accurate Mirroring is when someone who knows us deeply can reflect us back to us authentically. Parents do this instinctively with their children beginning at birth: the baby makes a face, the parent mirrors that face back to them. Through these countless acts of mirroring, children begin to see themselves and understand who they are. Soon to be followed with “Mommy, Daddy, watch me…” They are asking to be seen and reflected back so they develop a knowing of themselves. So it’s easy to see that the type/quality of mirroring a child receives is an essential component in how they view themselves.
This does not mean we follow our children around with an applause machine. That would develop a falsely inflated sense of worth, which actually is not real or accurate, so it doesn’t feel safe for the child. This would give them a skewed sense of themselves. That is why we need accurate mirroring. I will reflect you when I see the amazing person you are, and I will honestly tell you when your actions are less than stellar. I will support and guide you when you are less than stellar, you make mistakes and when painful things happen. You don’t have to be “great or perfect”, in order to be worthy or lovable.
Another very important aspect of mirroring is the distinction between mirroring the person or the performance of that person. Both are important and can be valuable, but they feed a child in different ways.
Mirroring the performance is the “attaboy”: the parent sees/notices the child has accomplished a goal and praises them. This may feel great in the moment, but it becomes a problem if too much emphasis is placed on performance and if that is the dominant way the child gets seen and valued. Self worth built predominantly on performance mirroring tells the child they are only as valuable as their last accomplishment. This leads to a more fragile self worth. We often see anxiety begin to form within the child because they are now concerned about failure and what that will mean about them. The joy of doing is replaced with the anxiety of performing. Even when they succeed, their joy is overshadowed by the concern of whether or not their next achievement will be good enough to maintain their fragile sense of worth.
Mirroring the person has a greater positive impact on healthy self worth. This is where the parents see the characteristics of their child that are constant regardless of their behavior. Characteristics such as smart, kind, loving, hard working, generous, thoughtful, resilient and so on. These characteristics are part of the fabric of who they are, and that basic core essence does not come and go with performance.
An example: a child comes in with a failing grade, the parent isn’t going to praise that performance. Yet they can say, “What happened? You are such a smart kid, that grade doesn’t match that. Did you not study?” It’s not about going easy on your children, it’s about lovingly reminding them of their inherent worth especially when they screw up and need to face the consequences of their actions. This develops authentic human beings who are not afraid to fail because they know their value, even in times struggle.
We humans need mirroring our whole lives. We need people who know and love us to remind us of who we are, especially in our not so great moments. We are wired to be in connection with one another and support each other. So turn to your partner, friend, or sibling when fear has crept in and you need help seeing yourself clearly.
Just be careful who you allow to mirror you! Do not let people who are hurting so much in their own struggles mirror you. They will not see you through the haze of their own issues . Some of the issues that create barriers can be addictions, mental illness, rage, physical pain, and their own past traumas or low self worth. The reflections you may get back from someone too much in their own pain will be distorted, like a fun house mirror. When you allow someone to be a mirror, pick one with clarity and health.
Then comes the hard part for some of us…developing the ability to let the good stuff in!
I hope this was helpful or thought provoking.