Understanding Low Self-Esteem and how you can improve it

Published on September 9, 2014

Pia Mellody, one of the founders of the co-dependency movement, cites problems with self-esteem as being one of the five primary symptoms of co-dependency (Mellody, Pia, 1989).  In an amazing example of prescience, Pia did not propose that every person who is co-dependent suffers from low self-esteem but instead describes three kinds of problems in self-esteem.

It was prescient because recently the traditional view of self-esteem has been strongly criticized based on research indicating that low self-esteem is not necessarily problematical. In fact, high esteem can be associated with various problem behaviours  as can instability in self-esteem (Baumeister et al, 2003).  However it must be noted that Brandon (1997) has presented counter-arguments to these criticisms based mainly on his much more complex definition of self-esteem.

In any case, Pia Mellody decades before the current self-esteem controversy proposed that co-dependent individuals have problems with self-esteem including not only low self-esteem but also high self-esteem or what Pia Mellody calls "false entitlement" in which they value themselves above others and are too demanding of others.  Another problem with self-esteem that Pia proposed was unstable self-esteem in which self-esteem can flip-flop from abnormally high to abnormally low in a period of time as short as a few minutes. This view has been supported by recent research indicating that unstable self-esteem is a better predictor of problems than stable self-esteem or self-esteem measured at one particular period of time.

A useful approach to recovering from the self-esteem problems often found in co-dependency is to understand the link between these self-esteem problems of adulthood and how they developed during early childhood. To do this, I will describe first the traditional co-dependency view of self-esteem development and then a  more recently proposed epigenetic model which I hope will deepen your understanding of how such problems develop and how to recover from them.

Why do people who are co-dependent, that is people who are brought up in dysfunctional families, develop problems in self-esteem?

Pia Mellody, provided an explanation, in terms of how the child was esteemed and valued in their family of origin.  For example if the infant and young child receives a lot of harsh criticism, they will come to believe they are of no or little value and hence their self-esteem will be very low or even negative.

If they are praised unrealistically they will develop false entitlement. If there is little consistency across time in how they are cared for and valued by the chief caretaker they will grow up with an unstable self-esteem. This latter occurs when the parents switch from unrealistic adulation of the child when they are doing what the parents want, to complete denigration and even physical abuse when the child is not conforming to the parents' wishes.

The epigenetic model of the development of self-esteem

More recently, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, on the basis of his doctoral research, has provided a novel and useful epigenetic model of how self-esteem develops.  Epigenetic simply means that each stage in series is dependent on successful completion of the previous stage.  Benshar proposes that there are three types of self-esteem and that they occur developmentally as an epigenetic series of three stages:

  1. Dependent self-esteem
  2. Independent self-esteem
  3. Unconditional self-esteem.

Ben-Shahar's model is useful in that it adds conceptual coherence and logic to Mellody’s ideas about how self-esteem is disturbed in co-dependency.  I came across it in a wonderfully enlightening and emotionally impactful online course given by Ben-Shahar called "Foundations of Positive Psychology". I highly recommend this course if you want to learn about positive psychology and if you want a new source of positive input in your life. 

Positive psychology provides an expanded view of the human condition in that it focuses on nurturing human strengths and virtues as opposed to the focus on remediation of deficits and weakness found in most of traditional psychology. 

Positive psychology also emphasizes a connection between self-esteem and happiness although this again is a controversial topic (Lauren Slater "The Trouble with Self-esteem")

Description of normal and abnormal epigenetic development of self-esteem

Dependent self-esteem is a perfectly normal stage of development which is obvious in young children who are dependent on the valuations made by others of them, particularly their chief care takers, the parents.  In this stage the source of your value comes from how others value you and their communication of these valuations to you. If the child receives sufficient praise and compliments and positive remarks about themselves, then they develop a positive but still dependent self-esteem.

It is only if children develop a positive dependent self-esteem that they can move on to develop independent self-esteem. This change is initiated by probably an innate drive of the child, now usually an adolescent, to want to be their own evaluator, i. e, to stop being evaluated by others and to start to evaluate themselves based on their observation of their behaviour and thinking and feelings.  This may account for some of the rebellion seen in adolescence as the individual moves towards becoming independent of the evaluations of others and assumes independent self-esteem.

The third stage of unconditional self-esteem is only reached if one has passed through the first two stages and developed positive dependent and independent self-esteem.  In unconditional self-esteem the individual can enter a state of being in which they are no longer concerned with the evaluation process.  It is a state of complete self acceptance and detachment from how others or even oneself evaluates the self.  I like to speculate that this is a stage in which the self itself is left behind, one transcends the self and indentifies with something greater than the self, perhaps humanity in general, or life forms in general, or a spiritual force or entity .  This stage (or state) is experienced occasionally by most of us when we are in a beautiful natural surrounding and experience deeply and profoundly the peace and beauty of the scene.  In this state of unconditional self-esteem we tend to lose ourselves and lose track of time.

How can one recover from self-esteem issues in Co-dependent persons

Remember that co-dependence in its most broad definition refers to anyone raised with less than optimal nurturing of their personality development.  Thus by definition co-dependents likely will not have moved evenly through the three epigenetic stages.  What can be done to remedy this situation with all its detrimental consequences and suffering? 

The short answer, given by Pia Mellody and others in the co-dependency movement, is that the co-dependent person must actively take on the job of recovery themselves.  No one else can do it for them but there are a lot of resources available including the extensive literature available on co-dependence recovery, various 12 step groups (Co-dependents Anonymous, Alanon), and therapists familiar with the co-dependency and similar models of recovery from childhood deprivation, neglect, trauma, or abuse.

It is important to note that such recovery from problems in self-esteem requires more than just lavishing praise on ourselves although this is important in some instances.  It may also involve a  thorough re-appraisal of who we are, taking an honest look at our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and especially of our values.  This is far from any New Age kind of unconditional self love! 

It is to be noted that 12 step groups have long suggested taking a "fearless and moral inventory" as part of the recovery process.  The benefits of successfully navigating our way through the three stages of self-esteem development are immense and include freedom from being overly sensitive to criticism by others or ourself, increased self-confidence, and self-fulfilment.  Perfect happiness is not attainable but recovery from low self-esteem can enable us to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life even with all its complexities and challenges.

Recommended Readings:

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I. & Vohs, K. D. (2003).  Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 1-44.

Ben-Shahar, T. D. (2003).  Toward a New Formulation of Self-Esteem: Dependent, Independent, and Unconditional.  Unpublished manuscript.

Branden, N. (1997).  What Self-Esteem Is and Is Not.  Excerpt from The Art of Living Consciously.  Simon and Schuster.
Mellody, Pia.  Facing Codpendence. Harper San Francisco.

Copyright © 2014 Brian S. Scott

Category(s):Codependency / Dependency, Positive Psychology, Self-Esteem

Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore