“Depression and low self-esteem often go hand-in-hand. Low self-esteem leaves individuals vulnerable to depression. Depression batters self-esteem.” *
“With low self-esteem you also might believe that you don’t have rights or that your needs don’t matter, especially emotional needs, such as for appreciation, support, kindness, being understood, and being loved.” **
I felt a strange sort of pride in my eldest child the other day. It wasn’t over something he had done, but something he had said. It wasn’t because it was something clever, or something witty, or something kind. It was definitely beautiful, but that wasn’t why I was proud. And to him it was probably ordinary – but to me it was immensely brave.
My child asked me directly, in the moment, to meet an emotional need. We were discussing colours and he told me that his favourite colour was peach, because it was the colour of my skin, and that my skin was beautiful. It was a wonderful compliment and I thanked him and told him it was lovely. Then a moment later he said: “Mummy, can you say something nice about me too?”
I was awed, humbled and mortified all at the same time. I quickly responded to his question with a number of things I loved about him, and reassured him that they were true and I thought them, even if I didn’t mention them in a particular moment. But I was ashamed I hadn’t brought them up immediately, and ashamed of my reasons for not doing so. I failed to differentiate him as a separate human being – I assumed that his world-view would be the same as my own. If someone gives me a compliment in response to my own, I assume that they are doing it out of obligation; that is it not genuine. I didn’t want him to feel that way, but that was my assumption, based on my insecurities. He is a child, he does not think that way – yet. Hopefully, he never will.
I hope he also never has reason to doubt whether his needs deserve to be met. I hope his self-worth is such that he never doubts that there are innumerable positive aspects to himself. I hope he never has reason to feel staggered by something that should be so simple but which for me, is so very challenging. I find it so difficult to communicate my emotional needs – or even to acknowledge that having them is legitimate. I cannot conceive of being brave enough to ask someone to say something nice about me – particularly someone I care about.
What if they couldn’t think of anything to say? Not only that, what if they felt put out by the fact I had put them in a difficult position by asking the question? What if they felt compelled to say something nice? What if they said something and didn’t mean it? What if they thought I was self-centred and proud? What if they thought of something to say but that something felt small and insignificant? What if, what if, what if….Fear, pure fear. The question just feels too risky.
I envied my child his lack of fear. He had the confidence and the security (I hope) to ask the question without fear of rejection. It appeared as awesome courage to me – I wonder how it felt and what it meant to him? Whether or not it constituted ‘boldness’, most of all I was proud of the fact that he realised he needed something, emotionally, and then he asked for it. He wasn’t ashamed, embarrassed or scared of that need. He just asked.
The lessons that our children have to teach us can be some of the most inspiring but also some of the hardest to learn. They may involve ‘unlearning’ ways of being and thinking ingrained in us since our own childhoods; and they could involve accepting that we may have lost some vital and affirming experiences along the way. We need to be conscious not to try and ‘live through’ our children. But perhaps we could all benefit, sometimes, from trying to see the world – and in particular trying to see ourselves – through their eyes.
* Margarita Tartakovksy, from an article published by PsychCentral called ‘8 suggestions for strengthening self-esteem when you have depression’.
** Darlene Lancer, from an article published by PsychCentral called ‘Low self-esteem is learned’.