Tag Archives: interpretive style

When a Poor Self-Esteem Becomes a Vicious Cycle

Walking Through the maze of esteem

…taken from Creating an Extraordinary Life: Breaking through the Abyss

Toddlers are not born into the world despising themselves – it’s learned. Unfortunately many of the external elements over time give rise to an internal guidance system that says ‘I’m not good enough’ and even encapsulated as ‘learned helplessness.’

A newborn does not enter the world with a poor self-esteem, but develops a self-image in intimate interaction with care givers and others. As the child develops the brain learns to interpret its environment, e.g., crying gets attention, those wet areas around the bottom aren’t very comfortable, etc.

In time an internal guidance system adopts heuristics (rules of thumb) that internalize knowledge and how to react to the external world.  For example, when the bottom area is wet, crying can get a diaper changed. Eventually, growth continues in interpreting the environment, and an interpretive style develops. (At 2:00 a.m., crying may or may not get attention, if the bottom is dry, tummy full, and healthy.)

When a child lives with harsh criticism, a lack of attention, or abuse he or she may learn to interpret the environment as beyond its control. And, if not checked, an interpretive style sets in that says it doesn’t matter what you do, you are always (un-loved, not getting the promotion, etc.).

Martin Seligman has done extensive research on learned helplessness and found that a person, even animals, faced with continued events that cannot be controlled learns to be helpless. In this state, a person interpretsevents as beyond their control even when alternatives are available. [1]

Their internal guidance system has adopted an interpretive stylethat ‘insulates’ the person from a sense of failure — after all, experience has told him or her that ‘that Peggy always gets the promotion.’

When internalized the inner voice translates or interprets new events as also beyond control. What was once an external event (harsh criticism) has become an internal event that precludes success where success is clearly available.

A vicious cycle spiraling downward can precipitate to serious injure a self-esteem. Each new circumstance is interpreted as beyond control, halfhearted efforts made that are not successful, and the ‘lack of control’ is re-enforced. The inner voice now takes over creating havoc even though the once external abuse or harsh messages are no longer present.

Over time the interpretive style of environmental events may take another step that I would call a signature response. For example, a person may adopt avoidance or passive aggressive elements as a coping mechanism that produces undesirable results — after all ‘I’m just not good enough.’

And the vicious cycle continues …


If we look at the cycle, three critical areas need re-aligning:

  1. A young child is limited in removing or modifying harsh environmental messages while adults can learn life skills that permits greater control – which includes separation from abusers, anger management, etc.
  2. Empathy and love can stop and replace the harsh inner (and exterior) voices with charity.
  3. Less successful responses (passive aggressive, half-hearted efforts) can be replaced with skills that produce positive resultsthat yield positive feedback. Improving life skills, professional and personal, can create positive land marks that remind us just how truly valuable that we are.

Life skills can be developed that enlarge our personal competence at cycle busting. These include growing our empathy bucket, survival tactics for handling abuse, and a few tune-up suggestions.

Embrace loving others AKA, growing the empathy bucket.

The Godfrey Camille story reminds us that the number one factor identified in 75 years of keeping track of the personal welfare of participants was that the capacity for empathy trumped all other variables. And just as importantly, the capacity for empathy can be developed. [2]

The ability to flourish economically, as well as enjoying good physical and mental health — was directly related to a “history of warm intimate relationships—and the ability to foster them.” (George E. Vailant)

Increasing our capacity for empathy turns thoughts from inward reflection to reaching out to others. But there has to be more and there is – love is a very powerful feeling. As memories fade, and the warmth of giving of ourselves (and receiving the same) can replace the once harsh messages.

Warm intimate relations also provides feedback that refutes the inner voice that says ‘I’m not loved.’ A simple exchange of hugs, for example, provides the mind evidence that previous mental wiring is a candidate for new heuristics – give a hug, get a hug.

Appropriate hugs almost always invoke a positive response. Asking another how they are doing or about a detail in their life sparks a smile that conveys someone is listening. Children often just need a smile to which they will return a smile sending a signal that one is loved.

Stumped for suggestions on growing the empathy bucket? Here are a few that build on learning to love yourself and building quality relationships:

  1. Learn to love yourself– it’s not a crime and includes:
    1. Self-care and meeting your daily physical and emotional needs;
    2. Eliminate self-criticism, especially comparing yourself to others and remember that the marbling in the agate is what makes it beautiful;
    3. Treat others with love and respect;
    4. Practice saying NO!
    5. Personal blogging and/or journal.
  2. Quality relationships. Quality relationships. Quality relationships.
  3. Explore your love buckets and those of a companion. Your primary love bucket may be service and hers touch – non-sexual touch! So, make some changes, practice a little more hand holding, and see what happens.
  4. Show gratitude to others is simple but effective. After spending a good 10 hours helping someone, nothing says you’re not worth much more than a glossed over thank you.

In short, fostering warm intimate relations allows the brain to rewire old interpretive styles to form new connections.

Serviceis also quite central to enhancing self-esteem and can foster empathy. Focusing inward may create obsessions that obstruct reaching beyond ourselves to embrace another through selfless acts. When loss or issues appear overwhelming and dark clouds have gathered, grief / diaspora (that’s a cool word) will yield in service to another.

The service that we give also invites the Holy Spirit in to cleanse and make anew the spirit injured from the ravages of a swollen river filled with muddy debris, trucks, and houses afloat or adrift.  Even more importantly the mind will be occupied with the positive rather than dark images arising from too much time spent in introspection. New friendships can be forged along with options not apparent to inward glances.

I am also utterly convinced that the physiology of neural connections can be re-written by the cleaning effect of the Holy Spirit. Old neural pathways can reset and new connections initiated.

[1] Martin Seligman, (2011) Building Resilience. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 30, 2014 from http://hbr.org/2011/04/building-resilience/ar/1

[2] George E. Vailant, (2013) What are the Secrets to a Happy Life? Greatergood.berkeley.edu Retrieved August 13, 2013 from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_are_secrets_to_happy_life

See Also: When a Truck backs over your Self-Esteem

© 2018 by James Spruell All rights reserved