This is Part 1 of Is your ‘self-confidence’ hiding low self-esteem?
I sat with one of my neighbours a few years ago and shared with her about my overwhelming feelings of low self-esteem. I had recently been doing a lot of work to try and manage my feelings of panic in social situations.
‘I’m shocked’, she responded.
‘I’ve always admired you for your self-confidence. You always do and say whatever you want and don’t allow anyone to dictate what you do!’
This was true, and in fact has always been true of me. Many people see this quality, of refusing to submit to anyone else’s expectations, as a great virtue.
I have never been able to remain silent if someone has said or done something I disagree with. And I have always determined that I will not shy away from doing something simply because I am embarrassed.
I always felt that fear of what others think demonstrates weakness. And I felt that I must do what I want no matter how embarrassed I feel about what others think. Prior to having this conversation with my neighbour,
How a child learns to deal with pain
- I had grown my hair half way down my back,
- I wore outrageously bright and ‘crazy’ clothing (I often went out wearing my $700 cowboy boots that I bought in Texas),
- occasionally I would even wear my handmade red kimono,
- Sometimes I would apply some eye make-up as a finishing touch,
- I refused to submit to any ridicule that some people directed towards my appearance.
The premise of this article is that if we constantly try to face scary or traumatic experiences over and over again, this is sometimes a sign that we are struggling to overcome our fears. Often if we have failed to overcome certain fears, we continue to try to face them, in an attempt to master our emotions. Repeated attempts to expose ourselves to something scary or difficult may be a sign we are more afraid than we would like to think. (Called a Counterphobic
response in Psychoanalysis)
Fenichel, one of Freud’s close disciples, has done a remarkable job of synthesising early Psychoanalytic ideas. We’ve spoken about the concept of some individuals possessing strong ‘Ego’ before on this website (see "Are You in the ‘Happy with My Life Outcomes’ Team?"
). Here Fenichel speaks of the difference between a ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ Ego.
‘The ego’s reactions to new painful experiences depends on its strength and development. A very weak ego may be passively overwhelmed, the unexpected painful experience producing a traumatic effect.
…In contrast, a mature ego, reacting in accordance with the reality principle, is able to acknowledge the existence of painful experiences. By means of such recognition it can thereafter either avoid similar experiences or respond adequately to them, rendering unavoidable pain as harmless or even as useful as possible.’
Fenichel explains the process by which children learn to ‘master’ fear & pain associated with traumatic experiences. A child does not want to be ‘mastered’ by fear or by things that she is afraid of. Therefore, she may tentatively approach something which has caused her fear in the past, in order to try to overcome her feelings of apprehension. Here are some examples:
A vivid picture of a child trying to suppress painful experiences
- Imagine that a child has been burnt by a hot cooker. Over time she may try to get closer to the cooker again, in an attempt to overcome her fear of the cooker. You will often notice this kind of process in children: they often wish to approach frightening things.
- A child may wish to get closer to the road and overcome her fear of cars.
- A child may try to approach a dog which she had previously been afraid of.
- A child may initially be very afraid of being told off by her parents. However, at a later date, she may well begin to try to stand up to the parent who she was formerly more afraid of. This is an attempt to master the fear she has of her parents’ anger.
I remember a vivid example of this process. I found out that my neighbour’s 6 year old son, Sam, loved Transformers (which are a brand of children’s toys and a TV series). I owned a copy of the original 1986 film Transformers: The Movie
, and so I offered to go round and watch it with Sam. Around 40 minutes into the film, the leader of the Autobots dies. (The Autobots are the ‘goodies’ in this film). It’s a sad scene in which the other leaders of the Autobots stand and watch their leader, Optimus Prime, breathing his last words. Prime then passes on his beacon of leadership to the younger Ultra Magnus. Part way through the scene, Sam turned to me and asked,
‘Is it sad?’
‘Yes,’ I answered ‘it is sad.’
‘But I’m not crying’ Sam responded.
A minute or so later Sam repeated ‘Is it sad?’ again. I responded in the same manner, and once again Sam re-iterated ‘I’m not crying though’.
Here I saw a child beginning to try to come to terms with a painful experience. Clearly, it was sad for Sam (and for all of us who had to see our hero Optimus Prime dying!). It seems to me that Sam was trying to master the difficult feelings he was experiencing. And in that moment, I saw a vivid picture of the process we each have to pass through as we begin to try to manage difficult emotions.
to be taken to Part 2 of this article.
Question: I’d like to know what you think. Have you seen this process by which children try to ‘master’ their fears by approaching things they are afraid of? Are there things that you are afraid of that you continue to try to overcome by exposing yourself to them?
Photo: Jarle Refsnes