In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have worked
with people for almost twenty-five years. By far, the single
most central element, the one thing that pervades almost every
other issue is self-esteem. It touches everything–sex and
relationships, work problems, anxiety, depression, addictions;
you name it. This is Part IV of a four-part series in which the
subject of self-esteem is explored, particularly in the context of
“visiting” divorced parents. This emotional and physical climate
challenges the natural development of self-esteem–it is hard to
parent children through this even if the family is intact!
The development of self-esteem is examined through the author’s
system and theory of self-esteem. There are four primary elements
of self-esteem. In my system, I call them “Powers” because when we
develop any one of them, we become more personally powerful.
The Four Powers of Self-Esteem are: Worth, Competence, Ego-Strength
and Self-Acceptance. Please read Parts I, II and III before reading
The Fourth Power is Self-Acceptance. This is the last of the
four powers to develop, and depends upon a unique psychological
configuration. This power is about accepting ourselves no matter
what. We may have pimples, poor abilities in any area, be overweight,
move slowly, not complete assignments, etc. On the other hand, we may
excel in any of these areas. It does not matter. No matter what our
qualities are, we accept them just as they are, and we are content with
that, even though there may or may not be some desire to change.
On the surface, this seems like a simple thing to do, but it is not.
To master this last Power, one has to be embedded in a
psychological environment that is permeated by what Rogerian
psychologists call “unconditional positive regard.” That means our
support figures accept us as we are, so we are cued to do the same with
ourselves. It is rare for parents to completely send this message to
us or to each other, but this is the psychological spawning ground from
which we learn to think and feel this way about others, and then about
Now, imagine that a child lives in two houses and the parents are
divorced and/or separated. Imagine the body language alone that each
parent uses to communicate about the other parents. Do you think this
is a positive message? Granted, there are exceptions, but they are rare
and are not usually seen in this counselor’s office. Rather, the
messages are negative and the child absorbs this dynamic message.
Sometimes the enmity is so intense the child experiences unconditional
negative regard. How could a child learn to treat himself or herself
with unconditional self-acceptance while living in this emotional climate?
It is almost impossible for children to do this. On good days, this is
easier but on bad days, there is not much opportunity to just accept
oneself as is. So, the child experiences mixed messages from others,
which becomes the blueprint for self-acceptance.
Some kids seem to have a high degree of self-acceptance even though
they come from divorced families and have endured not just mixed messages,
but high levels of criticisms or just chronic family conflict. These kids
usually are highly suppressed, and later repressed about conflict.
They appear to be calm and self-accepting on the surface, but are
stockpiling lots of negative feelings at deeper levels. This is “faux”
self-acceptance and belies a process that in the future will erupt
unpredictably. They hold feelings in, then hold in more feelings, and
then like too much air in a balloon, go “BOOM.” This is what I call the
“Shut Up, Shut Up, Blow Up” model, because these kids are unpredictable
explosions waiting to happen. This is repeated again and again, cycling
between forced and pressured quiescence and out of control rancor.
The child learns to split off from the bad and try to embrace the good parts,
thus suppression and repression are periodically reinforced, even encouraged,
in contrast to their self-esteems, which collapse during eruptions.
Going back and forth between different houses with different parents
whose temperaments and proclivities to process conflict differ presents
children with challenges to their self-esteem. This manifests in four
different arenas of self, as described in the Four Powers of Self-Esteem.
Each power builds on the previous one and all are reactive to household
environments. It would be wise for parents to be mindful of these
Four Powers in their dealings with children from divorced homes. It is very,
very hard to adequately parent a child when the family is intact. It is
much more difficult to steer children through the murky waters of divorce
and/or separation and avoid damaging that very fragile vessel we call self-esteem.