Our Self Esteem and Interpersonal Behavior
by Steven R. Hemler
A healthy self-esteem is essential to productive and effective interpersonal relationships, and very important to achieving happiness in life. However, many, if not most people find it difficult to sincerely and deeply believe that they are a truly good, worthy, and valuable person. I believe the best way to achieve this self-acceptance is conveyed in a saying I first heard at a high school retreat: "God Don't Make Junk." In other words, I am a good and valuable person because I am created in God's own image and likeness, and I have just the personal strengths and weaknesses He desires me to have. Since God doesn't make junk, who am I to question His handiwork?
Without a healthy self-esteem, we unconsciously play all sorts of destructive and negative interpersonal games (as described in the book Games People Play by Eric Berne) in an attempt to feel better about ourselves. The field of psychology called Transactional Analysis (T.A.) can be especially helpful in understanding our unconsciously motivated behaviors.
In T.A. terms, there are four possible "life positions" (foundational beliefs):
- I'm Not OK - You're OK
- I'm Not OK - You're Not OK
- I'm OK - You're Not OK
- I'm OK - You're OK.
Our basic life position is established very early in life, but can later change. These life positions are lived out in the interpersonal roles we play - either as an aggressive "Parent," a passive "Child" or an assertive "Adult."
The first life position, "I'm Not OK - You're OK," appears to be the life position of most young children, but also the one which many people maintain throughout life. A child living with frequent parental criticism and a relative lack of affectionate "stroking" and positive reinforcement will usually reach the conclusion that he's not OK, but that his all-knowing parents are OK. For a two-year old, such a decision is reasonable enough. However, for a thirty-year-old, it may merely be an obsolete burden. The tragedy is that many people never reassess this early conclusion about themselves. They stick with it for life, continuing to be the submissive and passive "Child" (mostly having a Child/Parent interaction with others).
Many children later do reassess things. Especially if one's parents are cold and unstroking, a young person may come to unconsciously decide - in the depths of their loneliness and despair - that other people are not as OK as they had thought. Nobody is OK and everything is futile. This life position, "I'm Not OK - You're Not OK," can lead to personal despair and even suicide.
Another common method to relieve one's "Not OK burden" is to develop a kind of relative OKness by unconsciously deciding, "I can be OK, so long as I'm more OK than you." This "I'm OK - You're Not OK" life position causes all sorts of aggressive, dominating, and controlling behaviors (bragging, bullying, bossing, etc.). The basic life position seems to remain I'm Not OK. But, this switch is made whenever an opportunity arises later in life to relieve one's Not OK burden by feeling that I am superior to the other person (and that makes me feel better about myself). Thus, the aggressive "Parent" tends to treat others as an incompetent "Child" (Parent/Child interaction).
The only truly constructive life position is "I'm OK - You're OK." I'm a worthy and valuable Adult who deserves to be listened to and treated with respect, and so are you (Adult/Adult interaction). A youngster may arrive at this life position almost automatically, IF he or she grows up continually receiving unconditional love and positive "strokes" and receives, as well, conditional "strokes" for growing at his or her own pace (learning to walk, talk, pronounce words correctly, etc.).
Helping our children achieve an "I'm OK - You're OK" life position is one of the best gifts we can give them in life. Thus, it is important for parents to do all we can to make sure our children truly FEEL loved and appreciated. Two really helpful books in this regard are How to Really Love Your Child and How to Really Love Your Teen, both by Dr. Ross Campbell.
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Copyright © Steve Hemler. Steve Hemler has been involved in youth ministry, pro-life political activism and religious education. His articles have been published in America, Liguorian, Church, Modern Liturgy, Religion Teacher's Journal, Liturgical Catechesis, and National Review.