Tag Archives: self-esteem

Black History and Psychology: Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark and Dr. Kenneth Clark

Andrea Harris Smith is the granddaughter of Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark, the renowned clinical psychologists and educators whose research with African American children was central to arguments that led to the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools. She lives not far from my office, Northwest Washington DC, where the playgrounds are regularly filled with women of color, exchanging stories and mindfully watching their young ones: Nannies of every nationality.

Ms. Smith, the mother of a biracial child, writes, “the playground is a perfect container for the dynamics of belonging and isolation, conscious or unconscious.”

Ms. Smith’s grandparents designed a study commonly known in developmental psychology textbooks as “the doll test”, in which they used four dolls, male and female, identical except for color, to test children’s racial perceptions. Black and white dolls were presented to children to help determine their preferences and sense of self. Most of the children preferred the white dolls to the Black ones. They said the Black dolls were “bad” and the white dolls looked most like them, reflecting not how they actually looked but how they wanted to be. The white dolls were also described as more likable and more attractive.

The findings helped the Supreme Court to conclude that segregation was detrimental to the self-esteem and mental health of both Black and white children. The Doctors Clark founded Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem; a community clinic for children and families that supports behavioral, mental and educational health. It was one of the first centers of its kind, founded over 70 years ago, and still in operation today. The contributions they made in psychology continue to influence psychologists, families, students, professors, advocates, researchers, and lawmakers.

Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark, who personally faced incredible hurdles throughout her life and educational and professional career stated: “This is probably one of the most dangerous things facing mankind today:  A use and training of intelligence excluding moral sensitivity.“

Also read, “A Tribute to Psychologist De. Mamie Phipps Clark.”

What is Low Self-Esteem?

Your self-esteem is the opinion you hold of yourself. When you have healthy self-esteem, you tend to think positively about yourself, and optimistically about life in general. When you encounter challenges, you feel confident that you will be up to the task. People with healthy self-esteem know that they are valuable and will be able to name at least some of their positive characteristics such as “I am a good friend”, “I am kind”, “I am honest”, or “I am a good parent”.

When you have low self-esteem, you tend to see yourself, the world, and your future more negatively and critically. When you encounter challenges, you doubt whether you will be able to rise to them, and you might avoid them. You might talk to yourself harshly in your mind, such as telling yourself “You’re stupid”, “You’ll never manage this”, or “I don’t amount to anything”. Individuals with low self-esteem often feel anxious, sad, overwhelmed, or unmotivated.

Nobody is born with low self-esteem – it develops as a result of experiences throughout our lives. At the center of low self-esteem are the internalized beliefs and opinions we hold about ourselves.

Longterm Effects of Low-Self-Esteem
The cycle of self-criticism can sap a person’s joy in life. They may stop doing hobbies they once enjoyed for fear of judgment. Feelings of anger, guilt, or sadness may keep them from enjoying what activities they do try.

Self-doubt can interfere with productivity at work or school. A person may worry so much about others’ opinions that they don’t focus on the task at hand. They may avoid taking risks or making goals out of a certainty they will fail. A person with low self-esteem may lack resilience in the face of a challenge.

Self-esteem issues can also impact one’s social life. Someone with low self-esteem may believe they are unworthy of love. They may try to “earn” the love of others and accept negative treatment. Others may bully and criticize others to compensate for their own insecurities. A fear of rejection can prevent people from seeking relationships at all. Social isolation can further feed into a negative self-image.

Forms of Low Self-Esteem
Imposter Syndrome: A person uses accomplishments or false confidence to mask their insecurities. They fear failure will reveal their true, flawed self. The person may use perfectionism or procrastination to deal with this anxiety.

Rebellion: A person pretends they don’t care what others think of them. Their feelings of inferiority may manifest as anger or blame. They may act out by defying authority, confrontations, or breaking laws.

Victimhood: A person believes they are helpless in the face of challenges. They may use self-pity to avoid changing their situation. They often rely on others to save or guide them.

What Causes Low Self-Esteem?
Negative early experiences are very important for the development of low self-esteem. Some of the factors that make it more likely that a person will develop low self-esteem include:

  • Early experiences including punishment, neglect, or abuse.
  • Children who suffer these kinds of experiences often form the belief that they are bad and must have deserved the punishment. Shame is often a companion of low self-esteem.
  • Failing to meet other people’s expectations. People may feel that they are not good enough because they failed to meet someone else’s expectations – this might have meant your parents’ unrealistic standards – note that this does not mean that the expectations were fair or balanced in the first place.
  • Failing to meet the standards of the peer group. Being different or the ‘odd one out’ during adolescence, when identity is forming, can powerfully impact self-esteem.
  • Not receiving enough warmth, affection, praise, love, or encouragement.

It is possible to develop low self-esteem even without overt negative experiences, but just through a deficit of enough positive ones. Without enough reinforcement that they are good, special, or loved, children can form the impression that they are ‘not good enough’.

What Keeps Low Self-Esteem Going?
Dr. Melanie Fennell, clinical psychologist, developed a cognitive behavioral model of how low self-esteem is maintained. Fennell’s model posits that throughout life, people form negative beliefs about the self, called the ‘bottom line’. The bottom line is a description of self and might be summarized as something like “I’m worthless” or “I’m no good”. For a person with low self-esteem, the bottom line is always there, dormant, but becomes activated in particular situations. When it is activated you are more likely to use some maladaptive strategies:

  • Speaking to yourself in a critical way. Often intended as a way to motivate yourself, more often this ends up paralyzing you, and it reinforces your bottom line.
  • Setting inflexible rules about how you should be. People may set personal rules that are not very flexible, and breaking the rules can lead to more self-criticism.
  • Making anxious predictions about what might happen. When people don’t see themselves as competent and capable, the world often feels full of danger. The anxious mind tries to help by predicting potential threats, but this just makes us feel even more incapable.
  • Avoidance and escape.  Avoidance is the hallmark of anxiety. People with low self-esteem often refuse to put themselves in positions where things could go poorly and their failures would be potentially exposed. By not taking a chance, they remain ‘safe,’ but their capabilities remain untested.

Psychological treatments for low self-esteem
A number of psychological treatments have been developed which directly target low self-esteem. These include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Mindfulness, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Strategies include:

  • Testing your anxious predictions, approaching situations that you have been avoiding, reducing your safety behaviors (behavioral experiments)
  • Identifying and challenging your self-criticism (thought records)
  • Retraining yourself to focus on the positive (self-statements)
  • Challenging your bottom line and building a new one. If your bottom line is “I’m a failure” then you are much more likely to pay attention to your struggles than your successes
  • Using mindfulness strategies to calm the anxious mind
  • People with low self-esteem often have a harsh and critical inner voice.
  • One way of overcoming low self-esteem is to change the way we speak to ourselves, or to have a different relationship with your inner voice (self-talk)
  • Embracing all aspects of the self without judgment (self-compassion)

Also see Brain Lies: Internalized Negative Thoughts.

Why Self-Compassion is more Important than Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of self and self-worth. While there is some overlap, self-compassion doesn’t require that we evaluate ourselves positively or that we see ourselves as “above average”. Instead, the positive emotions of self-compassion still kick in when self-esteem falls down; when we don’t meet our expectations, suffer a loss, fail in some way. It is a way of relating to yourself. This means that the sense of intrinsic self-worth inherent in self-compassion is highly stable. Self-compassion has been linked to higher resilience, better physical health, and increased life satisfaction.

External circumstances, skills, friendships, intimate relationships, even physical capabilities, may wax and wane. Self-compassion, as practice, is a constant. 

Also see The Neuropsychology of Self-Compassion.

Embolden Psychology
Embolden

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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