Our parents are our first mirrors.
As we grow, we look to our primary caregivers to give us feedback and help guide us through a world unknown. What gets reflected back to us is the basis upon which we form our first self-impressions. Based on these reflections, we begin to develop a self-concept as we identify ourselves more with certain attributes, less with others.
This initial self-concept doesn’t take into account that our parents may not be all knowing and that they might have their own filter based on their experiences. Nevertheless, these early reflections can largely influence our self-esteem, as well as being a determining factor in our overall sense of worth and our propensity for resilience.
We believe our mirror to be reliable, the source of greater knowledge, and our compass. If our mirror shows us that we are deeply flawed, it must be so. That’s why if our parents reflect back criticism, disapproval, or ambivalence, we are more likely to feel insecure, unworthy, or ashamed.
On the other hand, if our parents reflect back warmth, encouragement, approval, and acceptance, we learn that we are worthy. We learn that mistakes are inevitable and that they do not determine our significance and self-worth. As life presents its challenges, though we may struggle, we have the fundamental belief in ourselves that we are capable of getting through it. In addition, we are less likely to tolerate mistreatment because we are better equipped to consider the source of the mistreatment, rather than blindly believing it because it parallels the messages we received in childhood.
So, what do you do if your first mirror was less than ideal?
Consider the Source
Keep in mind the environment in which your parent was raised. It is likely that he/she received the same messages. This is not an excuse, but it helps to separate what isn’t really about you, but is instead a product of your parent’s past. The most scarring messages personally attack the other person rather than respectfully addressing the problematic or undesirable behavior. These criticisms can make you believe that there is something profoundly wrong with your character and who you are. De-personalizing messages that have been deeply hurtful can liberate you from a lifetime of faulty beliefs about yourself.
Evaluate Your Relationships
When you believe damaging messages, they color the way you view yourself and what you think you deserve in relationships. This makes you more susceptible to abuse, because you’re more likely to tolerate mistreatment. It’s not a far stretch to enter into and stay in relationships that reinforce those negative early messages, believing that if more than one person says them, they must be right. While constructive self-reflection is healthy, recreating a toxic environment is not.
Give Yourself What You Needed and Didn’t Get
What age were you when you were neglected, criticized, or shamed? What messages did you long to hear? What did you need in order for you to feel safe, accepted, loved and cared for? Write these things down and begin to look at them every day. Recite these words to yourself, over and over again, especially during particularly difficult times when you feel most vulnerable.
It is never too late to examine the messages that were reflected back to us during childhood. Most often, these messages are at the core of what we believe about ourselves. Carrying faulty beliefs about ourselves damages self-esteem, makes us less resilient, and leaves us feeling chronically inadequate.
So, take a close look at what was reflected back to you in childhood and let go of what simply was not yours to take on. By giving yourself what you deeply needed at your core, you can start to see yourself more accurately in your own mirror.
Published in Best Self Magazine, October 18, 2017.