wilmoth_lgDear Michael:

My friends encouraged me to write to you, but I don’t know if you can do much.  They say I have lousy self-esteem.  

Maybe they’re right.  Whenever someone gives me a compliment, I think they’re after something and I don’t believe them.  

Doesn’t everyone have problems with self-esteem, or is it just me?  I guess I am okay looking, but I rarely have dates.  

I went to a therapist once, but it didn’t help much.  He wanted to examine my childhood, and I don’t remember a lot of my childhood, so he said I was probably abused.  I don’t know.  What do you think?

Confused in Clairemont



Dear Confused:

You bring up two different – but possibly related – issues: self-esteem and childhood abuse.  Let’s take them one at a time and then see how they could be linked.

Self-esteem is how we “esteem” ourselves: what we think about ourselves.  Obviously, no one thinks they are fabulous 24/7 (do they?), but, how do you feel about yourself most of the time?  Do you usually think you’re okay, sometimes really good, other times, not so great?  If so, you’re normal.

Most people have daily (hourly?) fluctuations in their self-esteem.  What is harmful is when you rarely see the good in you, e.g., you don’t ever think you look good, act intelligently, are kind to others, have good qualities…get the picture?  It sounds like this may be true for you when you say, “Whenever someone gives me a compliment, I think they’re after something and I don’t believe them”.  Could every single person who compliments you want something?  Could they ALL be such liars?

Get my point?

It sounds like you’ve got some “cognitive distortion” going on:  your brain distorts the input it gets.  For example, if someone at work says to you, “that was a great job you did on that project”, your brain distorts the praise and turns it into, “they just want something from me”, or “I’m not smart enough to do a great job on anything”, that’s cognitive distortion.

Your brain won’t let the truth in; for some reason, your brain “wiring” got screwed up sometime in the past and it won’t correctly reroute positive input.  (The correct response to a compliment, by the way, is always a simple “thank you”, even if the person is a liar.  It’s clean, easy and gracious.)

If your self-esteem is messed up because your brain won’t let good things in, you’ve got a problem.  Luckily, it is one you can solve.  From your Email, I’d recommend that you start your change process by becoming aware that: (1) you turn compliments into crap, (2) you don’t trust what people say to you, (3) you think everyone wants something from you.  These are useful things to know about yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up for doing this (that always slows down the change process): just notice what you do.  Try and observe it from a neutral position.

Once you see what you do, changing it usually involves some introspection.  Ask yourself questions like:

  • Have I always been this way?
  • Was I ever able to trust people?
  • Did I used to allow myself to receive praise from others?

Do a little detective work: go back in your life and see where these cognitive distortions may have originated.  Who said what to you and when?  Who hurt you/betrayed you/disappointed you/used you?  Do you want to continue through life not trusting people?  (sorry, rhetorical question).

Part of freeing yourself from past conditioning is to see where all this crap started.  It helps to identify how the innocent, trusting child we all started out as (yes, even you hyper-cynical folks) somehow got turned around.

For many of my psychotherapy clients, this is their “aha” moment: they see that something (or a series of events) happened and they changed who they were.  They gave up being trusting and open; and replaced it with defenses to keep people out.  This is what is known as the “adaptive self”: it’s what we did to survive, to get through tough times.  However, it doesn’t serve us now to continue this way.

I’m not saying to become stupid and gullible.  You seem to have gone to the opposite extreme and become suspicious of everyone.  It’s good to have a healthy dose of skepticism in life, but it’s not helpful to be so overdefended that you don’t let anyone into your heart or head.  This could be one reason why you say you rarely have dates.  Are you willing to be asked out?  Do you give off a “leave me alone” vibe that would intimidate even Brad or Angelina?

Now, about child abuse.  The issue of child abuse and possible “false memory syndrome” is a controversial one. It’s a hot topic nowadays to pin anything on child abuse (especially sexual abuse) unless you are clear that it happened.  In my experience, ethical therapists do not suggest to clients that they were probably abused. That’s a very strong statement to put out there.

If a client thinks they may have been abused, I will explore it with them, whether it’s emotional, physical or sexual abuse. I will not suggest it.

“False memory syndrome” looks at the possibility that psychotherapists can “plant” the idea of child abuse in the mind of their clients and that the clients “grab onto” the idea and embellish it, whether it actually happened or not.  I’m not saying that this is what your therapist did with you.  My advice is to use your healthy dose of skepticism and question anything that any therapist says to you that doesn’t seem true.  It was your life: you were there.  Trust yourself and your sense of what is true.

Poor self-esteem isn’t necessarily linked to child abuse.  However, much research shows that when adults don’t remember large chunks of their childhood, there is usually a good reason.  Often, our mind “protects” us against remembering something unpleasant or painful.

Again, this doesn’t mean you were abused.  It is likely though that something bad happened (you were made fun of by someone, your parents were divorcing, you had a crush on some cute guy/girl at school and felt miserable because you couldn’t express it) and perhaps it’s too painful to remember.

Whether you work with another psychotherapist or not, I encourage you to do some introspective detective work to see why your self-esteem may be so low, and if you want to look at possible child abuse in your past, then do so.  If not, trust your instincts.