Labels & self-esteem development

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 3) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which we are most grateful.

Regarding labels & self-esteem development, labels are a shorthand way of commenting on a person’s behaviour. Instead of describing what we have done, it is all too easy for someone to invent a name for it and hang it around our necks. More often than not the label is a direct criticism and hurts our feelings. It also tells us nothing about what they want changed. And worst of all, if we hear the label enough we may end up taking it on board for good, becoming just what they don’t want.

“What was that you called me?”  

We all put labels on our own and other people’s behaviour. We describe someone as clever,  stupid,  polite, spoilt, rude, selfish, etc. It is very easy for us to get so used to hearing and using these terms that we can bandy them about with out thinking any more whether they still apply. Some labels were applied a long time ago, and in very specific circumstances, which changed, but the labels stuck. We must therefore question whether we are really saying that these words apply to someone, or is there another reason – perhaps something about ourselves?

And what do words like these really mean in the first place? Different people mean different things when they use words like “clever” or “clumsy”.  Many of these labels originate in childhood, and when we are young, they create a particular way of thinking about ourselves.

It makes far more sense to describe the actual behaviour, rather than labelling the person. That means talking only in terms of what we can see, hear and feel. There are several good reasons for this.

Firstly, we  often use labels by way of telling someone off without actually clafifying the nature of unacceptable behaviour. This makes it difficult for anyone to stop doing what-   ever they are doing.  If we describe behaviour we are supplying the information necessary to effect change.

Secondly, often using a label comes across as a criticism and results in feelings of hurt and resentful. With feelings like that around, it becomes difficult to be co-operative or to have any desire to change anything.. A simple description of the facts is easier to listen to and accept.

Thirdly, labels have a nasty habit of becoming true. If we use the same labels for long enough, everyone concerned can come to believe them. We become so used to being called clumsy or stupid that we adjust our expectations of ourselves to accommodate what we take to be a revised evaluation of ourselves.

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Say what you want  

If you say to a person “Don’t drop it!” they have to make a picture or get a sense in their head of dropping it, just so that they can avoid doing so. While they are making that picture they are half-way towards dropping it, probably helped by the anxiety in your voice! It is much more helpful to say what it is you do want to happen, for example “hold on tight to it.” Or if we say to our child “Don’t spill the milk”, they have to imagine spilt milk – and milk, once imagined spilt, is all the easier to spill. We could consider describing the behaviour we do want.  This can be quite difficult, because we all tend to know what we don’t want but have greater difficulty in defining what we do want! Even when we have worked out the behaviour behind the label, it is still very easy to say “Don’t leave things lying around” rather than “Do put things away.”   Making the change to stating what we want rather than what we do not want takes extra thought and attention, but with care we can break a long-standing habit.  Instead of  “Don’t spill the milk” we could say “Hold the milk steady”. Here are some more examples:-

“Don’t interrupt me!” could be “Please let me finish speaking!”

“Don’t wake me when you come in.” could be “Be quiet when you come in.”

“Don’t make any mistakes with these figures” could be “Take extra care with these figures”.  

“Don’t be late for the meeting” could be “Leave yourself plenty of time to get to the meeting”.

Different people,  Different experiences  

Our experience of life is uniquely our own.  This means that our perspective will be unique to us as well.  This is because much of the way we experience our lives originated in childhood.  We came to understand and make sense of our world according to many different factors.  As adults we forget that these differences exist, and therefore expect that all people see, hear, taste smell and feel life in the same way as we do.  In the process of growing up, we come to imbue words with subtle and sometimes slightly different meanings.  Understanding this is vitally important when dealing with children.  Children have a totally different frame of reference to adults, and tend to take words at their literal meaning.  If we are not careful, this can result in serious problems in communication.  

It is not only with adults that errors in communication can arise.  We sometimes use words that are loaded with meaning for us, and wonder why others don’t respond in the way we would have responded.  For example, sally’s mother used he word `fine’ in a slightly disapproving sense. When she said Sally looked fine, it really meant that she didn’t like the way Sally was dressed, was refraining from being critical.  Sally grew to hate the word.  Years later, when she was married, her husband couldn’t understand why she got upset when he said  that she looked `fine’.    

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 The development of self esteem  

So much of what happens in our lives depends on how we feel about ourselves – on our  sense of our own worth, or what we call `self-esteem’.   Much of the development of self esteem takes place during childhood, but each and every encounter we have in our lives can influence our self esteem in a positive or negative way.

It is from our family that we first learnt whether we were loveable or not, so what we do and say to our children has a significant effect on their developing self-esteem. It is therefore vitally important to be aware of how we talk to our children.

But it is not only children who are affected by the way they are treated. At any point in our lives, the attitude of the significant people around us has an effect on how we feel about ourselves. Self esteem is not static, so although childhood influences are important, they are not all that matters. Below is a list of some of the areas in which positive messages can be given, helping us feel better about ourselves:

1. Being

We need to feel we have a right to be here and that we are loveable just because we exist.   We get this message when we know that we are loved, tat we are important, and that people like our company.

2. Doing

We  need to know that others think we are capable of succeeding in our lives.   We get positive messages to this effect directly: “you did that well!” “I really liked the way you did ……………” “I love the way you do …………….” and so on.

3. Thinking

We need to have a sense of our own capability on a mental level.  This is very often broken down when our views and opinions are not sought, of if they are sought, they are disregarded as useless without being given any consideration.  This is a common in the workplace these days.

4. Feeling

All human beings need to know that they have a right to show their feelings.  Our society has made it unfashionable for whole groups to be real about their feelings.  Men are traditionally not allowed to express emotion in any way other than through violence or aggression.  The British people as a whole are famed for their `stiff upper lip’.  It is important to find acceptable ways to share our feelings with other people rather than bottle them up inside.

5. Learning who we are

Being strong and capable means just that – it does not mean that we somehow reach a state in which we have no needs.  No matter how independent, powerful or accomplished we become, we still need love, support and care.

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We need to learn that it is all right to ask in a straightforward way for what we want. We don’t have to pretend to be sick, sad or angry to get what we need. It is all right to express honestly what we are feeling.

Quite often we expect others to know quite intuitively what we want, especially in close family relationships, but also at work or in friendship relationships. When we become aware of the nature of our expectation we are able to do something about it.  We need to cultivate the awareness that separates us from those around us, so that we can see he dynamics of our relationships more clearly.

We need to know who we are in order to get what we want or need.

6. Learning to do things our own way

Often one of the most pervasive lessons we learned in childhood was the lesson of obedience.  Hopefully as we grew older, we learned to temper our blind obedience with discrimination.  This is the theory of it. Looking around in the world however, and with lessons such as the one taught by Hitler in the second world war, or some of the modern-day civil wars in various parts of the world, we can see that theory does not always manifest in reality.  We may protest wildly that we would never get caught in a situation like that – perhaps not exactly like that, but if we are honest, there are probably many instances in which we follow what other say without thinking for ourselves.

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The power of the advertising industry is an example of this phenomenon.  Again all we can do is cultivate an awareness in ourselves of the reasons we do things.  If we spend most of our time doing things others want us to do, then we need to look at what is happening inside ourselves quite carefully.  The converse is also true.  If we spend our lives doing the opposite of what others want us to do, then it is possible that we are `reacting’ to attempted control, but still not doing what we need to do ourselves.

If we deal with children, we need to give them positive messages which encourage them to think for themselves, and work out what they want to do or believe. They need to learn from an early age to trust their feelings to help them know what to do.  The world has seen the tragic consequences of this failing in this lesson.

7. Sexuality

Often our feelings of sexuality are tied up in the needs and expectations of others at an early age.  We may learn that our worth depends on our ability to perform sexually, or we may learn that our sexuality is dirty and sinful, depending on the influences to which we were exposed.  Religion and society has many good reasons for manipulation this part of our lives. While we wouldn’t suggest that the development of a sense of morality is undesirable, we would say that it is difficult to obtain a balance in these matters, and that often we are a victim of the conditioning we received when we were young.  The feelings we develop regarding our sexuality from childhood often persists well into adulthood, reducing our ability to feel or think clearly as self determining adults.

We also need to learn to discriminate between our sexuality and our need for love and comfort, because these can easily become confused and intertwined.

8. Independence

The development of independence is very much an issue of relevance to parents.  Parents know that helping heir children achieve independence can be one of the most difficult things to do.  As parents we may have needs of our own that get in he way of helping our children along this path, or we may simply not know what sort of messages we need to give to our children.  How we give them these messages depends very much on the type of person we are and the sort of language we use.

Even if we are not parents, the issue of independence is probably still of great relevance to us.  If we didn’t get the help we needed as children through the phases we have been discussing, it is likely that our sense of our ability to live an independent life may be stunted or warped. Often marriage or partner relationships engender patterns of dependency based on earlier parent-child relationships.  We may either experience ourselves as dependent on others, or we may have powerful needs for others to be dependent on us.  Both these patterns stem from the messages we received in childhood.  To raise our awareness of these issues in our lives, it is helpful to consider the nature of our feelings around these issues.  If we think about our relationship either with someone we depend on, on who depends on us, we can try to identify things that bring up strong feelings. They may be messages that you missed out on as a child and now have a chance to catch up on.

If we didn’t get the things we needed at the right time when we were children, we continually get chances to make up that lack as we go on through our life.   Clearly the issue of independence is very much an issue of the level of self esteem.  We need others to depend on us, because that proves that we are `good’.  It also in fact proves that we are actually exist.  It may also legitimise us in our own eyes, for if someone else needs us, then there must be a reason for our lives after all.

There are two principle beliefs we need for high self-esteem

  • the belief that I am loveable simply because I exist.
  • the belief that I am worthwhile, that I have something to give & to offer others.

The deep down feeling that we are worth being loved and valued, comes about through the quality of the relationships we have with the important people in our lives.  While it is impossible to fill these needs for ourselves in a direct way, we can do so indirectly by creating a wholesome climate for the significant others in our lives.  It is an amazing fact that when we help others feel better about themselves, they quite literally can’t help responding in positive ways, which in turn helps us feel better as well….


The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 3) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which we are most grateful.

There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

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