The Barriers to an Adult Child’s Self-Esteem

The second of the twelve Adult Children of Alcoholics promises states, “Our self-esteem will increase as we give ourselves approval on a daily basis.”

Although I could extol the virtues of this milestone, waxing rhapsodic about high self-esteem and the accolades I one day hope to associate myself with, I choose instead to discuss the roadblocks to attaining it. While all the promises are like clearings in the forest through which recovering adult children must pass, I myself have hardly reached that first shaft between the trees.

There are three progressively deeper obstacles to this idealized self-esteemed state.

1. Adult children clearly do not have it.

2. Because they do not, they are unable to generate it for themselves.

3. And, even if the positive energy and compliments of others could foster it, they are unable to accept them, rejecting them like images bouncing off of a mirror.

In short, whatever you most need, you ironically most repel, ensuring its rejection and creating a vicious, detrimental cycle begun in your earliest years when the positive seam between you and your parents was torn with betrayal and negativity, leaving you incomplete with self-esteem that matched theirs.

When a person is forced to lay a life foundation pieced together by defenses in order to survive, they become barriers to what otherwise would create the desired esteem and breed the mistrust that discourages accruing it later in life through others, who may subconsciously represent his original parental authority figures.

The ego, an inflated substitute filled with the air of a person’s accomplishments, statures, titles, and possessions, is equally unable to achieve this esteem, but necessarily replaces the true or authentic self, which remains mired at the age of its inception in the protective sanctuary of the cocooned inner child.

Finally, alcoholic toxins, which result from either ingesting the actual substance or having them projected into you like air-transformed germs, hinder synaptic brain connections that otherwise evoke personal feelings, serving as impenetrable layers through which positive affirmations must pass to stoke self-esteem’s fires.

Perhaps it is more beneficial to discuss how self-esteem is not created, rather than how it is, shedding light on why adult children lack it.

It is not, first and foremost, created by being harshly or abusively treated.

It is not created by then explaining or justifying that treatment by citing your deservedness of it due to your inadequacies, flaws, unworthiness, and plain unloveability.

It is not created by taking the blame and responsibility, as a child, for the actions of adults who cannot take it themselves.

It is not created by listing the reasons you caused it to occur.

Finally, it is not created by devising strategies and tactics to reach your parents and try to gain their love, instead of them accepting you as the gift and creation of God who should be loved unconditionally.

A person views himself as his parents did. If they judged you harshly and can seldom tap into their positive emotions to validate you, you will soon feel the same about yourself, leaving your well of esteem notably dry. Like clay, you were molded by your parents and assume the shape they gave you.

Perfectionism, although a laudatory and mostly intellectual goal, is another barrier to self-esteem. Comprised of standards created by people who themselves are unable to achieve them, it is an empty concept, devoid of positive emotion. Instead, it is a level tenuously supported by facts and feats and statistics.

Scoring an “A” on an exam, for instance, may stroke the head, but does little for the heart, feeding the ego and starving the self until the person substitutes the former for the latter.

I grew up in a dichotomous environment. My mother was validating, praising, positive, and loving. Whatever I did qualified me as “the best of.” My father, on the other hand, was the ice block who never thawed and praise seldom escaped him in the form of a melting drip.

His comments, even in the case of the proverbial “A+,” never flowed from emotion, as in “Great! Beautiful job! I’m proud of you!” Instead, they had their origins in intellect and fact. “An ‘A+’,” he would say. “Well, you can’t get any higher than that.”

He may have been correct, but I sensed that he could not get any higher in his emotions.

Plowing though the forest of recovery ultimately enabled me to realize that the praise did not hinge upon whether I was good or worthy enough to earn it, but whether he had enough of it to give. He didn’t.

I recently spied a poster that said, “Don’t allow your past to get in the way of your connection with God in the present.” That past, painful though it may be, is actually the forest through which an adult child in recovery must pass to reach the clearing to his self-esteem and, perhaps, God himself.

Maybe they are one in the same.