“Memories make life more pleasant, but forgetting them makes life more bearable.”
Honor,� de Balzac
Let me be quite clear: If you have the feeling that you need to talk about events in your childhood because the memories are too disturbing, by all means, look for a competent, compassionate psychotherapist. Experiences of abuse or neglect can be a great burden, which may be relieved by talking to a therapist.
Still, if you just share the common belief that you have to analyze events in your childhood in order to get better, I would like to challenge this belief. Quite often it is not necessary or even counter-productive to ‘rummage through the past’. But why is it such a popular idea,
Our general approach to repair things…
It is commonly thought that you have to examine the past in order to get cured from any psychological impairment. It is supported by pop culture, like movies or books. But it is also supported by our general approach of fixing things: When your car is broken or your washing machine doesn’t work anymore, you or the mechanic will search for the cause of the problem, for the part that is broken. Discovering it is the fan belt, it will be exchanged and you’re back on the streets in no time. That is the reason why some self-help books are appealing at first sight. Analyzing the past, looking for the cause of the problem, and repairing it, seems to resonate with us intuitively.
… is not suitable for the mind
But that is not how the human mind works. Even if we could locate the exact part of the brain that is responsible for the formation of low self-esteem, we cannot just replace it with a spare part. The brain is not organized in such a way. (Aside from the fact that it wouldn’t be technically impossible.)
The self-organizing system
The brain is a self-organizing system, which various parts are interrelated. The brain saves memories as bundles with other related or associated items, like thoughts, feelings, noises, smells, etc. Have you ever had the experience of hearing a melody on the radio or in the elevator, and suddenly you had flash-backs of old memories, almost taking you to the place and the time, That is because of the multi-dimensional way any input is stored in the brain. But then again, isn’t what happened in our childhood responsible for the shaping of our personality,
Does the past really matter,
The big question is, does it really change anything to know the reason why you have low self-esteem, I do not think so. And scientific research supports my belief. There is no scientific proof that low self-esteem is a result of traumatic experience in childhood. Even more, the assumptions concerning the reason for low self-esteem are contradictory. According to one theory it is due to a lack of love, the other says it is due to too much love, leading to overprotecting. Furthermore, though what happened to you in early childhood can be a reason for your problems, it is probably not the only reason. There are a bunch of other causes that could have afflicted your self-esteem. The most important other influence is your genetic predisposition. We will come back to this later on.
Knowing the cause of your problem does not change you
It might be worth the time and money, if a lengthy examination of your past, like in a classical psychoanalysis, really could cure your low self-esteem. What could happen, if you found a competent therapist and left no stone unturned, is that you understand why you are the way you are. But that would not change a thing. Why should your self-esteem improve because you get to know the cause for it, Know that you failed at potty-training, or someone took away your all-day sucker when you were six, Or, to be more serious, because your parents were coldhearted and aloof, or too critical and demanding,
It’s the lesson you draw
Unmistakably, events and circumstances of the past have shaped our lives and formed our personalities. But although they are the original cause, they are not the actual cause for the formation of our traits and characteristics. Not what happened to us is responsible for a low self-esteem; it is what we have learned from those experiences of the past. But these lessons we have learned were also shaped by our genetic predisposition mentioned above. In this way they become a new, unique input for our mind, reshaping how we will react to new experience and what we will learn of them. That is why there is no direct connection between something that happened in the past and a conclusion we draw from it.
Look out for the lesson
It is much more helpful to examine your present feelings, thoughts and behaviors, as they mirror your specific lessons. The way you behave, what kind of feeling you have under certain conditions, or what kind of people irritate you are the signposts to the lessons of the past. And these lessons can be and should be altered. But there is no need to embark on an exhausting, multi-year expedition into your past in order to overcome low self-esteem. New approaches to psychotherapy, like solution focused therapy or the third generation of cognitive-behavioral therapy offer a much more comfortable and the same time faster way to travel.