The consumer society focused on performance and materialism often leads us to false and seemingly satisfying ideas of confident people who are successful, hold important positions, have their image and enough money. In today’s society, we have the impression that we do enough for our self-respect and self-confidence when we try to perform well, when we are successful, take care of our image, and thus appear strong and confident. These clichés are often firmly anchored in our consciousness. However, such actions have only a slight impact on self-confidence. They act only as seemingly “soothing means” with which we intoxicate the inadequate feeling of self-worth.

In today’s society, concepts such as self-confidence, self-assurance, and self-esteem are very often used. The term self-esteem is one of the oldest concepts in psychology and was first used by William James, the founder of the psychology of the self, in 1890. Self-esteem is simply defined as a positive or negative attitude towards oneself. Tomešová (2005) perceives self-esteem as a sense of one’s own worth. Self-esteem and self-worth are important factors for the quality of life and overall life satisfaction.

Today’s practice shows that many clinical diagnoses, despite different clinical presentations, are somehow related to conditional self-confidence and self-esteem. Depression, anxiety, addictions, eating disorders, borderline disorders, and many others… However, conditional self-confidence is not limited to clinical diagnoses. On the contrary, almost everyone has “cracks” in their self-confidence that shake it in various life situations.

How self-esteem develops

We are not born as complete human beings, and the same applies to self-esteem and self-assurance. They also have to develop. The first six years of life have a significant impact on the development of self-esteem. Of course, genetics plays a role as well, the genetic makeup with which we are born. Furthermore, it is the acceptance we receive from our parents and significant others. Then there are various experiences that directly or indirectly affect our self-esteem and contribute to its formation. However, self-esteem is not a stable phenomenon even in adulthood, but is influenced by further experiences and experiences. The extent to which our self-esteem will be affected by further experiences depends on what “stable” self-awareness we have developed in childhood and how we think about ourselves. Such a description of the development of self-confidence and self-esteem is very simplifying, but in this article, I do not want to focus on the development and formation of these phenomena. I will focus on the understanding of self-esteem from the perspective of psychotherapist H.P. Röhr, who interestingly writes about these phenomena in his book “Podminované dětství.”

Key questions for developing self-esteem

In existential analysis (as one of the psychotherapeutic approaches), there are basic personal motivations, where one of them is referred to as “Yes to oneself.” It pertains to self-confidence and self-esteem. This personal motivation includes questions such as: Can I be exactly who I am? Who am I, really? Am I aware of my worth? Do I feel respected and appreciated as I am?

H.P. Röhr, in his book, talks about three important questions that arise right after birth, which have a significant role in shaping self-confidence and self-esteem. The first question is “Am I welcome?” Whether a child will feel welcome in this world depends on how the parents treat them, how they touch them, and so on. A child needs positive signals from the first significant person in their life, which is immensely important for self-confidence. The second question, “Do I fit in? Am I good enough for my parents?” reflects the child’s desire to please their parents and to be given a sense of self-esteem. The third question then is “Have I received enough love and warmth? Am I satisfied or have I come up short?” Röhr talks about these questions in his book, but their content corresponds to the needs for love, safety, and unconditional acceptance, which are also mentioned in developmental psychology. Insufficient fulfillment of these questions or needs in early childhood leads to the creation of “secret programs” that deeply root themselves and affect our self-esteem and self-confidence. It can be said that it is a scheme, an information that we carry with us. This information then pertains to how we think about the world, how we think about ourselves, and how we think about ourselves in the world.

According to Röhr, negative internal programs arise based on whether or not we answer certain questions, and these programs are often unconscious and act as hidden mines in our psyche. However, how do these programs arise and how do they subsequently affect our self-confidence?

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Secret programs as mines of our self-esteem

“The more frustrations a person experiences in their life, the more uncertain and fearful they become. Behavioral research has shown that people can be ‘conditioned’ in this way, which means that processes take place in their soul to which their mind has no access.” (Lauster, P). Similarly, secret programs also have an unconscious effect. The term “secret programs” creates the impression of some kind of programming, which can sound simplifying. Of course, we humans are not computers that can be programmed. It is rather about how the secret program affects each of us. Röhr writes in his book that “secret programs” are deeply rooted in us very early on. We may not be aware of their existence, presence, or impact at all. However, they tend to repeat themselves, meaning that we (often unconsciously) adjust our behavior to these programs, thereby fulfilling their content. This is a similar mechanism to obsessive-compulsive disorder – the secret program leads to the urge to repeat the same dramas.

Some of the secret programs

I am not welcome.

Every person wishes to be welcomed, to be wanted. First and foremost, we long to be accepted by our parents. A child needs to be accepted by both mother and father. If this is not the case, they carry a certain deficit throughout their life. In people, this program manifests itself in their relationship with others with a certain distrust. They think: “It is not possible for the other person to acknowledge me, to like me.” They constantly discover hints in others that the other person does not accept them, does not like them. Such a secret program can evoke despair and anger. Anger that then turns against oneself or against others. People with this program always direct their attention where they are not welcome and thus find confirmation of what they know so well.

I am not good enough, I don’t measure up.

The question that a person needs to answer during their lifetime is the question of their own worth. As young children, we try to meet our parents’ expectations. If a child does not meet expectations, it leaves a deep wound inside. Such a program primarily causes insecurity, which also occurs when something is done well. The question inevitably arises: Was it good enough, could it have been even better? Should I have done something more? People with this program struggle to measure up. They suffer from internal destructive self-talk. Particularly harmful is any way of underestimating oneself. Many fears and anxiety disorders have their origins in this secret program.

I didn’t feel satisfied, I came up short

Am I loved enough? The need for physical closeness, to be cuddled, to feel good, to be close to parents – all of this forms the basis for strong self-esteem. Sibling envy also plays an important role in this secret program. A person with such a program may have experienced their parents favoring their sibling. This feeling primarily generates envy. I mainly notice those who seem to be doing better and automatically notice where I came up short. Such internal emptiness can also be referred to as inner vacuum – it cannot be filled with anything. This secret program is also a source of anger that a person ultimately has to direct towards themselves.

To escape the pain and inner anger from their secret programs, people construct “antiprograms” according to Röhr. He calls all activities that people use to try to erase their secret programs antiprograms. For example, someone with a program of inadequacy will try to achieve exceptional performance to convince their surroundings otherwise. Other antiprograms include defiance, consumption, alcohol and drugs, desire for success, desire for recognition, and even excessive adaptation. The key then is in identifying, exposing the secret programs that undermine and condition self-esteem, identifying the antiprograms that only contribute to the fact that a person cannot find a way out of their problems. We humans can be very resourceful when installing antiprograms… But that’s for another article…