For many men I know who lack confidence, the seeds of low self-esteem were planted early on during childhood in our family of origin. In an ideal world, our parents create an environment in which we can flourish as a young boy, thrive as an adolescent, and fulfill our potential as a man: confident and self-assured. We feel loved unconditionally, get on brilliantly with our siblings, and learn to deal constructively with conflict that inevitably occurs within any family.
In the real world though, things work a little differently. Unless parents make a conscious effort to deal with their personal issues through some other form of personal growth or therapy, they tend to unconsciously pass on their own insecurities to their children. They can't help it; as children we are particularly sensitive to what goes on in our environment, and our parents are our natural role models whose behavior we tend to copy. Our parents have a god-like status to us as a young boy, and we can't help but naively assume that the way they operate in the world is a good way for us to be too. As children we lack the real world experience and insight to notice that the way our parents operate doesn't necessarily work real well for them either, and we don't know any better.
Now that we're adults, we can see that our parents weren't gods after all. Parents with low self-esteem don't relate powerfully or confidently to each other, or to the world around them. Low self-esteem tends to run in families because we take on the same ineffective strategies for relating to other people that our parents used. Siblings don't always help either. And the way other people and the world in general responds when we act powerlessly tends to reinforce a sense of powerlessness, causing a vicious circle which keeps affecting us long after we've departed the family nest.
Trying to break out of the family mold is difficult because our family are likely to resist the changes we try to make unless they're particularly self-aware. But if they were self-aware we probably wouldn't have inherited their insecurities in the first place. Families can have tremendous inertia to resist change even when it's positive, and this is particularly true if you had a controlling mother and/or a passive father whose anxiety is triggered by your attempts to become your own man.
Last week was my parents' 50th Wedding anniversary, and we had a family dinner to celebrate. Over dinner my mother offered: “Would you like some wine, Graham?”
“No thanks”, I said, “I'm getting over a cold so I'd better not.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, it might help me get through the family dinner.”, I quipped.
“Look, we don't need your psychology thanks”, my mother replied tersely. She never gets my sense of humor.
“That's not psychology... that's sarcasm”, I countered only partly amused.
Even at a pleasant social occasion, I felt resentment at the get-back-in-your-place attitude my mother employs to dominate and control people around her.
It's all too easy to judge myself through the eyes of my family. Perhaps you do the same. The parents who wiped your bottom are often reluctant to let go of the image they had of you as a child. Some parents never really grow up, and that makes it difficult for us to grow into a confident adult if we happen to be their son. It's extremely common for adults to regress in the presence of our family to whatever childhood role we played in it when growing up. In my case, to the powerless youngest child that nobody listened to or took seriously.
My family don't really seem interested in getting to know me at a deeper level, and that leaves me feeling sad when I'm around them. When they ask me what I've been up to, their inquiry never seems to go very deep; it's always kept quite superficial. If I elaborate, they don't seem particularly interested. If I was to judge myself by this, which I often have, I'd conclude that I'm just not a very interesting person. Having two older sisters who took little interest in me as a kid programmed me to think that women weren't interested in me either.
But when I look at other relationships in my family of origin, they're all quite superficial. Nobody talks about how they really feel. I have an interesting life, and women I meet now are routinely attracted and fascinated to get to know me better. Patterns from childhood can take a long time to grow out of, and we often assume the problem is us, when in fact it's not.
If you want to outgrow the expectations of a family with low self-esteem, you need to stop looking to your family for validation. Hard as it may be, forget about what they think of you, or rather of what you think they think of you, and get on with living your own life. Model the behavior of people who you see displaying traits of true inner confidence that you'd like to emulate. Stop trying to fit in with people in your family of origin who lacked confidence or effective communication skills.
Start doing things differently if you want to get a different result out of life. Expect some resistance from your parents and siblings if they're still around, and when you find yourself regressing back to childhood relationship patterns, cut yourself some slack; it's normal. On your way home, remind yourself that this is your life now, and you don't have to keep pandering to your family's lowest common denominator. You can still love them without necessarily doing what they think you should do all the time, or worrying about what they'll think of you if you break the mold and fulfill your potential as a man.
Families have a huge influence on us, which I why I talk a lot about how to deal with family issues that undermine our self-confidence in the Confident Man Program.