Remember that human infants are born in a completely helpless and vulnerable state while, at the same time, they are learning about and exploring their environment. The brain is slowly registering every stimulus and experience as it develops into a complex organ. The problem is that exploration and learning opportunities take the already vulnerable infant away from its caregivers, who are its sole source of protection and support. Thus, the infant has a dilemma. On one hand, infants are vulnerable and need to feel safe, secure and attached but on the other hand, they are compelled to explore and adapt to the infinite stimulation in their environment, which may take them away from a safe proximity to their caregivers.
When a dependent infant gets too far away from an attachment figure, the source of its physical security such as the mother, it experiences anxiety, which motivates the infant to seek close soothing contact with the mother. This contact reduces the child’s anxiety. What could be more dangerous for the already helpless infant than to be left alone to fend for its survival. In fact, the infant has no way of knowing that it will not be permanently abandoned to the pain of this anxiety except through continual relief of that pain via contact with their caregiver/attachment figure.
As human infants get older they realize that the mere expression of bodily urges and intrinsic desires no longer bring the cooing support of caregivers. For some strange reason, Mom and Dad do not share in the child’s delight over a bowel movement on the coffee table or finger-painting with ketchup and mustard. Instead, their primary caregivers express disapproval, withdraw signs of affection, and perhaps even punish the child.
However, when the child is successful at altering or containing its behavior to be in line with parental standards, it receives praise and affection, which alleviates feelings of anxiety. This shift in the child’s experience marks the start of a socialized orientation to self-esteem. The child is now learning that they must earn the love and support of the parents by acting in certain ways. The child is still powerless and dependent, and thus must abandon the pure pleasure and uninterrupted excitement of its body-centric infant existence in order to maintain a continual foundation of parental support. The end result is that the child, for the most part, is forced to give up its own physical reality (the expression of bodily desires . . . coupled with automatic parental support), in exchange for a new relational or social reality in which the child must abide by arbitrary parental standards to receive support and security.
"The entire early training period of the child is one in which he learns to switch modes of maintaining self-esteem. The child learns painfully that he cannot earn parental approval, or self-esteem, by continuing to express himself with his body. He finds that he has to conduct himself according to symbolic codes of behavior in order to be accepted and supported. In other words, his vital sentiment of self-value no longer derives from the mother’s milk, but from the mother’s mouth." (Becker, E. (1971) The Birth and Death of Meaning. New York, NY: Free Press, p. 67)
Through this process, children learn that being ‘good’ and meeting external social standards leads to safety, protection, and the abatement of anxiety, whereas being 'bad' and breaking these standards leads to vulnerability and the elevation of anxiety. This progression from attachment to socialization, in which the child internalizes the standards of value that must be pursued to maintain parental support and security, marks the emergence of self-esteem as a psychological structure. Self-esteem is the internalization of external standards that function to control the child’s basic fears and anxieties.
There is an additional layer of anxiety also developing as the child matures. See the next blog installment to learn more about what happens when the child, who has internalized their parent’s standards in order to receive their parent’s support and security, develops self-awareness and realizes they no longer need their parent’s protection. It’s a tangled web we weave!