Children are conditioned to do as they’re told, to not talk back, to respect their elders and to know that adults are always right. Consequently, children are forced to embrace external input and feel bad or good based on the whims of others. As we mature into adults, we often carry many of these generated inputs with us into our daily lives. These thoughts and feelings are our conditioned responses to that indoctrination and, whether they are negative or positive, kids act accordingly. Therefore, if you had an uncle who called you lazy, you may be lethargic or unmotivated when you are exposed to him at Thanksgiving. But then a neighbor who often praised your hard work tells you that you’re wonderful, you will shine in her presence. This reaction is typically referred to as object referral and occurs when a person’s self-esteem and self-worth shift, change, decline or elevate as a result of an external source entering the room. This makes the esteem and worth malleable and unsteady. With clients I will tap on a table and ask them to identify the object and they’ll state matter-of-factly that the object is a table. I ask them why and they say because that is what they understand the object to be. Then a debate proves that no matter who walks into the room a table is a table is a table. It’s value or representation doesn’t change.
Self-esteem and self-worth need to have the same reference points. We need to allow children to decide what the facts are about them. This means we have to provide them with an internal source that doesn’t require external input. Instead of stating that we are proud of them, we need to say, “You must be so proud of yourself for…” or “You should feel so good about yourself because…” The translation for them becomes, “I must be proud of myself and should feel good about who I am.” And although initially we are providing external suggestions, the intended message can be compared to passing the torch during the Olympics. We have to allow our children to shine on their own without us. This can only be accomplished by giving them the ability to know the truth about them. Therefore, we must teach children to back every thought and feeling up with facts so that when someone negative walks into their lives, the impact is minimal.
I recently spoke to an 86-year old woman who I have always revered as an angel. She lamented that she was a bad person and I asked her to back that thought up with a fact and she absolutely could not find one reason for that thought. It saddened me to see that throughout her entire life she had given to people and loved them yet she hated herself. And for what? Because perhaps sometime in her childhood or maybe later as an adult, someone told her she was inadequate, inferior or incompetent. When I shared how much I loved and admired her, she admitted that when I was around she felt good about herself. The sad part is that I can’t always be there so if her sense of regard is based on me then her feelings will change once someone else walked into the room—this is object referral. Her sense of self never gets to be solid like that table because she adopts the opinions of those around her instead of knowing her own self-truth.
A parent once shared that he was frustrated with a neighbor because the neighbor would scream the F-word at his 6-year old daughter when she was outside playing. I suggested that he tell her that hurt people hurt people and that the neighbor was a sad old man. Later, the father came to me and reported that he and his daughter were walking down the street and the elderly man raced out onto the porch and threw out the F-bomb again, but this time his daughter with the sweetest sincerity announced loudly, “Daddy, you’re right, he is a sad old man.” The grump stopped in his tracks and then retreated back into his home where he never bothered them again. The poignant element to this story is that this father gave his daughter the ability to let others own their own feelings and behaviors. She was no longer forced to embrace the external input and take responsibility for how others feel. She was able to recognize that his pain was not her issue or fault. This child, if guided properly, will not have to experience object referral as she is not dependent on the opinions of others to judge herself. This precious child is a precious child is a precious child.