Tag Archives: self esteem

The role of value in adult self-esteem and life satisfaction

By Harvey Hyman December 19, 2017

While reflecting on my clinical experiences with adult clients during my postgraduate internship, I discerned a common thread. The thread was that the feeling of being valueless was at the root of my clients’ depression, anxiety, anger and substance abuse, as well as the violence and verbal abuse experienced within couples.

Although the immediate cause of the perception of being valueless varied (e.g., pervasive childhood neglect or specific episodes of childhood physical, sexual or emotional abuse), the consequences were the same in each case — chronic dysphoria of one kind or another. It is simply not possible to esteem oneself, to be vulnerable with others, to feel able to positively impact the lives of others through relationships or achievements, or to expect an enjoyable and meaningful future when one is convinced that she or he lacks value.

During the past few months, I have been learning about and practicing a technique involving mindful self-compassion designed to increase my sense of personal value, and I have been working with willing clients to teach them the same technique. I have written this article to voice my perspective on how self-perceived valuelessness is the major factor in transdiagnostic client suffering and to share a technique for building belief in your clients that they possess value as human beings.


The meaning of value and valuelessness in human life

In common parlance, the word “value” signifies having such positive qualities as worth, goodness, merit, effectiveness, usefulness, importance, attractiveness and desirability. People who perceive themselves as possessing value are much more likely to have self-esteem, self-efficacy and life satisfaction than are people who appraise themselves as lacking value. Believing oneself to be valuable is associated with resiliency and posttraumatic growth because external hardships and adversities do not destroy value but, rather, reveal it.

To lack value means that one is not lovable, desirable or worthy of mattering to and belonging with others. There are few, if any, sources of emotional pain greater than believing that you lack value. I believe that clients who are convinced that they lack value are the ones most likely to suffer from depression and to engage in self-destructive behaviors such as alcohol or drug abuse, the self-sabotage of relationships, cutting, burning, eating disorders and suicide attempts. When you are certain you lack value, it is equally certain you will hate yourself and will consider or perpetrate acts of self-harm. You may even want to end yourself to stop the pain of living with this certainty and being your own worst enemy instead of your own best friend.

I understand that genetic abnormalities that cause bad brain neurochemistry, especially during times of stress, can trigger self-hate, depression and self-destructive behavior. However, I am convinced that most of the time distorted thinking about the self (as being bad, incompetent or certain to fail at everything) and maladaptive coping behaviors arise from our clients’ belief that they are valueless.

Believing that you are valuable but constantly berating yourself for being a piece of crap or sitting in a squalid room injecting heroin into your veins with a used needle are totally inconsistent. Believing that you are valueless also rears its ugly head in interpersonal relationships. People who know they are valuable can shrug off the unfair accusations, attacking comments, insults and rejecting behaviors of others by recognizing that they come from ignorance, mistaken assumptions, implicit biases, defensiveness or fear. On the other hand, people who see themselves as valueless will perceive dire threat and react with fight, flight or freeze when exposed to these things because they confirm their inner sense of valuelessness.


The association between value and triggering

A very common bit of psychological jargon that I hear today is the word “trigger.” It is used in the sense that some statement, action or inaction of one person set off an intense, immediate and automatic emotional reaction in another person who felt unsafe. This person responds with crying, threats of violence, actual violence, emotional contraction, fleeing the scene and the like.

When one spouse says “Shut the hell up” to the other, strikes the other or gets in the car and drives off to parts unknown following a dispute, we can say that he or she was triggered, but what really happened? I think what happened is that the spouse who acted out had a thin, fragile scab over his or her self-perception of being valueless and something the other spouse said tore it off.

Whether we remind ourselves that we are valueless through our own inner critic (the usual way) or someone else reminds us by their statements or conduct, it hurts just as much. And when that pain sets in, our self-esteem plummets from whatever shaky height we had lifted it up to. We then temporarily lose our effectiveness as people because we turn away from the world to soothe ourselves with substances or punish ourselves with self-attacking words or deeds.


Intrinsic versus extrinsic value

According to sources as diverse as the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Martin Buber, and the Declaration of Independence, human beings have intrinsic value. Theologists may see intrinsic value as coming from people being created by a perfect Creator, whereas philosophers might see intrinsic value as coming from our possession of rationality and our capacity to act ethically by choosing the good.

To believe in the intrinsic value of the individual is to believe that our value is not contingent upon externals such as one’s most recent successes, the current size of one’s bank account or the current level of one’s physical attractiveness. For Viktor Frankl, value becomes evident when a person establishes an authentic meaning for his or her life. For Abraham Maslow, it is when a person self-actualizes his or her potential.

Despite so many sacred and secular voices in favor of intrinsic value, virtually none of the people I have met buy it. Rather, they engage in constant self-evaluation in relation to internal standards of achievement and attractiveness, as well as external comparisons with family members, friends, co-workers, professional colleagues and even star athletes, movie actors and celebrities.

Freud described this long ago as checking one’s self-evaluation in the mirror of one’s ego ideal and getting judged harshly by one’s superego for every discrepancy. Today we talk about the voice of the inner critic instead of the superego, but the process and consequences are the same. There is a constant need to reassure oneself of one’s value, and a failed attempt to do so is followed by self-attack, ego deflation and suffering. Kristin Neff, who has done pioneering research on self-compassion, has pointed out that self-attack is accompanied on a somatic level by release of cortisol and adrenalin, which make us feel sick.


Value and secure attachment

Why is it that a handful of people seem certain that they possess value while everyone else sees their value as questionable, fluctuating or even absent? The work of John Bowlby on attachment helps to shed light on this phenomenon.

Bowlby said that how infants and toddlers were treated by their parents, especially their mothers, had a huge impact on their sense of self. Infants and toddlers who received a consistent flow of love, caring, warmth, gentle touch, soothing vocalization and affirmation would develop what Bowlby called a “secure attachment” composed of feeling welcomed, loved, valued and wanted. The secure attachment was the germ of self-acceptance and self-confidence that fueled these children’s exploration of their environment and their ability to self-soothe when they experienced fear, physical pain or other adverse consequences.

In Bowlby’s framework, infants and toddlers who received love, warmth and caring in an unstable, episodic and inconsistent manner would develop an insecure or approach-avoid attachment style associated with a reduced sense of personal value and trust in others. The most damaged infants and toddlers were the victims of pervasive abuse or neglect who received the message that their caregivers hated them or did not care about them. These children developed an avoidant attachment style in which they reacted to others by distancing themselves emotionally and physically.


Therapeutic approaches to correcting self-perceived valuelessness

If secure attachment is the foundation of the self-perception that one has value, then the most effective therapy for clients who doubt their value or regard themselves as valueless should be some form of reparenting that has the effect of strengthening a weak attachment to others. Unfortunately, this type of therapy is demanding, prolonged and expensive, and is by no means guaranteed to work.

Cognitive behavior therapy is great at showing the falsity of automatic, negative thoughts about the self, but until the deep-seated conviction (the core belief) that one is valueless is gone, these thoughts will continue to arise. Trauma therapies work to desensitize, contextualize and reinterpret memories of adverse childhood experiences, but the conviction that one is valueless, resulting from pervasive abuse or neglect, is very tenacious. This conviction can represent the foundation of personality and self-identity and the form the ego took from parental shaping in childhood.

If it is not possible to remove and replace the psychological foundation of self-image, what can be done to solve this problem? My hunch is that behind the conveyance of a sense of value to the infant/toddler through parental holding, touching, warmth and affirmation is a programming of the brain (“I know I am loved”) and the heart (“I feel that I am loved”). Abuse, neglect or inconsistent parenting can confuse the brain of the infant/toddler (“I’m not sure I’m loved and lovable”) or program it to believe that “I am neither loved nor lovable.” These things can make the child’s heart feel the same message.

So, how can clients in therapy reprogram their brains to know and their hearts to feel that they have value? At this point in my investigation, I have only anecdotal evidence and nothing like the kind of systematically collected empirical evidence developed in the course of a randomized, controlled clinical trial based on an experimental design. Thus, my proposal is based on isolated experiences in the therapy office and is nothing like the sort of evidence-based protocol that an insurance company would want to see. On the other hand, positive clinical experiences can be the germ of subsequent studies to confirm or deny a hypothesis about those experiences.

The method I have been trying out on myself and some of my clients derives in part from what Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer call “mindful self-compassion.” The basic practice is to combine deep, slow, meditative breathing with eyes closed; an attitude of genuine compassion toward the self; the tender placement of hands upon one’s body (e.g., placing one open hand over your heart); and the inward repetition of chosen affirmations in a soothing voice.

I have tried out such affirmations as “I am worthy,” “I am valuable,” “I matter,” “I know my own goodness,” “I feel loved and included,” “I love and include,” “I am connected with all other beings and they with me,” “I trust that the universe supports me” and “the universe is unfolding in and through me, and I have an important role to play.” Individuals using this practice can create and try out different mantras until they have found some that resonate in a deep and profound way with them.

The meditative breathing serves to produce a trancelike, mildly euphoric state in which the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the voice of the inner critic is switched off and there is a sense of warmth and expansive possibilities. The role of tender self-touch is to provide mammalian comfort and reassurance — to put oneself in a place of safety and trust.

The combination of meditative breathing with eyes closed and self-touch enables clients to become attuned to themselves in a way that could not happen in the therapy office with the distraction of glances, conversation, pauses and concern over the counselor’s opinion. When imbibed in this atmosphere of self-compassion and self-attunement, the self-affirming mantras take on the ring of truth, not New Age phoniness. Doing this exercise with sincerity is a form of self-reparenting that features the three elements that Dacher Keltner considers essential in loving mammalian connection: warmth, gentle touch and soothing vocalizations.

At this point, I have no evidence that this particular practice by itself can convert individuals who are convinced that they are valueless to people who know and feel they possess value. However, I am observing in myself and my clients that combining this practice with another therapy has a powerful, synergistic healing effect and that this practice has clinical promise.



After 25 years of law practice, Harvey Hyman retired, studied Buddhism and world religions, and entered graduate school to obtain a master’s degree in mental health counseling. He graduated this past October and is now registering for a counseling internship in the Sacramento, California, area. He hopes to work in the field of trauma psychology. Contact him at harveyhyman56@gmail.com.




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Helping female clients reclaim sexual desire

By Alicia Muñoz October 2, 2017

If you see women in your counseling practice, it will be hard to ignore the issue of female sexual desire in your work together, even if the focus of treatment is something that appears unrelated to sexuality. In fact, a woman’s relationship with her own experience of sexual desire is often inextricably linked to her sense of identity, self-esteem, personal agency, energy levels, self-care habits and interpersonal relationships. Her desire issues and how she feels about them will weave their way, often implicitly, into your sessions.

The more that counselors can increase their awareness of the nuanced issues related to female sexual desire, the easier it will be to create a space in which clients can explore these issues safely and productively. Working with women more explicitly on understanding, experiencing and sustaining sexual desire can empower them to proactively regulate their moods, reduce stress levels and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, reconnecting with the motivation to feel sexual desire has the potential to help transition trauma survivors from “survival to revival” (in the words of couples therapist Esther Perel) as they access the enlivening energy of their own erotic life force.

In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), female sexual interest/arousal disorder is characterized by a lack of sexual interest or sexual arousal for at least six months. Whether a woman is upset or distressed by her lack of interest or arousal is a crucial criterion for the diagnosis. The disturbance can be moderate, mild or severe, lifelong or acquired, generalized or situational. Furthermore, according to the DSM-5, “Women in relationships of longer duration are more likely to report engaging in sex despite no obvious feelings of sexual desire at the outset of a sexual encounter compared with women in shorter-duration relationships.”

Rosemary Basson, director of the University of British Columbia’s sexual medicine program, has noted that other than in the early stages of a new relationship, women’s arousal doesn’t always follow the traditional model of spontaneous sexual desire. Rather, women’s desire tends to be more responsive, with a deliberate choice to experience sexual stimulation required before an actual experience of arousal.

Estimates on how many women suffer from female sexual interest/arousal disorder vary widely, in part because there is so much complexity, variability and subjectivity to how sexual desire issues and arousal problems are measured and experienced. According to an article by Sharon J. Parish and Steven R. Hahn in the April 2016 issue of Sexual Medicine Reviews, issues with sexual desire or arousal are present in 8.9 percent of women ages 18 to 44, 12.3 percent of women ages 45 to 64 and 7.4 percent of women 65 and older. These percentages translate into a significant portion of the female population. It is hard not to wonder what sociocultural circumstances are contributing to making problems with desire so pervasive and systemic for women.

In Standard E.5.c. of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, counselors are reminded to “recognize historical and social prejudices in the misdiagnosis and pathologizing of certain individuals and groups and strive to become aware of and address such biases in themselves or others.” This ethical consideration comes into play when counselors treat women with desire issues.

With the work of Helen Singer Kaplan’s triphasic sexual response cycle and an ever-expanding body of nuanced research on women’s sexuality, studies have come a long way from the male-centric, Freudian view of women’s sexual and psychological functioning and even from Masters and Johnson’s linear model of spontaneous sexual response. Researchers today strive to be more objective and aware of the physiological and psychological reality of women.

Even so, systemic prejudices related to gender and gender identity continue to saturate every area of girls’ and women’s lives, creating unique challenges in female clients in the areas of desire and sex. Fostering the safety and trust necessary to explore your clients’ desire issues can move issues of female sexuality and desire from an implicit undercurrent in your work to an explicit focus of therapy. This can help clients separate the wheat of their erotic potential from the chaff of limiting, destructive or shame-based gender and sexual conditioning.

Take Louisa, a 30-year-old client who has been married for two years. (Note: Louisa isn’t an actual client; however, her situation illustrates common sexual desire issues experienced by clients who seek counseling.) Although Louisa initially seeks treatment for depression and anxiety, a few sessions into treatment she begins referring in passing to life stressors that are “TMI” (too much information). Following these TMI comments, Louisa deflects the conversation to other topics with a shrug and a laugh.

Counselors can be attuned to these “throwaway” comments and to dismissive humor, gently inviting clients to elaborate by expressing interest in the information the client is editing out. When the counselor gently points out Louisa’s “TMI” reference and explores what she thinks might be too much information for the therapist, the issue of Louisa’s sex life begins to surface. Counselors may need to reassure clients who experience shame around sexual desire and sexuality that it can be of great benefit to focus on and explore heretofore off-limit topics and the memories, beliefs, thoughts and feelings connected to those topics.


The following interventions may provide springboards for exploring desire issues in counseling sessions with female clients.

1) Provide psychoeducation on the connection between relaxation and sexual arousal, and work with your client to identify ways she can relax. Maureen Ryan, a sexual health coach in Amherst, New York, says, “The first step to a great sexual experience is to relax. Pleasurable touch helps facilitate this process. The body becomes aroused, and then the desire follows. For most women, sexual intimacy precedes desire.”

Explore the thoughts, fears and behavioral patterns that inhibit relaxation. Work on helping your client identify how she might create an external environment that would facilitate her transition into a sexually receptive or erotically engaged state. This might include activities that allow her to feel present or “in the flow” or connect more with pleasurable sensory input (tastes, sounds, smells, visual stimuli, touch).

2) Invite your client to create a body map. Sex therapist Aline Zoldbrod suggests using this technique with couples to facilitate a dialogue about current preferences. However, it can also be used one-on-one with female clients who may struggle with shame issues related to their bodies and their experiences of sexual desire.

Your client draws a body shape, back and front, and then uses red, yellow and green crayons to color the shapes in. Green means “I like to be touched here always,” yellow means “I like to be touched here sometimes,” and red means “I never like to be touched here.” This map can serve as one starting point for a deeper exploration of a client’s relationship to her body and her history with touch.

3) Introduce the “prop” of a velvet vulva into your arsenal of psychoeducational tools and use it to help clients understand the anatomy of the vulva, the clitoris and what movements and sensations typically stimulate arousal. This prop can also be used to instruct women on arousal as counselors model a clear, sex-positive language for expressing needs and preferences to a partner.

4) Introduce your client to the concept of “sexual blueprints.” You may want to provide a client with a handout summarizing sexologist Jaiya’s five erotic blueprints: energetic, sensual, sexual, kinky and shapeshifter. Reading about and discussing these blueprints can reduce shame, normalize a client’s experience of her own sexual predilections and help her consider new possibilities. Jaiya’s website (missjaiya.com) has a quiz to help women and men identify their blueprints.

5) Explore the meaning of pleasure for your client. What turns her on? What charges her up and connects her to her own sense of flow or aliveness? A counselor can coach a client to say, “I feed my own desire when …” and then complete the sentence with different activities, thoughts and behaviors that enliven her. Encourage your client to begin developing a running list of whatever it is she can proactively do to power herself up, delight herself and revitalize herself.

Also be sure to have an extensive list of your own desire-feeding activities. This will help you menu ideas for your clients.

6) Help clients develop awareness about the sex-negative and body-negative influences that have shaped how they see and experience themselves and their bodies. Encourage them to limit the sex- and body-negative influences in their lives. This may mean avoiding certain magazines, being mindful about television shows and choosing not to watch certain movies or videos. It may mean setting clearer boundaries with select people in their lives.

Also help clients explore ways that they can take in more sex- and body-positive messages, either through reading different magazines, limiting their exposure to narrow standards of beauty, increasing their vigilance of the kinds of advertising or body imagery they expose themselves to, or regularly and intentionally appreciating their own bodies through pleasurable body rituals and experiences.

A shift in attitude

Over time, Louisa begins to understand that the lack of sex in her marriage underlies her anxiety and depressive symptoms. She fears it means that she and her husband are on their way to divorce and that it’s “all her fault.” Here, the counselor helps Louisa increase her awareness of this critical inner voice and develop greater self-compassion.

Louisa’s husband has become more vocal about their sexual problems and grown increasingly more irritable and withdrawn in their day-to-day life. As a result, Louisa is no longer able to continue pretending the problem is just situational, temporary or unimportant.

In therapy, she examines her sexual misconceptions and beliefs and the influence of her family’s cultural and gender-based expectations of her. To her surprise, she realizes she has limited awareness of her actual bodily sensations. She often “lives in her head” and ignores the signals her body sends her. As a result, she has never really tuned in to what she feels leading up a to sexual encounter. Her low sexual desire is just the tip of an iceberg of denial related to sensations and emotions.

Part of Louisa’s work in therapy becomes learning how to “listen” to her body. She practices doing this in session and also sets aside time outside of sessions to sit quietly and observe her own sensory experience.

In the past, when Louisa lost her motivation to have sex with one of her boyfriends and couldn’t recreate the feeling of strong, active arousal with him, she would interpret it as “falling out of love” or the boyfriend “not being right for her.” It wasn’t until Louisa married her husband that she was faced with the stark truth of her own sexual experience: She had a hard time experiencing spontaneous, robust arousal once the novelty of a relationship wore off. Mostly, later in a relationship, she simply responded to her partner’s desire for her.

This insight signaled a shift in Louisa’s attitude toward sex and herself. She started to mourn her lack of erotic engagement with her past partners and current husband and to commit to cultivating a relationship with her own erotic experience. She began recognizing her own inhibitions, her lack of erotic accountability and the expectation she had always carried that her partner should know what pleased her without her assistance, guidance or willingness to explore the ways that their needs and desires met or diverged.

Because Louisa loved her partner and wanted to make their marriage work, she committed to learning how to experience her own desire and arousal more regularly. Her motivation to feel desire for her own pleasure and sense of wholeness shifted her approach to the sexual disconnection in her marriage from that of a burdensome problem to an adventure.

Untapped potential

When it comes to working effectively with female sexuality and desire, remaining neutral about larger cultural biases can stall your work as a counselor. In a culture saturated with narrow and distorted models and templates of beauty, it is nearly impossible for human beings who emerge from their mothers as female babies to grow up free of misconceptions about their core selves, their bodies, their sensuality and their eroticism.

Some women may manage to stay intuitively connected to their erotic core throughout childhood and adolescence despite the social, relational and societal risks involved, perhaps even making it into adulthood relishing the full range of their sexual experiences on their own terms. A great number of women, however, wouldn’t have survived physically, much less psychically, without shutting off their sexual circuit boards.

Usually, this shutdown isn’t a conscious choice. It is something that girls learn to do within the context of their relationships as a way of maintaining caregivers’ and others’ love and approval. Even for girls growing up in progressive, supportive families, fitting in with peer groups or feeling socially rooted can sometimes cost them some important piece of connection to their core sexual selves. Girls may grow up lacking erotically vibrant, powerful female role models. Sometimes their families and circumstances don’t allow them the luxury of maintaining a strong, healthy, intact relationship with their bodies.

When girls suppress aspects of their deepest erotic impulses and experiences, layers of judgment and shame encase not only what and how they feel, but also who they are. Like a seed trapped in amber, a woman’s erotic potential can remain untapped even as she develops and grows in other areas. It waits for the right conditions to emerge.

Counselors can provide those conditions in therapy. Here are some key ways that counselors can help women reclaim their erotic selves.

1) Take continuing education courses on sexuality.

2) Read progressive, inclusive books on women’s sexuality and women’s sexual empowerment, such as Getting the Sex You Want by Tammy Nelson, She Comes First by Ian Kerner, Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel, Woman on Fire by Amy Jo Goddard, Pussy: A Reclamation by Regena Thomashauer, Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski and Women’s Anatomy of Arousal by Sheri Winston.

3) Familiarize yourself with the facts regarding the unique challenges that women continue to face today locally, nationally and globally, particularly as they relate to physical safety, fiscal equality, political representation and reproductive issues and rights.

4) Learn to talk about all of the parts of women’s bodies with ease. Practice with your children, spouses, colleagues and friends. Learn the exact locations of women’s body parts, study how they interact and learn to identify a woman’s body parts by their correct names (e.g., distinguishing between a woman’s visible genitals — her vulva — and the internal, muscular tube that leads from her vaginal opening to her cervix — her vagina). Learn to discuss sex, sexuality and sexual acts correctly and comfortably.

5) When you pick up on a client’s reactivity, defensiveness, shame or self-consciousness related to a sexual topic, bring warmth and compassion to the moment through attuned interventions. For example: “I noticed that you covered your eyes just now as you mentioned having sex with your boyfriend. Can we be curious about what just came up for you?”

It is important to keep in mind that low desire and lack of sexual interest are issues that many women won’t openly admit to, even when these experiences are their daily reality. There is a lot at stake. Just as a man’s sexual identity and sense of competence can get tied up with his ability to pleasure his partner to orgasm or to maintain an erection, a woman’s sense of sexual self-worth can be intricately connected with her ability to both stimulate and quench her partner’s sexual desire.

When the impetus or the drive to engage in sex with her partner or spouse wanes, a woman’s sense of sexual self-confidence can waver. It can feel as if she is failing at an essential aspect of her being: loving and being loved sexually. It can also inspire terror. Will she lose connection to this person she depends on and loves? How will this affect her family relationships? Is this a prelude to something worse? What changes lie around the corner as a result of her inability to match her partner’s sexual needs with her own authentic responses and initiatives?

Counselors are in a privileged and important position with their female clients at this particular historical juncture. Women are feeling pulled to take up leadership positions and exert influence in spheres of power previously dominated by men, from political offices to corporate headquarters to influencing the ecological trajectory of the planet. To experience the fullness of their emotional range, the force of their uniquely feminine values, priorities and principles, and the vitality of their full aliveness, many women need help developing a healthier relationship with their erotic selves. Because many women have adapted and suppressed aspects of themselves to function in a world that prioritizes the more traditionally masculine values of strength, dominance, competition and self-protection, they need to find ways to access the more traditionally feminine priorities of sustainability, vulnerability, connection and empathy to feel truly like themselves again.

Counselors can safely, warmly and sincerely support the exploration of women’s low sexual desire or inhibited arousal by first prioritizing a woman’s desire as an essential energy source in her life. They can help their female clients navigate the unique, nuanced challenges of low desire and the ways it manifests in a woman’s relationship to her own self, her body and those she loves. Once this issue is prioritized in treatment, it can be made explicit and explored. From there, it becomes easier to disentangle the negative beliefs that women harbor about their bodies and themselves from their inalienable, noncontingent worth as women.

Because many women have come to experience their own desire as beyond their control, they may fear that they are the problem — outliers on the graph of normative human sexual desire doomed to disappoint and frustrate the people they love and need most. Helping women take control of their own experience of sexual desire through explicit counseling interventions has the potential to shift clients’ views of what’s possible for them erotically and, in so doing, what’s possible for them as vibrant, entitled human beings with desires that matter. This shift is seismic and can transform all aspects of women’s lives.




Alicia Muñoz is a licensed marriage counselor and desire expert in private practice in Falls Church, Virginia. She is also a speaker, author, blogger and frequent contributor to various print and online publications. Visit marriedtodesire.com for more of her writing on desire, or sign up for her weekly Relational Growth Challenge at aliciamunoz.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Gifted children: Not immune to low self-esteem

By Laurie Meyers January 14, 2014

smartchildrenAt first glance, gifted children would seem to be “immune” to issues of low self-esteem. After all, these children are generally thought of as successful high achievers. However, people who study and counsel gifted students say this is a potentially harmful misperception. These experts caution that while gifted children are not necessarily more at risk for low self-esteem than other children, their self-esteem issues are more likely to be overlooked.

Explains Michelle Muratori, a senior counselor and researcher at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, “Competence and achievement are generally thought to be vital elements of self-esteem and are intertwined with a child’s evaluation and awareness of his or her own worth, so people may mistakenly conclude that gifted children are exempt from low self-esteem because they appear to be very competent and high achieving.”

However, some challenges specific to gifted students can cause significant problems. For instance, when gifted students are not adequately challenged in school or don’t have access to intellectual peers, problems such as underachievement, boredom and unhealthy perfectionism can emerge. This is a particular problem in schools that don’t provide a supportive environment for academic achievement, asserts Muratori, who is also a member of the American Counseling Association.

“While some school cultures embrace athletic or artistic achievements, they fail to embrace intellectual curiosity [due to fear about elitism], which gives academically talented students the clear message that they need to hide their intellectual gifts so as to avoid negative reactions from other students, teachers and other school personnel,” she says.

“These students may unfortunately internalize the message that it is not OK for them to be who they truly are, which may damage their global self-esteem,” Muratori concludes.

In fact, according to a 2008 study in the Creativity and Research Journal, a significant number of gifted students — possibly close to half — are not achieving their full potential. In addition, as many as 25 to 30 percent of high school dropouts may be gifted individuals. The authors believe that creativity may be connected to this “underachievement.” They suggest that highly creative students have a hard time conforming to a more rigid traditional environment. The study also cites previous research indicating that teachers generally prefer conventional achievers and “teacher pleasers” to more unconventional students.

Other factors may also contribute to a gifted child’s low self-esteem. Gifted children have varied personalities, of course, but certain characteristics are often associated with giftedness, Muratori explains. Many experience the world with great intensity, which can be overwhelming both to them and the people in their lives. As peer acceptance becomes more important, being acutely aware of being “different” may magnify feelings of loneliness.

A 2006 article in the journal Professional School Counseling said studies have shown that gifted children experience higher levels of anxiety, perfectionism, sensitivity and depression. In addition, according to an article in The Journal of Secondary Education, research has indicated that gifted children are very adept at hiding signs of depression, even in severe cases.

School counselors are often in prime position to identify self-esteem issues among gifted students. Muratori says a counseling strategy should include not only a comprehensive assessment of academic ability, including above-grade-level testing, but also other assessments that seem relevant, such as personality assessments, vocational assessments and self-esteem assessments. If necessary, these measures should be used to modify educational strategies to encompass greater academic challenges. The assessments should also be used to help students with social and emotional development as needed.

“If a student performs extremely well on an above-grade-level test in mathematical reasoning, for example, a school counselor can advocate for curricular flexibility and help the student gain access to more advanced course work in math,” Muratori says. “If this student is interested, the counselor might also encourage them to get involved in math-related activities outside of school such as a math circle, a math competition or an academic summer program with an intensive focus on math. Not only will these activities help the student develop their interest in math, they will also give them access to peers with shared interests and the opportunity to develop important social skills.”

“In addition to academic concerns,” she continues, “counselors should also look for indicators that a student may be in distress and in need of an intervention, such as depressed affect, eating disorders, sleep disorders, low motivation, underachievement, boredom, social isolation or disruptive behaviors. Individual or family counseling can help gifted children deal with any number of problems if these issues start to interfere with functioning at home or at school and cause distress.”

Once counselors are aware of the unique challenges that gifted children face, they can more easily implement strategies that help these children develop a healthy and realistic sense of self, Muratori concludes.




Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.



For further reading

Quieting the inner critic: Counseling Today‘s February cover story on helping clients with self-esteem issues: ct.counseling.org/2014/01/quieting-the-inner-critic/




Research cited in this article:

• “Underachievement and Creativity: Are Gifted Underachievers Highly Creative?” Kyung Hee Kim, Creativity Research Journal, April 2008


“Addressing Counseling Needs of Gifted Students,” Jean Sunde Peterson, Professional School Counseling, October 2006


“Depressive disorder in highly gifted adolescents,” P. Susan Jackson and Jean Peterson, The Journal of Secondary Education, Spring 2003