This paper reports findings from several psychological journals that explain how self-esteem is not entirely based on a person’s childhood because humans ultimately have the free-will to choose how much they value themselves. The varying sections of this research will analyze the process of self-esteem development on the human brain, specifically in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), as well as the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) on self-esteem development. It will also focus on and social anxiety disorder (SAD) throughout adulthood as a consequence of an emotionally scarred childhood of an individual, and to what extent it inflicts damage on the further development of self-esteem in an individual.
Keywords: Self-esteem, anterior cingulate cortex, adverse childhood experiences, social anxiety disorder, free-will
The concept of self-esteem is processed in the mind of an individual based on the paradigms they have created for themselves. It has nothing to do with their looks, culture, or their personality. Instead, they attain their view of themselves through the evaluation of the social feedback they are receiving, or self-comparison, which allows for their adaptation to the environment in which they are surrounded. It is this process of evaluation that determines whether said individual will have a low or high self-esteem. However, self-esteem does not live solely in thoughts or feelings. It has a deep impact in the formation of the human brain, and therefore, it is for this very reason, that we researched and hypothesized that self-esteem is not entirely based on a person’s childhood (regardless of how their brain formed during their childhood development), because humans ultimately have the free-will to choose how much they value themselves, thus taking advantage of the human brain’s neuroplasticity.
Although there has not been much research done on the volumetric analysis of self-esteem on the brain, the sole published volumetric analysis of self-esteem to our knowledge has revealed that persons with low self-esteem possess reduced hippocampal volume. This may contribute to their lowered resilience, since reduced hippocampal volume has been implicated in vulnerability to stress (Agroskin, Jonas, and Klackl 2014). The hippocampus is responsible for long-term memory, and an individual with low self-esteem is usually more predisposed stress, which can affect the structure of the brain and its function, in this case; it can be attributed to memory loss and poor coping ability in the brain to deal with new information.
Furthermore, the hippocampus isn’t the only area of the brain affected by the reigns of self-esteem. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a region of the human brain that holds responsibility for emotional regulation and is wrapped in a brain tissue known as grey matter. Grey matter, on the other hand, contains the majority of the brain’s neurons, which are cells that transmit nerve impulses. The amounts of this brain tissue can vary between individuals. However, reduced grey matter volume in the ACC has been found to underlie difficulty in regulating negative emotion, [ ] there is evidence of decreased grey matter volume in the ACC in persons with a strong inclination to ruminate, which is an important mediator of the relationship between low self-esteem and depression (Agroskin, Jonas, Klackl, 2014). Constant ruminating, or deliberately thinking about a negative event, has detrimental effects of the neurological activity of the brain, which leads to an ineffective regulation of emotions. This is attributed to decreasing the self-esteem of an individual, as they lose control of their emotions and their ability to distinguish between rational and irrational thoughts.
Moreover, the functioning of the ACC is also transformed based on cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression. Cognitive reappraisal, is an emotion regulation strategy that is positively related to self-esteem [and is] positively linked to ACC volume (Agroskin, Jonas, and Klackl, 2014). However, while cognitive reappraisal involves adapting to a particular circumstance and shifting the brain’s paradigm towards a certain event, suppression causes an individual to act impulsively and based on their emotions, rather than using logic and attempting to think clearly and make appropriate choices. Suppression does very little, if anything at all, for adapting to the different circumstances an individual is encountered with and prevents the positive shifting of paradigms that offer rationality. As a result, reappraisal is positively associated with self-esteem, while suppression is negatively associated with the latter (Agroskin, Jonas, and Klackl, 2014).
Taking this under consideration, we decided to analyze the development of self-esteem in children, adults, ad determine the role of free will in the transformation of internal brain structures.
Extensive research on self-esteem has demonstrated that it originates from actual own/ideal own discrepancies, which are differences as to how a person wish they were and how they really are. These discrepancies have been demonstrated to make a person more vulnerable to dejection-related emotions as well as to lower self-esteem levels (Keshky and Samak, 2017). As for children, this is no different. Children become more sensitive to inconsistent information, with discrepancies between self-relevant beliefs and others’ standpoints turning out into potentially stressing psychological situations and feelings of guilt and embarrassment. The social environment in which a child is raised can determine a lot about their self-esteem. If they were to live and grow in a constant state of fear of dejection or embarrassment, because they are not living up to their own ideas of what they should be, then the child will not be able to function properly when faced with social situations. Developmentally, [ ] global self-esteem precedes rather than follows domain-specific evaluations in young children. Thus, young children appraise themselves in terms of good and bad. It is only later, from middle to late childhood, that boys and girls gradually develop the ability to compare themselves with others and take into account feedback from significant others, when they evaluate themselves (Keshky and Samak, 2017). Although in their beginning stages of childhood, they will create their own images of what their ideal self is, it is when reaching the middle and end of their childhood that they will determine how distant they actually are from becoming that ideal self, based on the feedback of others around them. And, although a child may report that their self-esteem levels are high, the stability of it can actually range from low to moderate (Orth, Robins, and Trzesniewski, 2010). In brief, developmental trajectories of self-esteem and self-discrepancies are not parallel, although they both depend on cognitive as well as social competences that children acquire progressively. In fact, in late childhood, boys and girls can evaluate themselves in terms of self-worth at both global and domain-specific levels. Conversely, it is only from early adolescence on that conflicting self-representations become relevant in the self-system. It remains to be explored the direction of the association between self-esteem and self-discrepancies in late childhood, that is, years of transition, during which aspects of the self-system are rapidly changing.
Furthermore, the social development of a child is believed to have potentially life-long consequences on them. For instance, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)which are stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect, occurring during childhood or adolescencemay lead to a wide range of physical and psychological health issues throughout a person’s lifespan. Children with ACEs, develops poor relation skills and low self-esteem, which may increase the likelihood of interpersonal problems and physical aggression in adult life (Orth, Robins, and Trzesniewski, 2010).
The development of self-esteem in adults is usually not focused towards appearance, or personality traits, in contrast to the way in which it is fomented in childhood. Instead, in adulthood, individuals increasingly occupy positions of power and status, which might promote feelings of self-esteem (Orth, Robins, and Trzesniewski, 2010). However, it can be still externally oriented, depending on how the individual was raised. Whether it be in pleasing other people, similar to how a child attempts to please their parents, or to feel valued by others, to some extent, like a child wants to be rewarded by their parents. However, if instead of looking for external approval to reinforce the strength of their self-esteem, they would look inward for sources of positive self-esteem, personality changes that occur during adulthood tend to reflect movement toward higher levels of maturity and adjustment, as indicated by increases in traits such (Orth, Robins, and Trzesniewski, 2010). Having an external locus of control on self-esteem, can lead to an individual constantly dealing with rejection or disappointment, because their paradigm of how the word should be and how they should be accepted are not always aligned with reality. Therefore, if they place that locus of control into something more stable, like their internal self, they would feel much more accomplished and would find it easier to maintain a high self-esteem. The process of finding self-worth is facilitated once the individual begins their process by looking within and seeing how they are pleased with themselves, and not how others are pleased with them being themselves.
Nonetheless, the process of changing from an external to an internal source of self-esteem can become difficult for individuals who have not been provided with proper emotional support in their childhood development. Adults who have been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD), are characterized by persistent fear of social or performance situations in which an individual is at risk for embarrassment, humiliation, or possible scrutiny by unfamiliar persons (Goldin, Gross, Heimberg, Kuo, and Werner, 2011). By definition, this condition should completely prevent the development of a healthy self-esteem, as the individuals are constantly afraid of the rejection that could possibly arise in the social environment they find themselves in. Instead of focusing internally, they look to the external world for validation, but go through the constant fear of not being good enough for those around them. Furthermore, findings from family studies demonstrate a strong association between social anxiety in parent and offspring [interactions] and, the impact of social learning experiences has been suggested as a key environmental factor contributing to the development of the disorder and has received substantial empirical attention. Prospective studies have found that parental overprotection, rejection, and lack of warmth are associated with offspring SAD (Goldin, Gross, Heimberg, Kuo, and Werner, 2011). This fear of not pleasing everyone encountered, is mostly attributed to ineffective or even toxic parenting tactics from behalf of the individual’s parents. Therefore, as mentioned before, individuals who constantly ruminate of negative situations, and have an inability to change their paradigms, in this case the ones they created in their childhood, are often found to have low levels of self-esteem, and if they continue the cycle of fear, frustration, and rumination, they will not be able to change the way they view themselves to a more positive light.
There is no doubt in the neurological community that the brain changes based on the conditions of its host. For instance, in a study with cats, cats that were blinded in one eye had changed their brain formation to process visual information from the eye that could see (Askenasy and Lehmann, 2013). However, when it comes to humans, what does it take for this process of transforming the brain take place? The transformation of thoughts themselves. The process is simple, although putting it into place is more challenging. According to John Searle, a philosopher and advocate for science, there is no problem in changing consciousness and by that causing the brain to change. A change can be made in the highest level of the brain system or in its lowest level, and the results will include changes in both neurons and consciousness (Askenasy and Lehmann, 2013). When an individual changes the way they interact with their conscious mind through consciously reframing their thoughts, they slowly begin to create changes in their brain structures. Extensive brain analysis has proven that the brain can change itself and it has a self-healing capacity, which means that in general it can both improve and cure itselfat least to a certain extent (Askenasy and Lehmann, 2013). The brain has a process through which I could heal itself, therefore, if an individual chooses to use a different approach to dealing with negative thoughts, conceptions, and feedback, they can ultimately change their internal brain structure and heal their anterior cingulate cortex by and increasing the levels of grey matter found in it, which is correlated to higher levels of self-esteem and better emotional control and coping.
Although the development of self-esteem in children and adults are focused on different processes, ultimately, childhood does have an impact on the self-esteem of an adult individual. However, through the ability of the brain to transform, an individual can actually change the way their brains process negative feedback and, can also change the brain’s internal structure to increase or decrease the grey matter found present in the ACC, which plays a large role on self-esteem levels, through their thoughts. Humans are built with the skills, they just need to choose to use them. Therefore, our hypothesis that self-esteem is not entirely based on a person’s childhood, because humans ultimately have the free-will to choose how much they value themselves, was proven to be true. However, we recommend that further research is ensued, so that we could attain full understanding of the extents to which childhood development impacts self-esteem in adults.
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