Building A Positive Identity

by Dr. Gudrun Frerichs

People derive a sense of self and identity through interactions with others who give recognition and approval to a person's abilities and accomplishments. How does that work? As children grow up, they are dependant on 'significant others' for forming of a positive sense of self.

Children need the experiences of a 'human hothouse'. When they are cared for, supported, encouraged, respected, appreciated, and appropriately challenged, children develop the ability to identify, interpret, and realise their needs and desires. This will allow them to become autonomous and self-actualised grown-ups who have self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem.

The 'human hothouse' is a metaphor for conditions of protection, ideal (emotional) temperature that is not too hot and not too cold, of shelter from rough storms of life, and of nutritional circumstances that take the changing needs of the child into consideration.

Through experience of this sort the child comes to understand him/herself as being worthy of love, care, protection, consideration, appreciation, and respect. It is able to form a positive sense of Identity and can say "I am OK".

What happens when the 'hothouse' conditions are not given? We'll see struggle in the child, the adolescent and later on in the adult. What will the struggle look like? Difficulty relating, difficulty being independent, difficulty grasping a strong sense of self!

Human integrity is closely linked with patterns of approval and recognition because once wrongly treated by others, people feel insulted or humiliated. Such injustice not only harms or restricts individual freedom but also causes feelings of shame, rage, hurt, or indignation. As a result people are harmed in their positive sense of self and their self development which is only possible through positive interactions with others.

Under most severe circumstances such as rape, torture, assault, discrimination, or marginalisation a person's identity could even be brought to the point of collapse. You'll end up with people with severe psychiatric disturbances, acute suicidal people, or people who get stuck in the social sidelines through gambling, drug abuse, or criminal activities.

What has been found, thought, is that even when childhood circumstances did not support the development of a positive sense of identity, people can 'fill up' on the good stuff later on. That can take place in loving relationships, in self-improvement courses, or through therapy. As they say: Its never too late to have a happy childhood.


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