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Spoiled Brats and Low Self-Esteem

A reader emailed the following question to me, and it’s one I’ve heard a lot:

Can you explain why over-pampering can create inferior feelings?

It’s odd that opposite actions can result in the same outcome?  (pampering vs. neglect = inferiority)

People seem confused by my assertion that both extreme neglect and extreme pampering are both forms of abuse that can create low self-esteem, so I’m going to clear it up in this post. As far as the overpampering goes, it’s very counterintuitive but true. When people are overpampered, they end up with several major issues. The key is to understand that the high self-esteem they appear to display on the outside is not true self-esteem. It’s grandiosity, an illusion formed by overcompensation that they use to stave off feelings of inadequacy. It’s a lie, a front, but many people take it at face value and believe it to be real self-esteem.

One issue is that overpampered spoiled brats don’t have any faith in their ability to solve life problems, because they’ve never been taught to tolerate frustration and deprivation, because they’ve never been allowed to learn to figure things out for themselves and risk failing and falling on their faces. Their parents treated them like delicate flowers and always let them feel like they had a backup to bail them out of trouble at the drop of a dime. For these reasons they reach adulthood feeling they’ve never been truly tested by any real trials. They have an outer cockiness, but deep down they don’t trust their ability to live up to the legend they and their doting parents have created in the spoiled brats’ own minds. Sometimes they’re not consciously aware that they doubt their own abilities, but rather they feel it on an unconscious level.

To deal with this lack of confidence in their own abilities they create lots of ego-protecting strategies and defense mechanisms, and end up doing a lot of self-sabotaging. Self-sabotaging is a very subtle defense mechanism. The idea is that the spoiled brat, who is also a narcissist and emotional vampire, is afraid of finding out as an adult that he isn’t as special and gifted and a chosen one like mommy and daddy and maybe the grandparents always told him he was growing up. Or if it’s a girl, she isn’t a princess like Cinderella who is entitled to a Prince Charming just for being born with a vagina, looking pretty and dressing stylishly.

As the narcissist grows up and starts seeing that the mundane mediocre reality of their adult life nowhere near matches up the grandiose self-image they developed from growing up pampered and spoiled, that’s when the low self-esteem along with the accompanying overcompensation goes into overdrive and the strategies like self-sabotage, blaming others, and underachievement really explode. This gap between their lifelong delusions of grandeur and entitlement and their mediocre present reality is a form of cognitive dissonance known as The Grandiosity Gap, which is a key concept I’ll discuss in another post. The spoiled brat narcissist’s warped logic now goes like this: “it’s less bruising to my ego to portray myself as lazy, afraid of success, having writer’s block, chronically choosing bad lovers, being kept down by outside forces like drugs and alcohol, derailed by heartbreak/racism/sexism/liberals/conservatives, than being an untalented imposter whose birthright actually turned out to little more than lifelong delusions of grandeur from damaging parents. The mindset behind this chronic underachievement is “I’d rather be believed to be supertalented but self-destructive or lazy or  substance abusing or unlucky or a victim of an anti-IQ liberal conspiracy than be perceived as hardworking and giving it all yet still coming up short, which would prove once and for all what I’ve long suspected: that mommy and daddy lied to me, fed me a crock of shit, and I’m not as special as I thought after all.” They’d rather lose on a technicality, because of unfairness, or even because they gave up than lose because they gave it their all and lose fair and square because they just weren’t good enough.

This reasoning doesn’t take place on a conscious level. They not only don’t want to be exposed to others as an untalented fraud, they don’t even want to be exposed as such to THEMSELVES. They’re not just bullshitting and lying to others, they’re also trying to fool themselves.

Another reason why pampering leads to low self-esteem is that the kid ends up growing up into a very entitled adult. They think that the special, ass-kissing and pedestalizing treatment they got from their parents and grandparents will continue into adulthood, and when it doesn’t they’re dismayed. Even if it does continue into adulthood from people outside their family like friends, lovers, and coworkers, they start to realize that the sycophants they tend to attract aren’t people worth respecting, and that people worth respecting have absolutely no tolerance for their high-drama, spoiled brat bullshit and won’t be their sycophants.

So they get frustrated that they can only get validation from people they can’t even bring themselves to respect and that the people they look up to and envy can’t be bothered to put up with their entitled, non-contributing drama queen bullshit, and this makes their self-esteem lower. Furthermore, even though they are looking down on their sycophants and claiming not to respect them, they find they can’t live without their attention and narcissistic supply, so they start to wonder “If I’m supposedly so much better than this person, if my self-esteem is supposedly so much higher, why do I need and appreciate their attention and validation so much? Why am I always trying so hard to impress this inferior being? Why does my mood rely on whether or not I get their attention or not? If this person is inferior, but he’s the only type of person who recognizes my greatness, and even worse I can’t function without their validation and get enraged when I don’t get it, doesn’t that make me inferior too?” This insatiable need as an adult to keep getting the type of pampering doting attention they received as children, even if its from “inferior” people, starts to erode their self-esteem also, although again, they’ll try to keep as much of this reasoning out of their conscious sphere of awareness as possible. Narcissists have much trouble consciously dealing with unpleasant low self-esteem feelings and often feel their whole identity will unravel if they consciously accept any inferiority feelings they have about themselves.

Yet another reason why pampering lowers a child’s self-esteem is that it’s not really love. Many of the people think pampering is a case of too much love, but there is no such thing as too much love. Love involves recognizing someone as a separate individual and respecting their boundaries and not using them to alter your own moods or live out your dreams, undo your failures, or fix your core issues for you. Pampering, like neglect or bullying, is a violation of boundaries and is treating the child like an extension of the parent. The child is not being loved for who he truly is, but for other reasons.

The parent may be pampering the child because seeing the child sad, uncomfortable, frustrated, throwing a tantrum or giving the silent treatment gives the parent uncomfortable feelings and the parent pampers to get rid of his own discomfort. They may be doing it because their parents treated them like shit growing up, so they want to “make up for it” with their kids by spoiling them, making it really about treating the kid as an extension of themselves through which to heal their own wounds rather than about appreciating the kid as a unique separate being. It can also be about thinking of the child as a miniature version of themselves and pampering the child because they like to pamper themselves, and just like they would never want to be seen looking shabby, they don’t want their kids looking shabby either, since in their minds the kids represent the parents to the world. It’s like saying an egocentric person is hooking up their new top of the line Mercedes-Benz with all the best accessories and improvements and keeping it in tip-top appearance because he loves the car. No, he’s doing it because the car is an object to him, an object that is a reflection on him, and thus the object must have the best things and appear impeccable in order that he also looks impeccable by association. This is the same mindset the narcissistic parent has when he or she spoils a child.

Spoiling is usually a form of conditional love. If the child performs in a way that makes the parent feel or look good, they get rewarded. If they act cute, mug, play precocious, do “tricks” for the parent, they get rewarded. If they go off-script in an authentic form of self-expression, the spoiling and positive attention stop. So they learn to perform as a false self to keep that spoiling going. This performing can carry on well into adulthood. “I have to get the kind of grades mommy and daddy want to get the type of pampering I like.” “I have to become either a doctor, lawyer, or engineer to pay back the pampering.” “I have to marry within my religion to stay the special prince or princess.” “I have to take over the family business.” “I have to follow the religious practices, at least publicly.”

If they try to go off-script in an attempt to find their authentic selves, they fear they’ll lose their parents’ attention. They learn at a young age they they need to construct a false, idealized self to get love, and they learn to equate love with pampering. When you grow up feeling the real you, flaws and all, isn’t good enough, even if you learn that lesson in the form of pampering rather than through neglect, you get a low self-esteem, no matter how grandiose and larger than life your exterior is. And that only gets worse in adulthood when the pampering stops or doesn’t measure up to what your family trained you to expect, because now you learn that not only is the real you not good enough, but now even the false, idealized self you constructed can no longer get the job done.

Recommended Reading:

A great book that goes into the dynamics of how excessive spoiling screws up a kid’s self-esteem and mindset in adulthood is When Parents Love Too Much: Freeing Parents and Children to Live Their Own Lives by Laurie Ashner and Mitch Meyerson.

24 Responses to “Spoiled Brats and Low Self-Esteem”

  1. Are you trying to say that i am not special and superior to those n-words, spics, and yellow people simply because i am born white?!? How dare you! I am shocked! shocked i tell you!


  2. Nice to see a shorter post after the recent essays (which were great by the way). Do you have any other posts about how a (grown) ‘spoiled brat’ can work to undo some of the effects of having parents who spoiled them? Or if not, would you consider writing one? First time comment btw, but I’ve been an avid reader for a while.

  3. The posts will be shorter for the foreseeable future. I think I’m too burned out for a long post even if I wanted to do one.

  4. Great post. It’s a real surprise to some that spoiling is bad, but one researcher actually said it is the WORST form of abuse, because it is silent.

    I’d also like to add that it is possible to be spoiled, emotionally neglected, and abused all at the same time. This can happen in religious families who are poor. It happened to someone real close to me. Anyone reading this can consider that maybe more than one form of abuse happened to them and they would have to undo more than one form of abuse, one of which is being spoiled.

  5. I understand that over pampering can create self doubt, but I don’t see how that directly translates into inferiority. Is it not possible (or even more likely) that the adult who was pampered as a child simply has ridiculous standards because they believe they are entitled to them, and are worried about being, not inferior, but not superior and not a stand out in the crowd? Afraid of being simply normal or even above average, and worried about not achieving the results they believe they should have because they are ‘special’ still seems logical in my mind.

  6. Before I answer your question Lee, I’m curious: does any part of you identify with the spoiled child described?

  7. While I think my mother has a higher opinion of me than I really deserve, and brags about any achievements to other people a little, never was I really pampered. Sacrifices were made, such as frequent trips into town for sport, whether that is a form of pampering I dunno, but I’ve always been pretty independent, and haven’t had things done for me when I am capable of doing it myself.
    I don’t have self esteem issues, but of course that’s probably what I would say (or am saying) if I did. It’s a scary thought when really you can’t ever know if you these mental issues yourself because the self conscious mind seems to be so elusive.

  8. After reading the article a second time, I noticed that sacrifice to sport could be seen as conditional love, or creating a need for me to have to succeed in order to “pay back”. I do have a strong desire to succeed in the sprinting (in comparison to others, not internally), but I genuinely enjoy the sport and the selection is based that way. I wouldn’t come close to saying my parents wouldn’t appreciate me if I failed.

  9. The reason I asked that question is because I realize that when a person is just asking a question out of intellectual curiosity the exchange goes better even if we have to agree to disagree at the end, but if it’s because the person is emotionally invested in not believing in the idea because it hits too close to home, the debate goes nowhere. So now I like to feel out where a commenter is coming from before answering an objection.

  10. Oh, well you certainly provoked a fair bit of self analysis anyway. So any particular reason why the person will not necessarily tend to feel inferior, or is it simply something you saw as unlikely when compared to feeling inferior as an eventual result?

  11. I understand that over pampering can create self doubt, but I don’t see how that directly translates into inferiority.

    Doubt always related to a feeling of inferiority, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be an unhealthy sense of inferiority. We all have occasional feelings of inferiority. It’s part of being human. It’s part of realizing you’re not perfect.

    However when you doubt your ability to handle the type of adult challenges that normal, non pampered people don’t even think twice about, then the inferiority you’re feeling is likely not a healthy one and is likely to contribute to a low self-esteem. When self-doubt reaches the point that it starts ruining your quality of life and leading to self-defeating behaviors and avoidance of normal challenges, the inferiority feelings are at an unhealthy level.

    Is it not possible (or even more likely) that the adult who was pampered as a child simply has ridiculous standards because they believe they are entitled to them, and are worried about being, not inferior, but not superior and not a stand out in the crowd? Afraid of being simply normal or even above average, and worried about not achieving the results they believe they should have because they are ‘special’ still seems logical in my mind

    In a previous post I discussed toxic shame. I believe it was Reader Letters Part 5. In it I discuss how toxic shame leads to the phenomenon of more than human feelings and less than human feelings. You either feel superhuman or subhuman, if you’re not the best you feel like the worst. The more than human less than human dynamic is also what powers perfectionism, black and white thinking, either or thinking, and zero sum thinking. Toxic shame and the less than human more than human dynamic it creates also lies at the core of a concept called “maximisers” and “satisficers” (too much to get into in this comment but google those two terms).

    What all these dynamics have in common is that the person is obsessed with perfection and having the best, and is never satisfied unless they are comfortably sure they are reaching incredibly high standards. They are never satisfied at “good enough.” if they can’t be the best or have the best, they will feel less than human, even if they end up with “good enough”. When someone feels like they only are worthy when they are the best or are perfect, then they love themselves conditionally and their self-esteem is shaky and volatile. Someone with a truly secure self esteem loves themselves whether they win lose or draw. Someone with a shaky self-esteem and high standards, when they lose, will say I’m a loser. Someone with a secure self-esteem with high standards, when they lose, will not think im a loser but rather I’m a worthy, good guy who happened to lose this time. Time to work harder.

    If you have to be perfect in order to feel good, your self esteem is bad and you have inferiority issues. You fear that if you dont constantly prove your superiority, then you must be proving your inferiority. You only allow for one extreme possibility or the other.

    If youve read my other posts, you know about the three faulty coping strategies of surrender, avoidance, and overcompensation. The slacker and the perfectionist both have inferiority issues but the slacker chooses the strategies of surrender and avoidance to his inferiority feelings while the perfectionist chooses the strategies of overcompensation against his inferiority feelings. But make no mistake about it, if your entitlement has made your self-image so shaky that you are afraid about what it says about you if you “only”get above average results, then underneath all your bluster you are plagued by inferiority feelings.

    The true test of self-esteem and inferiority feelings is how you deal with setbacks, the word “no,” and failure.

    If the person like you say is obsessively worried about not appearing inferior, then on some level they must fear exactly that: that they are inferior.

  12. I see what you mean, I need to think in extremes a bit more. I read the letter responses about Bill recently, but I didn’t think to link the concepts of it to this. That’s helped clear things up, thanks,
    but still a couple things I don’t understand;
    – These feelings of inferiority, are they only feelings of inferiority to other humans as you described in the “subhuman” phenomenon, or can it also be feelings that are inferior to the false, idealised self-image?

    - Is it the inability to deal with set backs and failures, due to the pampering, that causes the person to see absolute failure when not faced with perfection? Is it because they only ever achieved perfection in the eyes of their parents (and by extension, themselves), and so when not achieving perfection they assume it’s complete failure?

  13. Since around 2011, I’ve been writing this blog with a long term vision and direction. The posts are now meant to build on each other and it always helps to remember concepts from older posts when reading newer ones.

    The subhuman thing can apply to comparing yourself to both your false idealized self and to other people.

  14. Looks like I need to do some catch up reading, I can imagine it would be annoying being asked to answer questions you’ve already answered before.

  15. No, don’t be silly, I assume that every post is some reader’s first post. So that’s fine to get questions I’ve answered before in previous posts. I only dislike when someone asks me a question in the comments, I answer it repeatedly, and they keep re-asking the same questions and making the same points because they don’t like the answers they get. THAT’S annoying.

  16. T, great post. I am a new reader and have really enjoyed your blog. Hopefully you can at least buy yourself a beer with the ad money you make when I click on your ads while visiting.

    Keep up the great content.

  17. Good stuff.

  18. I’ve read many of your posts and I keep finding more faults with myself and issues that I identify myself with. I have low self-esteem, I’m a narcissist, I’m a codependent, I’m a sycophant, etc. What am I supposed to do even though I’m aware of these things? Do I have to seek professional help, or is this just part of being human?

  19. What’s you perspective on kids born into money, never had to face a difficult challange and are given the CEO seat of a company at a young age i.e30. I know of a couple and there probably the most cocky its incredible. One ideology resonates with me is that they appear extremely entitled. On the other end of the spectrum is the only child who came from nothing and achieved a good level of wealth, but that kid was also spoilt in a different manner just overbearing parents trying to protect their offspring.

  20. Gary,

    I think Ricky has given some valuable insight in part 5 of the series. Namely contemplation and meditation. You can’t heal what you can’t feel. I’ve been meditating for some 40 odd days now. And slowly going through the reading resources. I’m speculating it might take 6-12 months of meditation to see good results. I guess if you have the money there’s always a good therapist.

  21. Money isn’t the only way to spoil a child. Let’s take the poor kid of immigrant parents. They have little money and don’t buy the kids toys, but they consistantely say that, “we gave up enjoying our own lives and went through all this hardship for you to get ahead.” That’s a big weight on a person, that your own parents mediocrity and lack of satisfaction can only be solved by your “succeeding” in whatever way would make them happy. All those times they take you to violen practice or help with the homework is a form of spoiling.

  22. False self esteem on June 24th, 2012 at 3:16 AM

    I cannot remember the last time I read such an insightful deconstruction of human nature. Your analysis of what lies behind the defense mechanisms of adults trappped in a false self esteem mode is spot on. However, one comes away from this description of “spoiled brats with low self esteem” with the feeling that they are little more than pathetic, irritating, self-complacent individuals that deserve no compassion whatsoever. It’s understandable that people who constantly need to resort to attention-seeking, judgementalness and a whole slew of other unattractive defense mechanisms are repellent to others. It is hard to feel compassion for people who constantly need to bolster their egos, often at others’ expenses. Still, what your analysis lacks is the insight that however pathetic these people may seem to you, there are actually human beings behind the personas they are projecting. At the cost of sounding cheesy, there is an inner child who is innocent in there, who before being weaned on too much ego-building parenting, was a human being like everyone else who wanted to love, experience simple joys and connect authentically with others. Can I go so far as to say that even adults who are deeply entangled in this syndrome (and because they are adults are all the more difficult to excuse) are also seeking those very same qualities in their lives? Because these people are unpleasant, it is easy to overlook that there is a lot of suffering going on there. Where a balanced mind would understand that continually banging one’s head against the wall causes pain and thus they should stop doing this action, someone who is suffering from this form of narcissism does not understand that their own actions are what is causing them pain. And thus they will keep doing it. Until they push everyone away, are abandonned and realize that their self-aggrandizement is illusionary. Try and remember that unconsciously these people know they have placed themselves way high up on an ego pedestal, and their defense mechanisms are what protect them from a long, virtiginous fall that they know will be extremely painful. Also, give these people the space to change. People can evolve and break down their illusions in an attempt to reconnect with others. Your article – although again brilliant – does not allow them humanity. To be fair, I will say I have not read your other articles which might give me more insight into the tone you have chosen to take in this analsyis. (However, the title of your blog “rawness” gives some sort of indication where this is coming from.) But this article is so acute in its understanding of the underpinnings of this personality, that I would gather that you have direct experience of this neuroses. (Again, I haven’t read anything but this article.) In any event, I thank you wholeheartedly for this piercing analysis. It will come as no surprise to you that I count myself as one of the pathetic people you describe so well…

  23. T, you definitely need to pursue this professionally. This has been one of the most insightful articles yet. Keep posting.