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.
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.