Self-esteem – where does it start?

Self-Esteem: The Very Beginning

Have you ever considered where or when self-esteem starts? It can start in utero.  Energetic and physiological states of the mother can imprint onto the fetus in the womb. For me, given that my biological mother’s pregnancy was unplanned and I was subsequently adopted, this entire process may have affected me. Essentially, it wired me a certain way: to be insecure, feel like I am not wanted or loved. Despite my adoptive parents’ best efforts to ensure I felt loved, I possessed a deeply profound sense of displacement that stemmed from within.

This commentary is in no way meant to criticize the process of adoption or those who choose it. This is, simply, my attempt to gain understanding about why I have the thoughts I have, the mental health challenges I have faced and where my lack of self-esteem might have originated.

Maternal Stress in Pregnancy

I open my book, Beyond the Label; 10 Steps to Improve your Mental Health with Naturopathic Medicine with research from Dr. Gabor Maté. He writes:

“The important point to explore here is how stresses during pregnancy can already begin to ‘program’ a predisposition to addiction in the developing human being. Such information places the whole issue of prenatal care in a new light and helps explain the well-known fact that adopted children are at greater risk for all kinds of problems that predispose to addictions.

 Dr. Gabor Maté continues, “Numerous studies in both animals and human beings have found that maternal stress or anxiety during pregnancy can lead to a broad range of problems in the offspring, from infantile colic to later learning difficulties and the establishment of behavioural and emotional patterns that increase a person’s predilection for addiction. Stress on the mother would result in higher levels of cortisol reaching the baby. Elevated cortisol is harmful to important brain structures, especially during periods of rapid brain development.”

Another comment from Dr. Maté states, “Any woman who has to give up her baby for adoption is, by definition, a stressed woman. She is stressed not just because she knows she’ll be separated from her baby, but primarily because if she wasn’t stressed in the first place, she would never have had to consider giving up her child: the pregnancy was unwanted, or the mother was poor, single or in a bad relationship, or she conceived involuntarily, or was a drug user or was raped or confronted by some other adversity.”

“Any of these situations would be enough to impose tremendous stress on any person, and for many months, the developing fetus would be exposed to high cortisol levels through the placenta. A proclivity for addiction is one possible consequence.”

Adoption and My Self- Esteem

In my case, my biological mother became pregnant with me when she was very young, She was moved to the other side of the country where she lived with her older sister until she gave birth. It is likely that the stress my biological mother was under exposed me to cortisol, the stress hormone, at higher levels than would be experienced in planned pregnancies.

This exposure may have set me up to be highly reactive and emotionally insecure – two sensitivities I have struggled with. Back in my late teens and early 20’s, I would test people to see if they would stay. I lacked communication skills and had a hard time expressing my feelings mostly because I didn’t understand the emotional turmoil swirling inside me. Part of me speculates that the manifestation of my bipolar disorder was because I couldn’t express what was going on.  Which then, turned into an energetic emotional volcano that had to erupt at some point.

The Good News: Changing Your Wiring

Why does all this research on pregnancy and stress-states matter? It’s important because if I didn’t know the mechanism, I wouldn’t know how to work with it and to change it. The good news is I have been able to rewire my brain thanks to the concepts of neuroplasticity and psychoneuroimmunology. The bad news is that it took me over thirty years to do so because this research was only just being developed. My hope is that you can learn from my experience and I can lend positive guidance to you in your journey to mental wellness.

Essentially, neuroplasticity means that your brain has a plastic or bendy quality to it and can change. You can create new neural pathways in your brain, essentially rewiring it to think in a new way. Psychoneuroimmunology shows us that thoughts, in turn, have a downstream effect on physiology via molecules called neuropeptides. These molecules can directly impact a variety of brain and body functions, including pain management, reward, food intake, immune function, metabolism, reproduction, social behaviours, learning, and more.

These concepts, along with other psychotherapeutic and naturopathic interventions, offer the prospect of emotional healing from our developmental traumas. It has been said that “adoption is the only trauma in which the adoptee is expected to be grateful”. For me, the majority of my emotional healing work revolves around getting over my fear of abandonment, rejection, and worthlessness. I have learned how to love, to let others in, and to accept a helping hand when it is offered.

Reach Out to Someone in Need

If you know someone that is struggling with bipolar disorder or their mental health in general, please share this blog with them. Think of it as a helping hand or hug that you are extending to them. I have made it my life’s work to help those that might be suffering. I have created many resources that can help. By sharing my personal journey, I hope to extend hope to others that they too can regain their mental health.

Sending you healing thoughts,

Dr. Chris


Maté, G. (2008). In the realm of hungry ghosts: close encounters with addiction. Toronto, ON: Knopf Canada

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