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This principle holds that people are deeply influenced by the attitudes of others – especially, significant others – toward the self, and that in the course of time, people come to see themselves as they are viewed by others. The significance of this in relation to the development of self-esteem can scarcely be overestimated. Classified under this principle are three sub-principles.
The principle of direct reflections holds that self-esteem is influenced largely by the responses of others. The person who was an unwanted child, never loved by parents, is likely to make a negative self-appraisal. The communication process obliges such a person to assume the attitudes of other persons toward her- or himself.
The principle of the perceived self relates to one’s perception of others’ attitudes toward oneself. The relationship between self-esteem and the perceived self is a strong one. The point of this principle is that perception is more relevant than reality to the development of self-esteem. An objective observer may think a parent is hateful and abusive toward a child, but if the child perceives the parent as warm and caring, this perceived attitude will be the one adopted toward the self. This may explain why children in the same family have different levels of self-esteem, though they are treated in relatively similar ways by parents.
The principle of the generalized other relates to self-esteem that arises out of broad social experience. The individual’s self-esteem is shaped here by the attitudes of others – not as a direct reflection of those attitudes, but by applying to the self the attitudes of society as a whole. Minority groups illustrate how this principle operates. A pastor in the Bronx once told me, “Everybody in our neighborhood, black as well as white, sees Puerto Ricans as ‘trash’ and they treat them as ‘trash.’ The worst thing is that the Puerto Ricans, as a result, see themselves as ‘trash.'”