Debra Ann Cruz, CEAP, CEC, LPC
Develop Your Strengths & Skills to Succeed

“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

                                                                                                                                                  -William Blake

Alas, as our good friend William Blake observed, the doors of perception are seldom cleansed, and this causes our view of the world to become skewed. It is in early childhood that both our perception of the world and that of ourselves begin to develop. 

As children, we first come across the concept of self-esteem and set the groundwork for what will turn out to either be healthy self-esteem or low self-esteem (LSE). During childhood, we begin to develop the cognitive filter, essentially the “door of perception” that allows children to interpret the outside world and make sense of it.

The Cognitive Filter Role in Developing Healthy Self-Esteem

The cognitive filter is responsible for sieving through everything the outside world throws at us, be it an unkind word or a kiss from someone we love. When a healthy sense of self-esteem is developing, our cognitive filter funnels the information received from the outside and blocks out negative input, like:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Criticism
  • Parental disapproval
  • Prolonged isolation

But since low self-esteem begins to develop in early childhood, the cognitive filter starts working wrong. Instead of blocking out all these bad things, it allows them in, keeping the positive input out instead, such as:

  • Hugs and cuddles
  • Attention and care
  • Praise from a caregiver
  • Time spent with playmates.

In a way, the now-damaged cognitive filter starts acting as our own worst enemy, constantly subjecting our still-developing minds to harmful elements while withholding the good.

What happens when our cognitive filter becomes damaged?

When our cognitive filter fails, we, like children, cannot understand which criticism is constructive and which destructive. So basically, we are left alone, at the mercy of the world around us (the parts that our cognitive filter allows in, at least).

When the filter does its job well in normal childhood development, the child maintains a positive attitude, is outgoing, confident, and doesn’t suffer from anxiety attacks.

If, however, the cognitive filter isn’t working due to LSE developing, the child will become fretful, angry, irrational, and self-sabotaging at every turn. Such distress marks the beginning of a lifelong obsession with putting themselves down without even realizing this.

Since the cognitive filter isn’t working correctly and is only exposing the child to harmful elements of the outside world, the child’s developing mind comes to see this self-sabotage and low self-esteem as normal. The status quo – and that makes it much more difficult for these effects to be reversed.

Can you fix a damaged cognitive filter?

We don’t talk of “overcoming” low self-esteem, but rather, we must speak of “unlearning” it, for that is the only way to fix a damaged cognitive filter. Since the child (presumably now an adult) has grown up to believe that his LSE and permanent anxiety are natural states, he must now unlearn them. That is the only way to make space for a healthy perception of self and combat and LSE.


Debra Cruz

Debra Cruz

Debra Ann Cruz, C.E.A.P., C.E.C., L.P.C., is a Certified Employee Assistance Professional, a Certified Executive Coach, and a Licensed Professional Counselor, and author of the upcoming book THE S.W.E.E.T. Spot of Self-Esteem for Women of Color. You can learn more about her at