Most people’s thoughts about themselves fluctuate daily, based on their everyday experiences. How your friends treat you, how well you have done at something, changes in your romantic relationship can all have a temporary impact on your well-being.
Your self-esteem, however, is something more fundamental than the normal “ups and downs” of everyday life. If someone has healthy self-esteem normal “ups and downs” may lead to temporary fluctuations in how they feel about themselves but only to a limited extent. For someone who has poor self-esteem, these “ups and downs” can make all the difference in the world.
Where does our self-esteem come from?
Self-esteem is largely developed during our childhood. It evolves throughout our lives as we build an image of ourselves through our experiences with different people and activities. When we are growing up, our successes and failures and how we are treated by our immediate family, teachers, and our peers all contribute to the creation of our self-esteem. For example experiences in childhood that lead to healthy self-esteem include:
- Being praised
- Being listened to
- Being spoken to with respect
- Having trustworthy friends
- Experiencing success in school
Experiences that lead to low self-esteem include:
- Being badly criticized
- Being shouted at
- Being ridiculed, teased or ignored
- Experiencing failure in school
- Being expected to be “perfect” all the time
What does your “inner voice” say?
Everything we have experienced in the past is still alive inside us in the form of an “inner voice”. We don’t often “hear” this voice in the same way we would a spoken one but it acts in a similar way, constantly repeating those original messages to us.
For people with healthy self-esteem, our inner voice reassures us and sends positive messages. For people with low self-esteem, the inner voice becomes a harsh critic constantly criticizing and belittling their accomplishments.
The three “characters” of low self-esteem
Most of us have an image of what someone with low self-esteem looks like but it is not always obvious. Below are 3 examples of types of people who suffer from low self-esteem:
- The Impostor – this person always acts happy and successful but is actually terrified of failing. They need continuous success to maintain their mask of positive self-esteem and this can lead to problems with perfectionism, procrastination, competition and ultimately burn-out.
- The Rebel – this person acts as if the opinions of others – especially important or powerful people – don’t matter. They always need to prove that other’s criticisms or judgements don’t hurt and they carry around a lot of anger about not feeling “good enough”. This can lead to problems like blaming others all the time, breaking the law or rules or fighting against authority.
- The Loser – this person is unable to cope with the world and they wait for someone to come to the rescue. They tend to use self-pity or indifference as a shield against fear of taking responsibility for changing their life. This can lead to problems such as under-achievement, excessive reliance on others in relationships or lacking any assertiveness skills.
Consequences of low self-esteem
• It can cause problems with relationships and friendships
• It can seriously impair job and academic performance
• It can lead to underachievement and an increased vulnerability to alcohol or drug abuse
How to improve your self-esteem ?
Before you can even attempt to improve your self-esteem you must first believe that you can change it and also you just need to want to change it. Change doesn’t happen overnight and is not always easy but it can happen! Once you have accepted that you have the power to do something there are 3 steps you can take to begin to change your self-esteem.
Here are typical examples of the inner critic’s voice and how you can challenge what it is saying:
- Inner critic: Unfairly harsh – “People said they liked what I did but it was nowhere as good as it should have been. I can’t believe no-one noticed all the mistakes I made”
- Challenge: Be reassuring – “They really liked it. Maybe it wasn’t perfect but I did a good job. I am proud of myself. This was a success”
- Generalizing unrealistically – “I got a really low mark in this test. I am such an idiot, I don’t understand anything. I shouldn’t be doing this course”
- Challenge: Be specific – “I didn’t do as well on this test but I have done ok on the others. There are some things I don’t understand yet but I have done well in other classes that were just as tough as this”
- Makes leaps of illogic – “He is frowning at me. He hasn’t said anything but I know it means he doesn’t like me”
- Challenge: Think it through logically – “Ok, he’s frowning but it may have nothing to do with me, he could have something worrying him – maybe I should ask him?”
- Turning everything into a catastrophe – “She/He turned me down for a date. I’ll never find a partner. I’ll always be alone”
- Challenge: Be objective – “That was a bit embarrassing. Still, I know I’m a nice and attractive person. I’ll find someone else”
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But you would be surprised at how many people find it difficult to challenge their inner critic! With practice, it can be done….
2. Look after and value yourself –
You are a deserving and competent person who deserves the best out of life. If you introduce the following tips into your life you will feel a lot better about yourself:
- Get enough sleep, eat healthily, take regular exercise, practice good hygiene
- Go to the cinema, take a nap, have a massage, adopt a pet, spend some time in the garden – DO WHAT YOU ENJOY
- Spend time with positive friends, compliment yourself for achieving something, buy yourself something
- Remind yourself of your strengths/achievements, keep a list of all the things you like about yourself, keep mementos of things you have achieved where you can see them, keep a “success” file of any certificates/awards etc. you have and refer to it on a regular basis
- If you make a mistake, just forgive yourself and move on. None of us are perfect!
- “Fake it” until you can “make it” – when you continue to treat yourself well you will feel better about yourself even if initially you don’t believe you deserve it.
3. Get help from others –
This is not always easy for people with low self-esteem as they feel they don’t deserve help. However, since low self-esteem is often caused by how others have treated you in the past, you may need the help of others in the present to challenge negative past experiences.
- Ask for support from friends – ask them to tell you what they like about you or what they think you do well
- Ask someone to just listen whilst you “vent” your feelings for a while without trying to “fix” things
- Ask for a hug
- Ask someone who loves you to remind you that they do and why
Sometimes low self-esteem can feel so painful or difficult to overcome that the help of a therapist or counselor is needed. One of the advantages of talking to a therapist or counselor is that you can say anything in a confidential environment without being judged or having your feelings dismissed as “silly”.