Self-esteem impacts our happiness in relationships, professional success and our sense of aliveness, so pretty much our general wellbeing. I see it as a sort of ‘scaffolding’ built from our earliest experiences, at the birth of our identity and that continues to develop in how we value and care for ourselves in the present. Essentially as adults it is expressed in how we communicate our thoughts, feelings and our needs to others, how we let others treat us, the filter through which we make decisions and finally how we set and pursue goals.
Low self-esteem can be manifested in fragile connections with family, friends or colleagues, a fear of failure and commitment, a fear of being found out as a fraud even when something is achieved and a definite tendency for setting unrealistically high expectations. External circumstances and life challenges put pressure on these vulnerabilities and internal and external resources need to be built or strengthened.
It can be helpful to understand the difference with self- confidence which is more about how we perceive our skills in situations. People with appropriate levels of self-esteem have confidence in who they are and what they can contribute in the world. Crucially they have a measured idea of their strengths and weaknesses and don’t spend much time worrying about what other people think of them.
Anyone’s self-esteem can take a knock when there is a loss or a trauma such as the death of a loved one, a move to a foreign country, a redundancy or a break up. People with healthy self-esteem can cope with the circumstances by drawing on their resources, their sense of worth remains unconditional and they tend to bounce back with resolution. Unfortunately for people with low self-esteem it is a struggle to cope as they contend with a cascade of critical self-talk, feelings of inadequacy and self-defeating behaviours. Their sense of worth tumbles into a vacuum sometimes at any sign of a setback or lack of validation in their daily life. Often they don’t seek help or feedback for fear of being told what THEY THINK they already know about themselves…that they are NOT GOOD ENOUGH.
So, what can we do about this?
1. Notice and rewire any faulty connections or loose wires
What do you tell yourself about yourself? What kind of voice is it? Is it on a default setting?
Well sometimes our thoughts are so part of our existence that we believe them to be facts, certainties, absolutes…you get my drift?
ACTION: Noticing and jotting down your thoughts will help you to acknowledge these self-defeating beliefs, to create some distance from them and will kick start the works on your ‘scaffolding’, onwards and upwards! PS: It will require some breathing, pausing and time to write.
2. Be curious like your favourite detective
Have you heard these criticisms before, from someone else? Why do you believe them to be true? Is it possible that if they were learned and therefore could be unlearned?
Often automatic thoughts and beliefs we live by remain unconscious and we form narratives about ourselves and others that inform our choices. These tend to be generalised like: ‘I am not smart because I am not academic’ or ‘I am always let down and people are selfish’.
These narratives are mostly unconscious and they need to be uncovered in order to be understood and re-scripted. In this process we may discover where our values really lie and how we have learned to value ourselves and relate to others. We know we cannot change the experiences we had but we can certainly re-evaluate inaccurate beliefs or conclusions drawn from those experiences.
ACTION: Write down any belief about yourself and others you can think of in one column and in a second column write down where you have heard it. Then think if it is black and white without any shade of grey and if it has served you in some way. If there is some truth in it, pay attention to the words and write the thought more accurately:
‘I struggled with writing essays at school but I now have a really good mind for thinking outside the box.’ Or ‘I felt let down when my friend did not come to my party even if most of the time she is there for me.’
3. Be present and connect with others
Do you tend to get stuck in self-flagellation because you are so focused on your limitations? For example writing a blog for the first time and getting frustrated because it should be right on the first go can trigger a sense of incompetence however if we think about it as an achievement even to be doing it and that the first go is just a learning experience then sharing your thoughts with others could even become pleasurable. When we give our time or service in some way and allow ourselves to receive, we become present and feel part of a community, we are not alone in our heads anymore.
ACTION: Ask a trusted person to tell you 3 good things they see in you and 3 things they think you could work on. And then do something for them or for someone else or for the environment.
ACTION: Moving helps you feel good about yourself, it doesn’t have to be frantic but a little conscious exercise every day keeps the monkey on the shoulder well away.
5. Teach yourself something new: SELF CARE
What does it mean to treat yourself with care and respect when you don’t know where to start? Depending on where your self-esteem is at, this may be a good time to seek some support from a therapist.
ACTION: This one is unique for each individual because although we would all agree that it is also about ‘treats’, it may sometimes mean saying NO. It could be pampering for someone, or cooking a new meal or learning a new language for someone else. Sometimes it is space, silence, a new haircut, a book, some company, a coffee etc…The idea is to listen to what you need and to give it to yourself in the best way possible.
If you struggle with low-self esteem contacting a therapist might feel like a big risk but the first step is often the most difficult one!
Author: Diane Metta, Psychotherapist at InsideOut
Date: 10th March, 2020