Self-esteem refers to how we view ourselves and the value we place upon our worth. Having low self-esteem involves having an overall negative view of ourselves. A person with low self-esteem may experience self-critical thoughts, such as:
- I’m not good enough
- I’m a failure
- I’m not worthwhile
- I’m inadequate
- I’m unlovable
The self-critical thoughts above are experienced and often believed to be the absolute truth. People may worry that others are holding these same negative views of them. People with low self-esteem also have a tendency to compare themselves with others in an unfair and biased way. For example, they may hold others in an overly high positive regard, only focus on the positive qualities of others and mainly compare themselves to others who are perceived to be highly intelligence/attractive/socially adept. Flaws in others are overlooked, yet their own perceived flaws are amplified and their own positive qualities are dismissed. Receiving compliments may be difficult and these also tend to get dismissed. When good achievements are made these are often downplayed, perhaps being put down to luck or the person considers the achievement to not be that impressive anyway. Situations that require a decision to be made can raise anxiety levels in someone who has low self-esteem as they may fear they will make a bad decision and/or perhaps worry that they will be negatively judged for the decision they make. If things go wrong around them a person with low self-esteem has the tendency to take full responsibility and blame themselves.
These thinking patterns which characterise people with low self-esteem can have a detrimental impact upon their lives. They may contribute to emotional difficulties, such as depression, anxiety and anger. In work or school they may either work very hard or put in little effort due to a fear of failing. In relationships people with low self-esteem may have a tendency to be quiet, not stand up for themselves, tolerate being treated poorly and generally put others first at the detriment of their own needs. They may be quick to perceive others as being critical and have a strong emotional reaction to this and perhaps lash out. They may also avoid potentially enjoyable activities, such as hobbies/sport due to fear about their performance being negatively evaluated and perhaps due to a fear of failing.
Why do some people have lower self-esteem than others? The beliefs that we develop about ourselves are shaped by our experiences, often experiences earlier in our lives. Although these beliefs made sense when they were first developed given they are based upon reasonable conclusions drawn from a person’s experiences, they may not be helpful (or even accurate) as the person gets older. Earlier experiences that can often play a role in contributing to low self-esteem are:
- being criticised frequently, for example, when mistakes were made
- being bullied
- feeling different to others, for example, if you were a different build to most people around you or had a skin problem or struggled academically
- being neglected and/or abused
- not receiving much praise or being shown much love and affection
Therapy for Low Self-Esteem
We support many people in our clinic to improve their self-esteem which shows it is a very common problem. We would often begin therapy by working with you to understand what thinking and behavioural patterns are keeping your low self-esteem going. Therapy is then focused on addressing these patterns. You may be helped to challenge unhelpful thinking patterns to develop a more balanced (and positive!) view of yourself. It can be helpful to keep a log of positive things that happen, such as when something went well, when you displayed a positive quality, when you received a compliment. It can be helpful to balance your needs more with others and begin to do more nice things for yourself. These are just some ideas of many that you and your therapist can work together on to help improve your self-esteem.