How to Recognise Low Self Esteem

The phrase ‘self esteem’ is one we hear bandied about all the time, often prefixed with the word ‘low’, and usually found within the context of self help articles. The writers usually warn us that if we don’t have enough of it, we need to do everything in our power to get more of it so that we can fulfill our true potential and thrive.

In this article we will look at what ‘self esteem ‘actually means and how can we recognise when we, or someone we care about, is struggling because of a lack of it. In the next article we will examine some practical ways in which we can help those we love to overcome low self esteem by exploring different ways to approach them and their behaviour.

Self esteem, in sociology and psychology, is defined as a judgement, as well as an attitude, towards oneself, reflecting how you evaluate your own worth. Nathanial Branden, a prominent psychotherapist and writer known for his work in the psychology of self-esteem, defined it as “the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness.”

Self-esteem, therefore, is how we value ourselves; it is how we perceive our value to the world and how valuable we think we are to others. Self-esteem affects our trust in others, our relationships, our work – nearly every part of our lives. Positive self-esteem gives us the strength and flexibility to take charge of our lives and grow from our mistakes without the fear of rejection.

This issue of self esteem is a well loved topic for writers in the self development field. Google ‘self esteem books’ and your search will bring up approximately 2,430,000 hits! The vast majority of these books will tell you why your self esteem is low and how to get your hands on some more of it. Nowadays, in Western culture, self esteem is considered the foundation of individual success. Without it, we are told, we cannot possibly get ahead in life, to make it we need to believe we are totally awesome.

However self esteem is not like filling your car up with fuel. It is not something that you just suddenly run out of then go to the petrol station and top up on. You certainly can’t just replenish the resources of someone with low self esteem by simply telling them how fantastic they are, or suggesting that they ‘learn to love themselves’. Achieving a healthy level of self esteem and feeling good about oneself comes as a result of adopting certain approaches to life.

How we go about things and the attitude we hold towards what has happened in our life has much more impact upon our emotional state than the things that have actually happened to us. Just because we have had a hard life or encountered difficulties does not mean we cannot be positive, and vice versa, many of us know people who appear to have had a blessed life and yet remain negative and miserable.

Nevertheless having very little self regard can have serious consequences for our potential to enjoy life, if left unchecked for long periods of time. Signs of low self esteem may manifest as any of the following:

Lack of confidence
Lack of self direction
Self blame
Self doubt
Lack of awareness of personal strengths
Perfectionism and being over critical of oneself when mistakes are made, being unable to learn from your mistakes
Over critical of others mistakes, blaming those that make them, judging others harshly
An excessive eagerness to please
Always wanting to be in control
Pessimism / depression
An inability to solve problems
A co-dependent and uncooperative attitude
An inability to trust others
An inability to say no
Poor self care
A poor sense of personal limitations
Inability to reach your potential, underperforming
A tolerance of abusive situations and relationships
A feeling of unworthiness
Being overly self conscious
A feeling of incompetence and not feeling capable
Focusing on one’s weaknesses, inability to see positives
Avoidance of challenges and opportunities
Being continually apologetic
Lack of assertiveness
A feeling of sadness
Feelings of guilt, shame, frustration or anger
Constant fatigue
Constantly feeling tense and unable to relax, inability to enjoy yourself
Refusing to rest when you are ill
Drinking excessively or drug dependency

A person with low self esteem will often hold negative beliefs about themselves, these beliefs are often spoken and thought of as statements of fact, however these ‘truths’ are in fact only opinions, based upon the experiences that you have had in life.  These experiences, often occurring early in life, give you messages about the kind of person that you are; if the experiences were negative the beliefs you hold about yourself are likely to be negative too.

At the heart of low self esteem lies something which calls ‘The Bottom Line’.  Our Bottom Line is the negative conclusions we make about ourselves based upon our experiences. As we grew up we took on the voices of people who were significant to us, we criticize ourselves in the sharp tones of our parents, we make the same comparisons with other people that they did. Our experiences create the foundation for us to make the general conclusions that we do about ourselves as people.

As this bottom line is formed in childhood it is often biased and inaccurate, lacking the understandings of maturity, as it is seen only from the perspective of the child. Once formed it is stored in the subconscious mind, where it stays, influencing our thoughts and behaviours and becoming increasingly difficult to question with each passing year. As you move through life you will find many things to reinforce your way of thinking, even if it is not true, discounting anything that is not.

However this bottom line is usually based upon misunderstandings about the experience, because you had no access to the adult perspective and were unable to understand fully what was going on at the time the belief was formed. When the beliefs were formed they made perfect sense, given what you were experiencing at the time. However, these beliefs are now often unhelpful and outdated, no longer serving a useful purpose in your life.

You are swift to notice anything that fits with your negative ideas about yourself, and equally quick to screen anything out that contradicts your beliefs. You ignore what you do well and focus on what you find difficult.

You also distort the meanings attached to what you experience, for example, if someone compliments you on how you look today, you might think that they meant you didn’t look good yesterday, or that they were just trying to be nice and didn’t mean what they said anyway.

Both of these ways of thinking work to keep the bottom line in place. You believe that things will turn out badly, this makes you very sensitive to anything that reinforces that this is so and fuels the belief that things are turning out just as you expected. Also, no matter how things turn out, you are likely to interpret them as negative, so your memories of your ongoing experiences will also be negatively biased.

As life goes on you develop strategies for living, rules by which you live your life based on the assumption that the bottom line is true. Your belief is that if you stick to these rules you will be able to to function in the world. These are made in an attempt to keep the low self esteem at bay, to help you feel better, however they have the opposite effect by making demands that are impossible to meet, often leaving you feeling depressed and anxious.

If you recognise some of this behaviour, in either yourself or someone you care about, make sure you catch the next article on what you can do practically to help break this cycle of self fulfilling belief.

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