Overcoming Low Self-Esteem

Self-esteem generally refers to how we view and think about ourselves and the value that we place on ourselves as a person. You might have heard and seen similar words like “self-image,” “self-concept” and “self-confidence”, which also refer to the way we view and or think about ourselves.

Take a moment right now and describe yourself using 10 words…. Now, think about how you described yourself. Did you find it easy to define your character? Were the words and descriptors you used mainly positive? Were you reflecting on occasions where others have given you feedback on your gifts and strengths? Are you pleased with the person you described? If you answered a series of ‘no’s’ to the above or are unhappy with your self-summary, you may have a problem with low self-esteem.

Every conscious moment in our life we are engaging in an inner conversation. We are interpreting, problem solving, estimating and reviewing our life experiences and most of the time, the conversation is helpful. We all have days where we question our abilities or lack the confidence to deal with the stressors we face. However, people with low self-esteem hold entrenched, simple, pessimistic beliefs about themselves and the kind of person they are. Their inner monologue teems with statements like “you’re stupid!” “you’re so awkward and annoying”, “you’ll never amount to anything”. Compliments from others are treated as falsehoods and are hard to accept and there is a constant focus on the negatives as opposed to achievements.

These beliefs are often viewed as facts or truths about one’s identity and could be referred to as the internal critic – the voice within that undermines a person’s sense of worth and confidence. The internal critic is grown out of the negative experiences we have had across our lives, especially in our developmental years. Factors that play a role in establishing or maintaining the internal critic, thus feeding low self-esteem include: occurrences of punishment, neglect, bullying or abuse, instances of not fitting in or not feeling like you can live up to others’ standards. Over time, the internal critic can ‘take over’, darkening the lens we use to evaluate ourselves and our worth or value as a person across the lifespan. Consequently, psychological complaints including depressed mood, anxiety, aggression, body image issues and substance misuse are more likely to ensue for those with low self-esteem.

The following overviews some starting strategies to understand and reduce the power and persistence of the internal critic:

Catch your critic. Across one full day, record the number of critical statements you make to yourself. For the next 2 – 3 days, write down specific thoughts and critical statements you catch (e.g. “Made a stupid comment at lunchtime”, “I’m so slow at writing emails”, “Look at the house, I’m such a pig”)

Neutralise the critic. Now that you are getting good at hearing and identifying the critic, you can start defusing negative messages. Try to look at situations from an objective point of view. Challenge your position with queries like, “was it really as bad as I thought it was or would others have a different perspective?” or “is it fair for me to be so hard on myself about this?” This way you learn to stop attributing fault with everything you do. This will allow you more space to query and reframe the critic’s attacks to arrive at a more positive self-assessment.

Identify and celebrate your strengths. Make a list of the qualities in yourself that you appreciate. To help remind yourself of your strengths, combine several of these into an affirmation – a one-sentence positive statement – that you repeat to yourself regularly throughout the day. Examples:
I am a friendly, supportive and open person.
I have a good sense of humour and great friends.
I’m reliable, have a good work ethic and I’m really good at what I do.

Accept compliments. Receive compliments without having the need to deflect or reject. This practice will reinforce your strengths and positive self-beliefs and will help to build your self-esteem. Most compliments are genuine and they are given because they are deserved.

Practice self-compassion. Treat yourself with the same level of kindness, care, compassion, as you would treat your good friends and loved ones. Understand that we are all imperfect and live imperfect lives. When you make a mistake or fail, don’t seek to blame yourself, but emphasise the human element with statements such as “this is ok, this is normal” and “oh well, we can’t get it right all the time”. This will support you to grow from your experiences as opposed to being stuck with blame and attributions of failure.

If you have ongoing issues with low self-esteem, look to engage a trusted professional, close friend or family member who will be a positive support for you to talk to. If you are seeking more specific guidance and support with low self-esteem, please contact our clinic to arrange a time to speak to one of our friendly and skilled psychologists.

by Kasia Gordon of Cause Effect Psychology.

Donnellan, Brent, et al,. “Low Self-Esteem is Related to Aggression, Antisocial Behaviour, and Delinquency”. Psychological Science, Vol 16, Issue 4, pp. 328 – 335. 2005.
McKay, Matthew & Fanning Patrick. “Self-Esteem: Third Edition”. New Harbinger Publications. 2000.
Rosenberg M. “Society and adolescent self-image”. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University. 1965.

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