Low Self-Esteem

Low self-esteem - A banana reflected in mirror and see an inferior version of itself

Low self-esteem

We all have times when we doubt ourselves, lack confidence, or don’t feel good about ourselves. That might last a day or two. Then we bounce back. But when low self-esteem becomes a long-term problem, it can have a devastating impact on your mental health and quality of life.

What is self-esteem?

Your self-esteem is a measure of how you value and how you perceive yourself. It determines how much you:

  • like and appreciate yourself as a person
  • can recognise your strengths and capabilities
  • have the confidence to try new or difficult things
  • can let go of past mistakes without overly blaming yourself
  • believe you matter and are worth caring about
  • be gentle with yourself
  • feel you deserve to have enjoyable things in life

People with healthy self-esteem feel positive about themselves and life. They can bounce-back when they experience the knocks common to life, and can be optimistic about their future.

In contrast, those with low self-esteem are much more likely to see themselves in a negative light; they are highly critical of themselves, especially if they make the slightest mistake. As a result, those with low self esteem are often more fearful, less able to deal with life’s challenges.

What causes low self-esteem?

We form the beliefs and opinions we hold about ourselves throughout our lives, but especially in our childhoods.

As you were growing up, you received all kinds of messages about yourself (and the world) from those around you—your parents, siblings and other family; friends and neighbours; teachers and other children at school. Even the media and people in society played a part. Some of those messages would have been positive and others negative. Some would have been accurate and trustworthy, others less so.

Over time, you built up an internal picture of yourself based on the messages you heard.

Sadly, if messages you received were predominantly negative, that you were not good enough, it sticks and leads to low self-esteem. Your personality can play a part, too, especially if you are prone to negative thinking or have unrealistic expectations of yourself.

How does low self-esteem affect you?

Low self-esteem can affect almost every aspect of your life. For instance, it might cause you to avoid social situations or unfamiliar experiences. Self-doubt might prevent you from making friends, progressing in work or having a healthy social life.

While it often feels safer to avoid the situations you find challenging, such avoidant strategies can make the situation worse. Each time you avoid a challenging situation, you are reinforcing your fears and doubts and telling yourself that avoidance is the best way to cope. The longer you live in this avoidant cycle, the harder it is to break and the more severe the impact on your mental health.

Sometimes people use alcohol or recreational drugs as a coping strategy. While they might seem to give false confidence, they can make the problem worse, even leading to addictions. People with low self-esteem often suffer from anxiety and depression, too.

How can I develop healthy self-esteem?

When we have low self-esteem, we see a very distorted view of ourselves, as the banana in this picture. So, to develop a healthier self-image, we have to challenge the ways we see ourselves. And, maybe, getting some better mirrors!

Challenging negative perceptions

One way to improve your self-esteem is to identify and challenge the negative beliefs you have about yourself. For example, I used to believe that “nobody cares about me. I have nothing of value to say. No one listens anyway,” so I would say nothing and avoid connecting with others. The more disconnected I became, the more distant others seemed, reenforcing ny (false) belief.

You might hold similar opinions about yourself, or they might be different.

Notice when you think about yourself in negative ways and write the thoughts down. Then write any evidence that supports your automatic negative thought. Next, write any evidence that challenges your negative thinking. Finally, see if you can write a more realistic alternative view. For example:

When  Negative Thought Evidence For Other Evidence Alternative Thought
No one cares about me No one spoke to me when I came into work this morning Sam sent me a WhatsApp yesterday, and Chris asked if I was okay when I had a cold Some people care about me, sometimes

Another way to challenge negative thinking would be to write a list of positive things about yourself. If you are anything like me, though, that’s hard. I found it easier to write a list of the things I value in others. Here are some qualities from my list:

  • honesty and genuineness
  • being kind, caring and gentle
  • looking out for other people and helping where they can

Take a few minutes to write a list of the things you value in the people you like and respect. Once you have done that, honestly rate yourself against each of the qualities you wrote. It might surprise you to find that you have a lot of the same qualities, too. Make a list of at least five positive attributes about yourself and put it where you will see it regularly.

Having that constant, truthful reminder will help you cultivate a more positive image of yourself.

Get better mirrors

Often the negative image we have of ourselves came from the distorted reflections we saw as we were growing up, and we still hold those images today.

Notice and write some good and positive things people say about you. Any time someone says “thank you” to you, ask yourself, “what did they thank me for?” Write the things you are good at or capable of doing. They can be minor things, that’s okay. Maybe things like “I make great banana bread,” “I’m good at crossword puzzles,” or “I’m good at keeping confidences,”

Make a list of these, too, and put it somewhere you will see it regularly. It will help remind you of your positive qualities.

Other ways you can help yourself

Be gentle and kind on yourself

The next time you a being critical of yourself, ask yourself what you would say to a friend in the same situation as you? We are often a lot kinder to our friends than we are to ourselves. You could try the loving-kindness meditation below. Being kinder to yourself can make a massive difference. We all respond better to a carrot than a stick.

Recognise your strengths

We are all good at something, whether it’s singing, cooking, gardening, or solving puzzles. Notice the things you are good at and those you enjoy. The more you notice the positives, the better you are likely to feel. Write them down, too, so you can remind yourself of them when you are having a tough day.

Build positive relationships

Are there certain people in your life who criticise you or put you down? If so, maybe you could try to spend less time with them or tell them how the way they are behaving with you is pulling you down. You could also try to build stronger relationships with those around you who are more positive and appreciative of you. In short, find better mirrors!

Be more assertive

Being assertive is about valuing and respecting other people’s needs and opinions and expecting the same value and respect from them. It’s not about forcing your way in or bulldozing over other people–that’s bullying. You have a right to be heard. Assertiveness is about claiming that right.

Learn to say no

People with low self-esteem often bend over backward to please others, hoping others will accept them. As a result, they often say “yes” to things, even when they really would prefer to say, “no”.

The problem is that if you keep saying “yes”, you can quickly become overburdened, resentful, angry and even depressed. People often put upon those who won’t say “no,” taking advantage of them.

Learning to say “no” is an important part of becoming more assertive, and it does not harm or upset relationships. It might seem frightening to say “no” after a lifetime of saying “yes”. Maybe you are fearful of how they will respond, or of being rejected. But it is okay to say “no”.

Sometimes you have to keep saying it, in distinct ways, until they get the message. Check out Angela’s Word in the links below. I found it very helpful. You might, too.

Getting further help

Counselling and CBT and make a massive difference, especially if you have suffered from low self-esteem for a long time. Your GP can refer you to counselling on the NHS, or you may prefer to use a private service such as ours.

If you would like to talk with someone about how counselling might help, or if you are ready to make an appointment, please call 0151 329 3637 or email enquiries@counselling-matters.org.uk. We would love to hear from you.

Further reading

Bassett, B.K. Angela’s Word (poem) taken from Canfield, J. Shimoff, M. (1999). Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul. Vermilion.
Mind (2019) Self Esteem.


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