Low Self-Esteem

Low self esteem/Locking into mirror and see an ugly version of self

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 value 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 kind and gentle with yourself
  • feel you deserve to have good things in life

People with healthy self-esteem generally feel positive about themselves and life in general. They can bounce-back quickly when they experience the knocks that are common to life and can be quite optimistic about their future.

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

What causes low self-esteem?

Our self-esteem is based on the opinions and beliefs we hold about ourselves, and these beliefs are often formed in childhood.

As you were growing up, you received all kinds of messages about yourself (and the world) from those around you. Your parents, siblings and wider family; friends and neighbours; teachers and other children at school. Even the media and people in wider 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 tends to stick 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 new, unfamiliar experiences. High levels of 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 difficult 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 actually make the problem worse, even leading to addictions.

Low self-esteem is often associated with anxiety and depression.

How can I begin to develop healthy self-esteem?

When we have low self-esteem, we tend to see a very distorted view of ourselves, a bit like the banana in this picture. So, in order to begin to develop a healthier self-image, we have to bein by challenging some of the ways we see ourselves, maybe getting some better mirrors!

Challenging negative perceptions

One way to improve your self-esteem is to begin to identify and challenge some of the negative beliefs you have about yourself. For example, I used to believe that “nobody cares about me” and that “I have nothing of value to say”, so I would say nothing. You might hold similar opinions about yourself, or they might be different.

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

WhenNegative ThoughtEvidence ForOther EvidenceAlternative Thought
Noone cares about meNo one spoke to me when I came into work this morningPeter sent me a WhatsApp yesterday, and Jane asked if I was okay when I had a cold.Some people care about me at least some of the time

Another way to challenge negative thinking would be to write down a list of positive things about yourself. If you’re 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 of the 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 down 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 down. You might be surprised to find that you have a lot of the same qualities, too. Make a list of at least five positive qualities about yourself and put it somewhere you will see it each day.

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 down some of the good and positive things people say about you and any time someone says ”thank you” to you. What did they thank you for? Write down the things that you are good at or capable of doing. They can be small 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. After all, 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 difficult day.

Build positive relationships

Are there certain people in your life who tend to criticise you or put you down? If so, maybe you could try to spend less time with them or begin to 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 backwards to please others, hoping they will be accepted. 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. You can also be put upon as others quickly learn you won’t say, “no”, so take advantage.

Learning to say “no” is an important part of becoming more assertive and, generally, does not harm or upset relationships. It can be frighting to begin to say “no” after a lifetime of saying “yes”. You might be fearful of how they will respond or of being rejected. It is okay to say “no”. Sometimes you have to keep saying it, in different ways, until they get the message. Check out Angela’s Word. I found it very helpful, and 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.