Self- esteem is how we view ourselves in relation to others – it is made up of our sense of self, our self- image, our values, and how we would like to be perceived by others. Most of us can probably relate to times where we have questioned our abilities, compared how we measure up to others, or lacked confidence in certain situations that we feel unsure of or in areas that aren’t exactly our strongest. This self- criticism typically arises in times of stress or change, and in small doses, can actually be beneficial, helping us to learn from our mistakes and improve who we are as a person. Low self-esteem on the other hand, occurs when an individual’s self-concept and sense of self-worth becomes severely distorted and predominately clouded with negativity – having the potential to severely impact their quality of life and ability to complete everyday tasks. This article will help to explain what low self- esteem is, what areas of life it can impact upon, and how it can be effectively treated.
What is low self- esteem?
Low self-esteem does not just evolve overnight – it typically develops from an early life experience and continues to manifest a collection of these over an individual’s lifetime – such instances could include past living conditions, relationships, or significant life events that have negatively impacted upon how the individual views themselves. The collection of their negative experiences, trigger negative thoughts that become ‘wired in’ to the individual’s “core beliefs” or assumptions that they hold about themselves in relation to others. Subsequently, these negatively biased beliefs influence how they foresee they will behave in certain situations, which in turn leads them to engage in a series of precautionary behaviours that they feel they must live up to – particularly in times of increased uncertainty about how they feel they may be judged by others (for their underlying fear that their perceived faults, stemming from their negative core belief(s), will come true and be exposed to others).
What are some of the common held beliefs associated with low self-esteem?
- I am unlovable
- I am stupid
- I am worthless
- I will never be good enough
- I am a failure
- I am ugly
- I am unimportant
- I am inferior to others
What are the common warning signs of low self-esteem?
- Taking the blame for others wrongdoing
- Never giving themselves credibility
- Not accepting compliments
- Blaming their successes on “luck”
- Not being able to recognise their qualities
- Feeling nothing they achieve will ever be “up to standard”
- Unable to be assertive to others and speak up for themselves
- Doing everything to please others to appear “likeable” or perceived with a particular quality
- Feeling everything must be achieved to an unrealistic standard
What are some of the typical coping behaviours associated with low self- esteem?
There are a variety of different coping behaviours that vary across individuals with low self-esteem. Some individuals may engage in over compensatory behaviours to conceal their perceived faults to others, feeling as though they must always (over) achieve everything to the highest possible standard – while others may engage in self-fulfilling prophecies, and deliberately make little attempt to reach their full potential due to their fear of not being able to achieve their desired outcome anyway.
How can low self-esteem impact on quality of life?
Low self- esteem can have a serious impact upon most areas of an individual’s life, and if left untreated, it can only reinforce the individual’s unrealistic negative self – beliefs. Interestingly, low self- esteem works in a cyclical fashion, whereby when the individual is presented with a situation of increased uncertainty regarding how they predict they will perform, it triggers their biased negative core beliefs, thus recalling their negative memories of similar situations, leading them to enter the situation with a pre-conceived notion about how they expect they will perform. This analytical over thinking also causes a spike in their anxiety and catastrophizing thoughts, and predictably, leads them to engage in whatever coping behaviours they feel they must apply in order to conceal their perceived weaknesses to others, or alternatively, when their anxiety takes over, they may avoid the situation altogether. These two behavioural outcomes only reinforce the individual’s distorted negative self- assumptions, thereby making it more difficult to remove their coping behaviours the next time a similar situation arises.
How can low self-esteem present to others?
Low self-esteem actually overlaps with the symptoms of various other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and social isolation. Some common themes include avoiding being involved in group activities or competitive sports and a range of other activities and social situations, for fear of being judged negatively by others, their overarching feelings of incompetence, or their core belief that they do not feel worthy and entitled to experience pleasure.
Low self-esteem can also affect an individual’s self- care and the way they present themselves to others, and this can go either end of the spectrum – some may engage in excessive alcohol consumption and drug abuse, and give little attention to their appearance, whereas for others, they may feel they have to “live up” to a particular perfectionistic standard to hide their PERCEIVED flaws to others.
How can low self-esteem be improved?
The good news is, low self-esteem can be effectively and successfully treated – but just as low self- esteem manifests over an extended period of time, the recovery process is expectedly gradual, and requires patience, commitment, and persistence. The most successful method for treating low self- esteem requires ongoing therapeutic treatment, typically involving cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) led by the guidance and support from a specialising psychologist. The core elements of CBT involves assisting the individual to identify their mal-adaptive thought patterns (cognitions), where the therapist teaches them several alternate coping strategies to replace their “hard wired” beliefs with more positive and realistic ones. One of the most essential components of CBT however, involves gradual exposure therapy, in order to effectively challenge their distorted self-perceptions.
Our recommended therapist at Anxiety House
What is your experience?
- Seven years’ experience with clients with anxiety and other mental health issues
- Senior Psychologist at Child and Youth Mental Health Service
- Worked in both public and private settings
- Inpatient and community treatment experience
- Clinical supervisor, STAP trained
- Child development researcher, and presenter at international conferences
Sophie Lucas is our Anxiety House blogger and is studying Bachelor of Communications at UQ. Sophie is passionate about anxiety recovery and loves to write about research and provide EDUCATION about anxiety. Sophie and Director Dr Emily O’Leary carefully think about each topic and try and provide the most up to date information. We have a number of scheduled blogs coming up, but we really want to hear your IDEAS! What topics would YOU like to know more about?
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