Having self-esteem is having confidence in our own abilities and values. It means being confident in ourselves, even though we are not perfect, and having faith in who we are and what we are able to do and achieve in life. Having a good sense of self-esteem has been linked to happier relationships, achievement, and satisfaction.
In essence, it is a measurement of how we match up to certain criteria, and the end result tells us what we are ‘worth’. If we measure ourselves to be scoring high against certain criteria, then our self-esteem will be high. If we don’t, then our self-esteem will be low. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? That’s part of the problem.
We can measure ourselves against different types of criteria: internal, and external. External criteria include things that occur outside of ourselves, that we can use to measure our ‘worth’ with. Some external factors that contribute to self esteem include:
- Having a well-paid job
- Being in a long-term and loving relationship
- Possessing a body/figure that fits society’s ideas of ‘beauty’
- Owning your own home
- Driving an expensive car
- Achieving prestigious academic qualifications
- Being skilled in a particular hobby
However, if we were to lose the external factor that we relied on for our self-esteem (such as putting on weight, breaking up with a partner, or losing our job), our self-esteem and sense of worth can plummet. This can lead to feelings of depression, and a sense that there is no point in trying (which we then believe and ‘act out’, which then ‘proves’ we were right [this is called a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’]), so we fall short of our potential and repeat the cycle. We also risk tolerating abusive relationships due to not feeling like you are ‘worth’ receiving anything good in life.
We also have a (metaphorical) ‘being’ within ourselves that does it’s best to ensure we find the negative in situations (partly due to humans having an inherent negative bias) and points out our biggest weaknesses; it can be called many things, but some researchers have called it the ‘Personal Fault Finder’ (PFF). This is the little voice inside you that tells you everything that you have done wrong, and we sometimes can’t help but listen to it. If you lost your job, the PFF may tell you that this happened because you are stupid, even if you lost your job because of circumstances beyond your control. Unfortunately, many of us are inclined to believe our PFF, despite the evidence in front of us showing that it isn’t true.
Where does low self-esteem come from?
Our self-esteem usually develops in childhood. Below are a few examples of how this can occur:
- This can be a result of not feeling ‘good enough’ in the home we grew up in through being overly-criticised, and leading to a sense of perpetual failure and shame (if children are repeatedly told “that was stupid” when they make a mistake, they will internalise it and it becomes “I am stupid”)
- Preoccupied or uninvolved caregivers can send a message that the child isn’t worthy of their time, and their achievements aren’t worth taking notice of (which then becomes “why bother? I am not worthy of being noticed”)
- Being bullied at school – and let’s face it, bullies will find anything they can think of to pick on you for – can make a child feel that they don’t belong, and that their looks/intelligence are not ‘good enough’ for society
- Our home lives can magnify bullying outside of the home. If a child was unsupported and unsafe at home, they may later gain a sense of hopelessness and abandonment wherever they go in life; if a child’s experience was downplayed and they didn’t have an advocate to go to the school and speak up for them, they may feel later unworthy of attention and help; if a child’s parents were overprotective, they may later feel unprepared to face problems in the world, and feel a sense of shame for hiding this
- Struggling academically at school, especially if this resulted in ridicule or punishment at home or from teachers, can leave a child feeling “I am not smart enough to do anything, or learn anything new” and “I can’t match up to everyone else in society”
- Low self-esteem can be a result of past trauma, especially in the form of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. When children are forced – physically or emotionally – into awful situations against their will, they can later develop the sense that they are not worthy of being treated well, and that the world is an untrustworthy place
How can I build my self-esteem?
Remember how I mentioned both internal and external criteria? The trick to building your own self-esteem – and this a sense of self-worth – is about learning to accept yourself in spite of any external factors. It’s about using your own internal criteria to measure yourself against, and challenging external factors – and separating an external factor from an internal sense of worth (so “I lost my job so that means I am stupid, so I’ll never find another one, so what’s the point in even trying” can then become “I lost my job, but that doesn’t mean I am stupid, and I can find another one that suits my needs”). This can then allow you to not have to rely on outside influences to make you happy and feel a sense of “I am worth something”.
Below are a few ideas on how you can start building your self-esteem.
- Take a ‘self-appreciation break’ daily, to spend a couple of minutes writing down 3 things you like about yourself. This can be a physical attribute, an achievement, or something nice you’ve done for someone else, or for yourself in the form of self-care. With practice, you’ll be surprised at how many things you can come up with!
- ‘Befriend’ yourself. When you think something negative about yourself, ask yourself “If this were a friend saying this to me, what would I say back? Would I agree with them, or challenge it?” This is very effective as we are very good at being kind to others, but not very good at being kind to ourselves!
- When a negative thought enters your mind, ask yourself “Is this Belief or Fact? Where is the evidence?” A belief would be “I lost my job because I am stupid”. Evidence could be a statement from your employer detailing the reason for the termination of your employment being due to you being stupid. If you do not have this, and especially if you have another reason to attribute (such as mandatory redundancies, or workplace bullying), then it is a belief, and not a fact. You can them reframe the thought (“I lost my job because there were mandatory redundancies, but I can find another one where I will be in a happier environment”)
- Practice challenging ‘should’ statements that make for rigid rules to live by. “I should always be the best at my job” could become “I can always try my best and am capable of performing well, but it’s okay if I don’t sometimes”. Remember you don’t need to be perfect – just ‘good enough’.
- Externalise your PFF. If your PFF were a living being, what would they look like? Draw a picture of your PFF – making it as – colourful and preferably as humorous or unusual as you can. Maybe it has a Dr Seuss-style hat and large silly shoes. Think of the last negative thought your PFF told you, and imagine this picture of your PFF telling you it. This can help show you that the negative thoughts are something outside of you; they are not a part of you, and external factors not have to define your self worth. The humorous nature of the PFF can also help to reduce the extent to which you are likely to believe their criticisms!
These are just a few ways in which you can make a good start in helping to rebuild your self-esteem. if you’re struggling with self-esteem and working through exercises on your own, then consider finding a suitably qualified professional in your area who can assist you on your journey.
If you would like to book an appointment, please get in contact via the Book An Appointment page.