She’d had therapy before and been diagnosed with low self-esteem, but had unhelpfully been told to “start loving yourself”.
She told me, “The trouble was, he kept telling me to love myself but he didn’t really tell me how to.”
Joy needed practical help.
What is low self-esteem, really?
Low self-esteem is a false perception of oneself.
If you have low self-esteem then you are better than you think you are. This is the definition of low self-esteem. When your self-esteem improves, it’s because your self-knowledge has improved; just as the ugly duckling in Hans Christian Anderson’s famous tale had to learn its true nature before it could become fulfilled.
But how do you tell if your self-esteem is too low?
Signs and symptoms of low self-esteem
Healthy self-esteem doesn’t mean loving yourself no matter what you do. Shame, guilt, and self-reproach do have a place if we behave badly. It’s just that those with true low self-esteem tend to feel these things even when they don’t behave badly.
It’s been proved a myth that people do ‘bad things’ such as child abuse, bullying, or drug-taking because they have low self-esteem (they might have low self-esteem, but that doesn’t cause these behaviours) (1).
People with genuine low-self-esteem tend to treat themselves badly, rather than other people. So ask yourself, do you feel:
- You are morally worse than most other people?
- That you have less appeal than most other people; that you are uglier?
- You are dumber than most other people?
- You’re unlovable?
- Like never spending money on yourself or your looks because you feel you ‘don’t deserve it’.
- Your opinions aren’t as valid as other people’s opinions.
- Your low self-esteem is holding you back from really doing what you want to in life.
Self-Esteem Booster 1: Don’t spread bad stuff about yourself
Low self-esteem makes you generalize a specific incident, situation, or trait and spread it to everything.
So Suzy burns a meal she’s prepared for her kids and from this generalizes to: “I’m such a lousy mum, I can’t even cook a meal!”
Jake fails a maths test and from this he negatively generalizes to: “I’m so stupid!" - (then, even worse) – "I can’t do anything right!” We’ve magically gone from failing a maths test (specific) to being a failure at everything (pretty general!).
And more: Samantha really likes a boy in her class but is too shy to speak to him. She is mortified when he asks her best friend out. She generalizes this specific incident to: “I’ll never get a date; no one will ever like me!”
This is known as ‘globalizing’ and if you do this for negative things, you’ll feel bad about yourself. Knowing you are doing it is the first step to challenging it. If you catch yourself doing this - for example, telling yourself you’re stupid because you made a mistake - then force yourself to find examples that contradict your own negative blanket statement.
Self-Esteem Booster 2: Look to the origins - briefly
Low self-esteem usually results from how we are conditioned by other people. If you were systematically insulted, criticized, or bullied, then you are more likely to have absorbed the negative messages about yourself instigated by other people.
Think about who these other people were and when you feel bad about yourself, take a moment to ask yourself: “Hold on. Whose voice is that in my head?”
I bet it really belongs to someone else originally. Starting to override other people’s conditioning of us is the first step to psychological independence; the real ‘you’ (that you should be listening to) can be much kinder and more reasonable about yourself.
Self-Esteem Booster 3: Be fair to yourself and others
Low self-esteem makes us magnify failures and personal faults and minimize or completely discount successes and personal strengths. Don’t do this. Be fair. If other people say you are attractive, clever, kind, fun, or whatever, respect them enough to at least consider that what they say is a probability.
Remembering and dwelling on criticisms while discounting and forgetting compliments (or any positive feedback) is a very biased, off-balance way of travelling through life.
Self-Esteem Booster 4: Ditch the imperfect perfectionism
“If it’s not perfect then it’s a total failure!” The idea that something is 100% useless unless it is 100% perfect, is a trap. Low "self-esteemers” often see things in very all-or-nothing terms. “That family is just perfect!/I’m just useless!”
Of course nothing in this world is perfect and no one is entirely useless. To stop this destructive black-or-white thinking, do this: Think, "If 100% is perfect and 0% is ‘total failure’ or ‘totally useless!’, how do I rate the meal I cooked?" This forces realism.
You might only give yourself 20% for the meal or your speech or whatever, but then look at that 20% and ask yourself: “What enabled that 20%? And how can I build on that to get to maybe 25%?” This breaks down the perfect/disaster thinking which drives and maintains low self-esteem.
Self-Esteem Booster 5: Take care of your appearance
Low self-esteem leads to a vicious cycle. We feel bad about ourselves, so we don’t dress well, keep fit, or get decent haircuts; but neglecting our appearance in turn causes more low self-esteem. Take time out to look after your body. Get a massage or manicure (unless you’re a macho guy, of course : ) ). Buy clothes that look good on you. Don’t see this as superficial or irrelevant, because the ripple effect of changing outward aspects of yourself can lead to changes on the inside.
And you can take time to close your eyes and start to visualize yourself looking fit, healthy, and nicely dressed whilst doing something you can be proud of - whether that’s talking confidently to others or just looking so calm and relaxed.
Healthy self-esteem consists of:
- Honest respect for your own abilities, potentials, and value.
- Knowing your strengths and trusting in them.
- Appreciation and open acceptance of your limitations.
- Acceptance of these limitations whilst understanding that some limitations can be overcome.
- Freedom from being overly concerned with what we imagine others think of us. Whilst accepting these perceptions do play a part in everyday life, remember they do not determine who we are.
Remember: a diamond doesn’t know its own value, but it is still a diamond nonetheless.
Joy came on in leaps and bounds. I noticed she stopped saying sorry (unless it really was justified), and one day she proclaimed: “It’s as if I’ve found the real joy in my life!”
(1) See the 2001 Rountree Report on ‘The causes and consequences of low self worth’.