Identifying Low Self-Esteem and Improving Your Sense of Self
How is it with your self-esteem? Do you have a good sense of self to carry you through life’s ups and downs? Despite all the focus on mental health, and the positive changes in parenting and schooling aimed to improve children’s self-esteem, we can all acknowledge that many people still struggle with self-esteem issues. As we celebrate International Women’s Day this week, it is important to acknowledge that women still appear to disproportionately suffer from low self-esteem compared to men1. But rather than looking at others, or society and culture, to help us with our own self-esteem, it is important to focus on what we can control – our own thought-life and view of ourselves. Therapist Teyhou Smyth looks at how to identify low self-esteem in ourselves and how to improve our sense of self.
Our culture tells us to be humble yet self-confident.
This can be a confusing message. Media portrays unattainable standards of beauty and images of body types that don’t reflect your parenting and in your social life, and you’re told to smile while you’re doing it. Make it look effortless.
Often, we end up comparing ourselves to some false set of standards and when we don’t measure up, self-esteem suffers.
Sometimes self-rejection becomes such a habitual response we may not even recognise it within ourselves. It is important that we guard against this automatic assumption that we are not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough or charming enough. Repeating this pattern of thought on a regular basis sets us up for ongoing self-esteem issues. Our minds love a logical explanation for things, even if it means concluding something dreadful about ourselves.
Self-esteem issues reflect a battle with our own self-judgements.
We draw unfair conclusions about ourselves, based on certain bits of information without considering more reasonable and realistic possibilities.
Recognising Signs of Low Self Esteem
Is your self-esteem auto-pilot set on low? Here are a few ways to find out.
- Automatic deflection of compliments:
Sometimes people struggle with accepting a compliment because of their upbringing. Women are especially taught to deny compliments or brush them off for fear of being seen as conceited or overbearing.
Whether it is a learned behaviour or an automatic reaction to positive feedback, deflecting compliments from others can be a sign that your self-esteem is lacking. If you can acknowledge the positives in others, it is only fair and right that you should be able to do the same for yourself.
- Assuming the judgment of others:
Do you find yourself jumping to the conclusion that people are judging you negatively? People with low self-esteem can get into the habit of projecting their feelings about themselves onto others. If you judge yourself negatively, it’s not a stretch to imagine that others do, too.
- Social isolation:
The social piece can be a chicken-or-the-egg situation. It may start as not feeling like others want to see you (projection) and then reality may reinforce that misbelief when you avoid others and sort of fall off their radar.
A person with low self esteem will then internalise that isolation and create meaning out of their misunderstanding. Often the meaning that is created does not reflect reality, but instead a jaded interpretation based on original negative self-evaluation.
- Excessive self-criticism:
People with low self-esteem are super harsh on themselves, and often say things to themselves that they would never say about someone else.
Criticisms about one’s own appearance, intelligence, accomplishments and even character only make the self-esteem worse. This becomes habitual and part of one’s beliefs about self.
Improving Your View of Self
Low self-esteem doesn’t have to become a permanent condition. In many ways, it manifests out of long-standing practiced patterns of thought and often accompanies depressive symptoms. Improving your view of self requires practice, self-compassion and patience.
- Catch yourself in the act:
An important step in building self-esteem is to observe your thoughts and statements. Listen for clues that you are judging yourself negatively and pay attention to the more subtle ways you may be reinforcing negative self-worth in your life.
- Act opposite:
Practice boosting your self-esteem. When you notice yourself starting to say something negative about yourself, resist the urge. Instead, say something you like about yourself. Retraining your mind to self-correct negativity will help establish a new habit that is far more healthy.
- Reach out to others:
Share your struggles with self-esteem with someone you trust. It may help to process your thoughts and feelings about yourself aloud. Try not to isolate. Remember that just because you may feel like others don’t want to see you, that doesn’t make it true.
Sometimes your thoughts are not true. Take time to reflect on your part of the social interactions. Is there actual evidence to support your thoughts about others not wanting to see you? Is that more about your own self-perception?
- Take a compassionate self-inventory:
Low self-esteem tells us that we are not good or worthy. Challenge that idea with a compassionate self-inventory. Write down facts about yourself. What are your positive traits? What do you like about yourself? Think about yourself as if you were considering a good friend whom you love and respect. Honour the good within yourself.
Resist the cultural expectation to self-deprecate.
Especially in Ireland, we are taught to not accept a compliment, to not talk about oneself for fear of appearing self-absorbed. Women are particularly targeted in this cultural approbation. While a decent recognition of social graces is always a nice touch, people with low self-esteem often take this to an extreme.
Allow people to see you, hear from you and care for you.
Don’t be afraid to embrace the best within yourself and share it with others openly. Would you say those negative comments to others? Then you shouldn’t say them to yourself.
Life challenges are difficult enough without negative self-esteem dragging you down.
Be on your own team. Negative self-esteem is like setting up an internal adversary. Bullying yourself endlessly does not advance your standing internally not externally. It creates shame and negativity that are toxic forces within.
When you get to the end of your life, how much time and energy will you have spent on knocking yourself down? Start reversing that habit now so that you can reflect back on your days with contentment and self-satisfaction.
Your relationship with self is the most important one you will have.
You are in your mind and body from the time you breathe your first breath until the day you draw your last. Why not be a good roommate to your internal self? Nurture, nourish and praise the good within you. Offer a climate of growth instead of an area of defeat and self-hatred.
Healthy self-esteem is an achievable goal. It takes practice and retraining of old patterns, but it is well worth the effort when you can sit with an appreciation of self.
[This blog post originally appeared on Teyhou’s website www.livingwithfinesse.com ~ some content may have been modified for the UK/Irish context.]