Self esteem is your opinion of yourself and your confidence in your abilities. Everyone lacks confidence sometimes, but when low self esteem is a recurring problem, we feel unhappy and unsatisfied. Our self esteem begins in childhood, and as adults, we can undo any damage and develop our self esteem with attention and daily practice. Our self-care should include treating and managing these five things that damage self esteem. (Estimated reading time: 9 minutes)
“The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.”— Mark Twain
We all have times when we lack confidence and don’t feel good about ourselves. It usually happens when we’re attempting something that we feel inadequate for or when we’re criticized or judged. Most of these low spells are temporary, and we bounce back. Others, however, may damage self esteem.
When low self esteem is a recurring, long-term problem, it can harm our day-to-day lives and mental health. Like dark clouds hovering over our heads, it blocks our vision and limits us from stretching ourselves and doing more with our lives.
Self esteem is the opinion that we have of ourselves and our worth. In a society where image is everything, we tend to minimize its importance and focus more on others’ opinions of us. But feeling loved and accepted begins from within. Without it, we’re needy for others’ approval.
We also miss out on opportunities, both in work and love. This became vividly clear to me after I watched the movie “The Truth About Cats & Dogs” as a teen. The story is about a radio show host and veterinarian, Abby, who gives a caller named Brian advice on how to befriend his dog.
When Brian expresses interest in meeting Abby, she avoids him because she doesn’t think he will be attracted to her as a short, brunette woman with her (self-perceived) plain looks. So, she asks her best friend Noelle, a tall, stunning blonde, to pretend to be her while Abby builds an emotional connection with Brian in their private phone conversations.
The movie left an impression on me because it showcased the internal strife that a person with low-esteem experiences. Abby could not receive and accept Brian’s admiration and respect for her because she couldn’t see her value. She believed she was protecting herself from pain when the truth is that she was only worsening it and distancing herself from love.
To some extent, we can all see ourselves in Abby, especially when it’s so easy to give in to feelings that damage self esteem. Some of us may have had an upbringing where the people who raised us nurtured and instilled a strong sense of worth.
Many, however, will not have had enough (or any) support. We need to continuously work at managing our self esteem and staying away from anything that depletes it.
Where does self esteem come from?
Our self esteem begins in childhood and continues to develop into adulthood. The foundation we build for ourselves is affected by what we experienced as a child, like how we were treated by immediate family, teachers, and even the media we consumed.
If we feel unsafe, rejected, or criticized during this impressionable phase, our brain will hold on to those memories, which can damage self esteem. In fact, we remember negative experiences three times more strongly than positive ones. Studies show that, on average, the mind needs five positive experiences to replace one bad one.
Building healthy self esteem is trickier for those who are more prone to negative thinking and don’t know they can control their thoughts. It’s also harder for those with perfectionist tendencies who set impossibly high standards.
The cost of ignoring low self esteem can range from moderate to severe. The message of “I’m not good enough” can drive us to develop addictions and even harm others. Stress and challenging events, like illness or job loss, can move us further down the rabbit hole.
This was the case for Jessica Wongso (nicknamed the “coffee killer“), an Indonesian-born Australian resident convicted of killing her best friend. She laced her coffee with cyanide while meeting in an upmarket café in Jakarta in 2016.
Prosecutors argued that she committed the heinous crime because of an ongoing argument they had about her former boyfriend. But close friends say that it was an act of jealousy. Jessica was envious of her friend’s beauty and success in her personal and professional life. Ending her friend’s life was how she could feel better about herself.
While this story is extreme, it’s a scary tale about how neglecting to build healthy self esteem can cause hurt and destruction in our lives and the lives of those around us.
11 signs of low self esteem
Unless we shed light on the root causes that can damage self esteem, we will be controlled by them. This can cause us to be irrational and do things that we later regret. One or more of these signs of low self esteem may crop up in our behavior:
- Saying critical and negative things about yourself
- Not feeling deserving of praise and of having more
- Lack of boundaries and allowing people to say mean things to you
- Being upset by criticism and disapproval
- Having difficulty speaking up for your wants and needs
- Being afraid of expressing your thoughts because you don’t want to displease others
- Avoiding challenges and putting yourself out there because of fear or rejection
- Blaming ourselves when we make mistakes and things go wrong
- People-pleasing and going out of our way to make people like us
- Focusing on our flaws rather than our strengths and achievements
- Feelings of jealousy, anger, worthlessness, shame, and sadness
The good news is that self esteem can be restored and revitalized at any point. With the right tools and beliefs, we can turn things in our favor and, in turn, change the course of our lives.
Restoring our worth: 6 pillars of self esteem
The first step to building healthy self esteem is realizing that it’s not an abstract idea but a practice. Our self esteem wavers as we face the onslaught of daily living, and regular exercise keeps us steady and solid.
However, repeating affirmations and reading random quotes on social media isn’t enough. It requires repetition and discipline to build a core truth anchored in our worthiness, competence, and resilience.
One of my favorite resources for building self esteem practice is the book “The 6 pillars of self-esteem” by Dr. Nathaniel Branden, a psychotherapist and expert on the psychology of self esteem.
Braden believes that these six pillars are essential for fostering and sustaining healthy self esteem:
1. The Practice of Living Consciously: To live consciously and be aware of the fundamental parts of ourselves (purpose, values, and goals) and our actions.
2. The Practice of Self-Acceptance: The willingness to accept without denial, what we think, feel, and desire. We must also show compassion for ourselves and understand why we do what we do.
3. The Practice of Self Responsibility: To feel responsible for our lives and own our actions. We feel a sense of control and understand that we are the only ones who can make things happen.
4. The Practice of Self Assertiveness: Standing up for ourselves and honoring our wants, needs, and values. When we’re assertive, we develop the courage to leap into the arena of life.
5. The Practice of Living Purposefully: To live purposely is to use our power to attain our goals. Branden explains, “It is our goals that lead us forward, that call on the exercise of our faculties, energize our existence.”
6. The Practice of Personal Integrity: We have integrity when our behavior is congruent with our professed values and when ideals and practice match. When we go against our values, we lose trust in ourselves.
In addition to incorporating these practices, we must be wary of the things that can take us off course.
5 things that damage self esteem
The foundation of self esteem forms primarily during our developmental years, from childhood into adulthood. This is a phase in our lives when we form our self-identity and understand who we are and how we fit into the wider world.
The experiences of our younger years undoubtedly leave a lasting imprint. If we don’t receive enough attention and care when we are young, we develop a belief that we are worthless. If our parents had low self esteem, we may have absorbed that on an unconscious level and embodied it.
However, the narrative of our worth does not end during our youth. We continue to tell ourselves stories based on our adult experiences. Often, we use those experiences to validate old beliefs and fill in the gaps.
But we can tell ourselves a new story if we wake up to the fact that we have no control over the messages we receive as children. We also lacked the critical thinking abilities to evaluate whether they were true.
In addition to changing our narratives, we must protect ourselves from the negative influences that damage self esteem. Here are five things that damage self esteem that you should treat and manage:
1. Criticism (from ourselves and others)
Our self-talk plays a significant part in our self-perception. When it morphs into a condescending voice that tells you you’re not good enough, it cripples you. This negative self-talk from an entity known as the Inner Critic is born from limiting beliefs we develop in our younger years.
It can cause unhealthy behaviors such as perfectionism, comparing ourselves to others, workaholism, and tolerating bad behavior from others. It’s triggered when we receive criticism from authority figures like bosses or partners.
2. Stressful and dramatic life events
Stress is a universal experience. Whether we have a life packed with events or a relatively calm one, no one is impervious to the worrisome pangs of stress. What sets us apart is how equipped we are to handle what comes our way. Studies show that consistent stress can gradually diminish healthy self esteem, making it harder to cope with challenging events such as a serious illness, breakup, divorce, job loss, or grief.
3. Discrimination and stigma
Discrimination based on race, class, ethnicity, ableism, sexual orientation, and other characteristics continues to be a problem worldwide. The cultural forces that drive injustice and economic inequality hurts those who are targets of discrimination.
Research shows that when people are continuously treated differently based on their affiliation to a social group, it can have effects ranging from low self esteem to stress-related disorders.
4. Trauma and abuse
Experiencing trauma and abuse later in life can be just as, if not more, painful than if experienced earlier. Trauma from dramatic events that result in pain and loss, such as sickness or losing a loved one, can make it very hard to like the world and trust yourself and others.
Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, or forced to act against your will can shake your self-image. To control the situation, we tend to self-blame and begin viewing ourselves as repulsive and shameful.
5. Societal expectations and the media
The media bombards us with airbrushed and unrealistic beauty ideals, which can wreak havoc on our self esteem. Looking at polished images and videos can cause us to feel inadequate and that we can’t measure up to what’s out there.
Social media platforms like Instagram and Tik Tok that are heavily visual in their content worsen the effect, especially for younger people who are still trying to develop a coherent self-image. Without the proper upbringing, they are more likely to compare themselves to those who appear prettier, more popular, and smarter and consequently feel bad about themselves.
Self esteem is incumbent on how we choose to interpret what happens to us. We can’t control everything, but we can manage how we internalize the experiences and messages we receive. When we learn how to do it in a constructive and self-affirming way, our inner world becomes unshakable and powerful.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: Have you ever struggled with feeling good about yourself? If yes, what were the causes of your low self esteem, and how did you overcome it?
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