Low self-esteem can impact on every aspect of our lives – from our relationships to how we do our jobs. Understanding the thoughts and behaviours that perpetuate your sense of worthlessness is the first step towards believing in yourself again.
We can all be hard on ourselves sometimes. That critical voice in our heads saying, ‘you’re rubbish,’ ‘you’re too fat’, ‘you’re boring’. If our overall opinion of ourselves is healthy, this is likely to be counteracted by another voice – ‘you’re all right really’, ‘you’re still attractive’, ‘you’ve got lots of friends’ – which puts our bad feelings in perspective. But what happens if there’s no friendly voice, only castigating thoughts, which feed our sense of worthlessness? If you believe you’re no good, you start behaving as if it’s true – withdrawing from people, staying quiet about your thoughts and wishes, neglecting yourself, sometimes even apologising for your existence. If your self-esteem is very low, it can have a damaging affect on your life and your relationships.
Chicken and egg
If you have low self-esteem you are more likely to struggle with feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame. Feeling worthless can also make you vulnerable to mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders and anxiety disorders such as social phobias. It may be that to beat these disorders you have to address the root cause – your low self-esteem. Conversely, feeling unworthy can actually be triggered by a mental health problem. If your low opinion of yourself started with the onset of a problem such as depression, then treating the depression in its own right could restore your confidence in yourself without the need to address your self-esteem directly. The snag is that it’s not always easy to understand what comes first, so you might need to adopt a two-pronged approach. Low self esteem can also affect your physical well-being. Look out for fatigue, low energy and tension. You may also be less inclined to take care of yourself, for example, not going to the doctor when you are ill, falling into bad eating habits or self-harming, for example drinking excessively. You weren’t born feeling worthless. Someone or something has made you feel that way – perhaps in your past, say when you were a child. But whether you generally feel bad about yourself, or your feelings of worthlessness are triggered by certain situations, you can learn to go easier on yourself. It’s about breaking the patterns of thinking and behaving that feed low-esteem, so you can start believing in yourself again. But first you need to understand what’s happening and what keeps low-esteem going.
Experiences that can trigger low self-esteem
- Systematic punishment, neglect or abuse – no surprises there.
- Lack of praise, affection, warmth and interest – your parents may have found it hard to express affection even if they felt it.
- Failure to meet your parents’ standards – whatever you did, you always felt like you were a disappointment.
- Being on the receiving end of family stresses and troubles – it can be hard for a child whose parents are struggling to cope. If your parents no longer have the time or patience for you, you can feel the failure is yours.
- Not fitting in at school – feeling different from your friends or social group, especially in your teens, can really knock your self-esteem, especially if you don’t feel accepted.
- Being the odd one out at home – it’s hard to feel confident about yourself if you don’t feel accepted or appreciated for what you are; for example being a creative child in an academic family who make you feel inadequate and don’t recognise your talents.
- Perceiving prejudice against your family or social group – whether your family has less money than anyone else, or belongs to a different religious, cultural or racial group, you end up feeling inferior.
As an adult:
- Being in an abusive relationship – this doesn’t have to be physical violence or sexual abuse; it could be verbal or non-verbal putdowns or controlling behaviour.
- Being bullied – whether it’s at work, home or in a social context.
- Prolonged stress or financial difficulty – for example, unemployment or getting into debt.
- Trauma – anything that turns your world upside down so you feel you can’t cope, e.g. being sacked from your job, suffering an assault or discovering your long term partner’s left you for someone else.
Source: adapted from ‘Overcoming low self-esteem self-help course’ (part one) by Melanie Fennell (Constable & Robinson).
How it starts
Many of our ideas about ourselves are based on how other people treat us. Perhaps you felt ignored or unloved as a child, or your parents made you feel that you weren’t good enough. Or maybe you had a hard time at school because too much was expected of you or you didn’t fit in. Similarly, as an adult your feelings of worthlessness might come from spending years in a relationship where your partner is always criticising you or putting you down, or in a hostile work situation where someone is trying to get rid of you and constantly undermining your efforts. Our self-esteem is knocked when we see bad experiences as a sign of our own inadequacy. For example, when Sandy kept being made redundant through no fault of her own, she started questioning her self-worth. ‘I felt ashamed that I couldn’t hold a job down. It felt pathetic that I couldn’t do that.’ But whatever triggers it, the longer the idea that you’re ‘unlovable’ or ‘no good’ runs around your head, the more established it gets, until it becomes a central belief you hold about yourself – one that can start to govern the way you lead your life.
All in the mind
David’s feelings of being unworthy of affection go back to his childhood. ‘I never really felt wanted, even though I realise that my mum did love me. I was an “accident” that happened when my brother and sister were grown up. It must have been hard for my mum – especially as she also took in my brother’s young children and wife before his marriage split up. ‘Both my dad and my brother worked away from home, so she was effectively on her own. Somehow I always felt like I was an imposition. I also had the idea that she loved my brother’s children more than me. I now realise she probably overcompensated because she was worried about them.’ Now in his fifties, David says: ‘The result is I generally feel bad about myself, often to the extent that I feel quite depressed. Though I’m better equipped to deal with it now, it’s a life long battle. Therapy has helped, but I still have to work hard to combat my negative thoughts about myself. I find it hard to articulate my feelings or ask for what I want, and when I’m feeling low, I’m still tempted to neglect myself or put my own needs bottom of the list.’
What keeps it going?
The ideas you have about yourself – what psychologists call your ‘bottom line’ beliefs – colour how you view, interpret and recall your everyday experiences. If your opinion of yourself is low, you tend to focus on your weaknesses, and ignore, discount or forget the positive things about yourself such as strengths, achievements and compliments. You may also find it hard to take criticism because it confirms your bad feelings about yourself. For example, your partner complains they’re not seeing enough of you because you are working too hard. Instead of taking this as a sign that they like being with you and want to see more of you, it confirms your belief that you are not good enough – which is what causes you to work so hard in the first place. You become angry and defensive which places further strains on your relationship. Conversely, when your partner compliments you on your work, you ignore or discount what they say, reasoning that they don’t really mean it – they are just trying to make you feel good. Your partner gets fed up of this and stops complimenting you, which lowers your self-esteem even further.
Living by the rules
Examples of beliefs and strategies that maintain low self-esteem:
- Belief: ‘I’m unlovable.’ Strategy: ‘If I try always to please other people, they might not reject me.’
- Belief: ‘I’m a failure.’ Strategy: ‘I won’t try, so I can’t fail.’
- Belief: ‘I’m not good enough.’ Strategy: ‘If I work extra hard and do everything perfectly no one will know.’
- Belief: ‘I’m a bad person.’ Strategy: ‘If I don’t show them the real me, they’ll think I’m ok.’
- Belief: ‘I’m boring.’ Strategy: ‘I’ll stay quiet and avoid social situations that might show me in this light.’
Source: adapted from Overcoming low self-esteem self-help course (part one) by Melanie Fennell (Constable & Robinson). These beliefs about ourselves also rule the way we lead our lives. If these judgements are negative, we design rules or strategies to help us get by and compensate for our poor opinion of ourselves. It’s a way of protecting ourselves. The trouble is that although this might make us feel safer in the short run, ultimately it only serves to confirm our sense of worthlessness. For example, if you believe you’re not worth caring about, you may keep people at a distance or put up a front that stops people from getting to know ‘the real you’. This might make you feel better in the short term, but ultimately it stops you forming meaningful relationships and maintains your negative ideas about yourself (e.g. ‘if they knew what I was really like they wouldn’t like me’). Or you might develop a strategy of always trying to please other people so you won’t be rejected. While this feels like the safe thing to do, it traps you in a subordinate role and invites people to walk all over you. You lose your sense of self, and your confidence plummets even further. Avoidance can be another strategy. For example, your belief that you are boring may stop you from talking to new people or socialising at parties. This causes you to retreat even further into your shell because you never give yourself a chance to build up your confidence. The rules we make for ourselves can also be a rod for our back if they are unrealistic or too unbending. For example, we may feel we always have to do things perfectly to compensate for being ‘not good enough’. If you live by this rule you might be a workaholic who works flat out to meet the high standards you’ve set yourself, at the expense of your relationships and social life. Or you might always feel you have to look perfect all the time. As long you meet these high standards you feel great, but too often you end up stressed and miserable because you can’t live up to them. This confirms your poor opinion of yourself.
The important thing to realise is that the beliefs you hold about yourself – though an understandable response to what life has thrown at you – are opinions not facts. And like any opinions, they may be biased, outdated or quite simply wrong. These judgements can persist even when your circumstances change. Perhaps you were in an abusive relationship before you met your current partner who is caring and supportive – but still you believe you’re ‘unlovable’. However, it needn’t be like this. You can work to change it. By challenging the patterns of negative thoughts and self-defeating behaviours that feed low self-esteem, you can restore your faith in yourself.
- Overcoming Low Self-esteem: Self-Help Course by Melanie Fennell (Constable & Robinson)
- Building Self-esteem by Helen Jenkins and Melanie Fennell. Oxford Cognitive Therapy Centre.
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