Low self-esteem is a common problem, you are not alone. It can be part of an acute problem or a longer-term issue, but either way there are tools to help you. Our low self esteem is often rooted in our childhood and adolescence, whereby experiences that we have had have framed in a negative light to make us feel that we will never be good enough. This can be exacerbated by experiences as an adult. These thoughts become core beliefs about ourselves – firmly held and strongly ingrained into our identity, worth and value in the form of “I am…” statements. These thoughts begin to create negative emotions, usually extraordinarily strong. As a form of self-protection and to allow us to keep “functioning” in society, we develop rules and assumptions about ourselves to regulate how we live our lives. For example, if you think you are worthless to your partner, you may develop a rule that you must always put their needs and happiness before your own and create the assumption that they will only stay with you if you are perfect. The result of having these rules and assumptions is that they will guide your behaviour and largely determine what you do on a day-to-day basis.
The result of this is that you put yourself under huge amount of pressure to ensure you reach these likely unrealistic goals, to protect yourself from hating yourself more. However, following the rules means the negative thoughts are never challenged.
The thing is that you will come across new situations where it will be difficult to live up to your own expectations. These are called “at risk situations”, as they activate the core negative views, we have about ourselves. This engages lots of negative thoughts about ourselves, either generally or specific to the situation. We think things won’t work as we have biases expectations of ourselves and will blame ourselves for the outcome as we have negative self-evaluations. This is because we tend to process information to confirm and maintain our already held beliefs, whilst dismissing or minimising anything which challenges it.
This combination of negative thinking, behaviours and feelings lead to confirmation of our core beliefs. We end up restricting ourselves or lashing out, further perpetuating the cycle. However, as I said at the beginning, you CAN change this. It all starts by learning to challenge all these negative processes in a helpful way.
- Create a positive qualities record - write down all the things you like about yourself. It is challenging at first but will get better. Once you have a list, think about times that you have demonstrated these positive qualities (for example, getting a good grade or looking after a sick friend) and write those down alongside the words. Try making little post it notes of these words and memories and sticking them around your house to have little reminders about how great you are.
- Start working on a core negative belief that is having a strong impact on your day-to-day life such as "I am unworthy for my partner". Try and create a new balanced view of yourself, considering both strengths and weaknesses. Next, look to see if there is any actual evidence for your negative belief then start to look for evidence that supports your new balanced view of yourself. Once done, reflect on the experience and how you feel about the negative view vs the balanced view. Continue to revisit and improve the balanced view of yourself.
- Try addressing your biased expectations of yourself head on. Remember that thoughts and expectations are often opinions of ourselves, rather than established facts. This means you can question them. Take these expectations apart. Where did they come from? How likely are they to be true? What positive aspects of yourself are you ignoring in favour of this negative view? This will help you start putting things into a more accurate perspective.
As always, if it really is affecting your ability to function in day to day life, I’d strongly advise seeing a therapist.
Well done on reaching out for help, you should be so proud of yourself.
Dr Elesha x