I’d contend that our self-esteem becomes strongest when we’re alone working towards our grand goals. It always seems to ask us what we’re actually made of in finishing even just a single task.
It sucks sometimes. Do we work best when we’re alone?
Anyway, understanding how to overcome low self-esteem entails understanding how it starts in the first place. There are things we tend to forget whenever we feel down, worthless … the downward spiral and all that.
I want to make it clear that this isn’t just for the “moody” type of low self-esteem. Your low self-esteem might have started when you were really young, for whatever reasons or circumstances.
Because life’s just like that. It doesn’t give us everything we want. Life even seems an expert at throwing crap—any kind or crap—at us.
But the good news is, we can be responsible for what happens to us from here on out.
Let’s talk about low self-esteem.
What is low self-esteem? What do we really need to know about this hideous thing? I used to equate self-esteem with self-confidence, but it turns out self-esteem is much bigger than I thought.
Before we continue, I want to mention that the Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI) has been a great resource for this topic. They have produced modules I found really, really helpful.
Low self-esteem is the feeling that you are totally incapable of anything, a loser, a hopeless creature to venture into any undertaking.
Note that the feeling is triggered with almost everything you do. So that means it can emerge whenever you’re just showing up at an event, or spending a day with people you consider closest to you, or learning to write code all by yourself.
Think about it: How can you even imagine learning a particular skill, hands-on, if you seriously believe you’re a nitwit in the first place? Like, who are you kidding?
It could mean disaster … without even trying.
Multiple studies show that low self-esteem is a crucial predictor of depression (although the opposite isn’t established yet). It’s quite amazing that experiencing it, or at least not proactively fighting it, could result in a debilitating biochemical illness.
The symptoms of low self-esteem can be elusive, too; you may not know you already have it.
Do you think you’ve just finally “given up” standing up for yourself, making you a more “passive” person? Think for instance, abusive relationships (romantic, at work, or whatnot). Have you stopped caring?
How about thinking that you don’t deserve to have fun anymore? If you used to be the fun guy/gal, what happened? Do you think you deserve to “suffer” the consequences of hard work and miss out on life?
Or how about relapsing on vices? Do you, once again, enjoy the perpetual company of alcohol or cigarettes? Doesn’t it bother you that they could be damaging your health big time already?
Or, more simply, have you stopped dressing your best? You might say, “I don’t care about how others think of me!” But that’s beside the point … for now. The thing is, you might not notice these subtle changes. If you do, then you could dig a little deeper on the why.
Let’s be realistic here, though, shall we?
There could simply be other causes of low self-esteem—problems we can’t really fix or escape from at the moment. Catch 22.
We might have an illness. Or someone dear to us. Could be financial struggle; we might be losing sleep only to make sure there’s food on the table. How about a doctor-confirmed mental issue?
These can affect our self-esteem … and even more.
For instance, low self-esteem can develop in an early and vulnerable stage of a person, childhood. We had a relatively high self-esteem as children. However, kids might remember their parents mainly for one thing: punishment. When this happens, kids can develop the impression that the positive things they do would mean nothing. Then they resort to negative coping mechanisms such as bullying, quitting, or avoiding.
Research also shows that self-esteem falls during adolescence, because of change of body image, along with other changes puberty brings about.
Low self-esteem can yield nasty social outcomes, too. Research on Oxford University Press shows that high self-esteem correlates to less violence, while low self-esteem increases risk of violence and gang membership. It’s interesting to note, however, that both high and low self-esteem in the extreme can lead to aggressive behaviors.
Finally, according to one study, self-esteem is partially hereditary. But it is malleable and the best time to guard it would be the period from elementary to junior high school, in which period other psychiatric disorders can also develop.
It’d be an understatement to say that I wish I knew all of these things back then.
So how does low self-esteem really work?
I want you to take note of these terms:
- Negative Life Experiences
- Negative Core Beliefs
- Unhelpful Rules and Assumptions
- Unhelpful Behaviors
These make a dormant low self-esteem.
As I said earlier, we all had a high self-esteem since the day we were born, but at some point, we encounter awful experiences, all while we were being helpless, vulnerable, and naive. Add that to the inheritable quality of self-esteem.
The upbringing: from the sibling-comparison hype, to the simple lack of uplifting words … everything seemed so strong as you knew nothing. You were young. You deserved better.
You then went on growing up believing that somehow you had to meet everybody’s expectations because apparently they were all right, even though there was zero proof, except that everybody else was much, much older and experienced than you. Who would’ve known?
And who would’ve known that it was going to snowball? You thought it was just a “home” or “alone” thing, but then you realized you felt safe by not trying to fit in school, or start a conversation with a stranger, or just turn up.
You thought you were doing fine. But you suddenly got older.
You got your job, dived into a romantic relationship, made new friends. But you were being a pushover. The pushover. They had to be right, you had to be wrong. You didn’t bother to dare that you might be right had you just asserted yourself.
A cycle was starting to root in that you were beginning to hold negative core beliefs about yourself: you had no voice (it didn’t matter if you had anyway), you were a burden, you were the weakest link.
It’s crazy to believe we were taught—or brainwashed—about a lot of bullshit that were supposed to be about us, and then we grew up finding it virtually hard to repair damages.
But then again, believe it or not: that is just how the world works. And that lays part of the foundation of the core beliefs we hold about ourselves.
Because of these negative beliefs, like cause and effect, they push one to devise unhelpful rules and assumptions.
You started making up unhelpful rules you kept telling yourself, such as:
- I must not commit mistakes.
- I must look confident and happy in public.
- I must not feel weak.
And unhelpful assumptions:
- If I commit mistakes, I will fail in life.
- If I look shy and sad, people will hate me.
- If I feel weak, I will ruin everybody’s day.
See how these rules and assumptions can box you in? It’s as if you don’t need mistakes and failures. It’s as if people waste their time only by thinking about you. It’s as if you’re not entitled to feeling down, once in a while.
Now of course some people might not think that way. We may be lucky we have access to the internet, where information is free, and we discover that we don’t necessarily have to box ourselves in with such rules and assumptions. We have the power of choice.
But we go back to our negative life circumstances. There are always those experiences that have, for lack of a better term, indoctrinated us.
Anyway, going back … now when those fabricated rules and assumptions turn deep-seated in your mind, what do you think happens?
That’s right. You now start falling back to unhelpful behaviors. Because your beliefs are so strong, you reject testing and validating them. You then avoid, hide, or simply do nothing.
Unhelpful behaviors can stop you even from just showing up, an essential habit for real progress. You know you just have to be there and do the work in increments to reach your bigger goals. But, alas, you just wouldn’t show up.
And the thing is, these unhelpful behaviors make you feel safe, because even though you wouldn’t take the chance of moving forward, you’d feel just fine. And since you’d ignore the chance to better your self-esteem, your low self-esteem would remain dormant after all.
Moments of Truth: At-Risk Situations
Okay, so you may be hiding in the comforts of unhelpful behaviors. No “me against the world” kinds of fear and all that.
But once in a while you will be in situations in which your guards are down and your self-esteem gets challenged.
They are called at-risk situations, and in such situations, a dormant low self-esteem becomes active. An active low self-esteem takes things further—it leads you to two more kinds of despicable thoughts: biased expectations and negative self-evaluations.
You’ll hold on to biased expectations while in a situation. Remember the unhelpful rules and assumptions that used to keep you from facing the world? Now they’re acute, and instead of being in the moment, you maintain in your head the biased expectations that something will indeed go wrong. At the back of your mind you’ll itch to do either of three things: avoiding, taking safety precautions, or escaping.
And just like that, you don’t get to enjoy the freaking moment.
Anyway, this kind of expectations may not stop until you’re out of an at-risk situation. It could be exhausting.
You try bringing your guard back up … slowly. You keep trying. All seem good, but when you think you fail doing just that, because your brain’s already dog-tired …
You start having negative self-evaluations—you think it’s all your fault.
Notice the downward spiral? We can’t choose, 100%, situations we want to be in. The more unfamiliar a situation is, even lower a low self-esteem goes. Because a low self-esteem has been pampered against challenging it. There have been almost no attempts to better it.
Indeed, it all becomes a cycle. Now the self-loathing, self-blame, and self-criticism add to the existing unhelpful rules and assumptions. They become new triggers to more unhelpful behaviors. Worse, you might feel that you don’t deserve to have a good time, relax, or unwind, all because you think you’re no good at all.
Take note that the negative life experiences are part of the past. Yes, they are real, nothing or no one can change them, but you owe yourself annihilating the demons in your head and living the life you want with calmness, acceptance, and strength.
Which brings us to the next point.
Past the negative life experiences, challenge everything.
Remember the words I wanted you to take note earlier? Let’s do a recap, including the last two important additions:
- Negative Life Experiences
- Negative Core Beliefs
- Unhelpful Rules and Assumptions
- Unhelpful Behaviors
- Biased Expectations
- Negative Self-evaluations
Thing is, all of the above can overwhelm us we might feel there’s no point in even trying. However, there’s no going around them and confronting them is the only way. Should it be that hard? Let’s see.
Apparently things do happen for a reason. Cause and effect. X and Y. But while all of that can happen only inside the head, a change in mindset requires the right actions.
I’m a firm believer of habits, of giving up unnecessary (albeit gratifying) activities on a daily basis, of discipline. I believe that the power of action is a fundamental to a healthy mind. Mindset and action can never work independently. I do struggle with this (I tend to overthink, for example) but without action, there is no progress.
So how do you actually overcome low self-esteem?
1. Since we’re talking changes, try these changes.
Low self-esteem is a chronic feeling a boring routine can result in. Something’s got to give, but sometimes it just isn’t the case.
That’s why you can try incorporating some fun activities into your schedule instead.
CCI recommends a 183-item Pleasurable Activities Catalogue (it’s on page 11), which, amazingly, contains dead-easy fun activities.
Are you forgetting these “superficial” activities?
- Jogging, walking, exercising
- Thinking you have done a full day’s work
- Thinking about past trips
- Listening to others
- Remembering the words and deeds of loving people
- Thinking you’re an OK person
- A day with nothing to do
- Sketching, painting
- Discussing books
- Listening to a stereo
- Watching videos or DVDs
- Being alone
- Reading non-fiction
Doing stuff like these should help fight negative self-evaluations and bring in a balanced one.
Sometimes we just forget that there are ludicrously simple things in life we can do. Experts even tell us that doing novel (or relatively novel) things, is one sure way to maintain happiness. It’s so easy to allow the same damn thing to suck our attention six ways to Sunday we forget that such simple activities are available to us.
The 183-item list is like saying, “Stop for a while. Get back to the basics!”
2. Perspective is the art of challenging, adjusting, and redefining.
Challenge your beliefs and way of thinking. If you come up with beliefs and don’t question whether they’re true, you’ll tend to believe they are indeed true. And from there ensues the infinite chain of wrong beliefs.
Think about it: falseness abounds everywhere. Loads of fallacies are embodied through practice but many people simply follow the herd. They disregard curiosity and critical thinking. When shit hits the fan, these people look for quick fixes, hoping that these fixes would save them from their newfound misery. But, lo and behold, they get frustrated.
If you feel like your self-esteem is hitting rock bottom, challenge that feeling, challenge that thought. Set your emotions aside for a while (although I know we’re talking about self-esteem here). But try to have an objective and logical mind about why you’re feeling that way.
Perhaps you’ve been too negative about almost everything, not just about yourself, for too long. Perhaps it has become your norm to look at life that way. If that’s the case, could it be a sign? Things might not change, but the way you take them might.
Adjust the damn rules and assumptions. Adjusting is changing. It’s subtle compromise. Note that there are common thought patterns a person with low self-esteem sticks to: all-or-nothing thinking, mental filtering, converting positives into negatives, jumping to negative conclusions, mistaking feelings for facts, and negative self talk.
All your life, low self-esteem might have caged you in, and then you decided to become free. You decided that enough is enough. You’re actually bigger than that.
It would take practice. Slowly adjust your rules and assumptions until such time you won’t think about them because you’ll then have a set of new ones—these are the ones you actually want living, they’re the ones that help.
Redefine failures. In case you’re forgetting, failures are essential to success. Failures aren’t failures in themselves. (That statement always seems to make no sense.) But failures are just moments that remind you to keep trying, and not stop.
All you need is one success for every ten failures, or one hundred, or a thousand. Who knows? Why should you stop when you can’t think of anything else you should be doing, and what you do is what makes you happy and fulfilled?
Look back at how you saw failures. Are they the culprit for your low self-esteem? Or were you only being too hard on yourself, when you know that many achievers have already been in your shoes, that only they didn’t quit?
I know failures can be hard. It can seem the end of it all, but it’s not supposed to be that way. You may get frustrated, take a break, or even jump ship (for another endeavor)—but you shouldn’t have a reason strong enough just so failures stop you from getting what you truly want.
3. Support your new and balanced core belief.
This is the stage in which you finally develop a balanced core belief (read: definitely better than low self-esteem!) about yourself. Note that at-risk situations will always show up from time to time, or most of the time, but don’t forget (especially at this point) that almost all of your beliefs in the past are just those stupid, unproven, unvalidated, made-up, and self-destructive beliefs.
And now that you start having a high(er) self-esteem, you also start engaging in what people with low-esteem do not: helpful beliefs, helpful rules and assumptions, and helpful behaviors. You evaluate and assess them, too, just as how you did with the darker chapters of the past.
You then go “no other way but up.” While not forcing it.
So don’t judge yourself if you think you screw up from time to time. As I said, change can be difficult, especially if you’re trying to change an unhelpful beliefs-rules-assumptions-behaviors system you’ve been living for many, many years.
Stand up when you stumble. Don’t think that whenever you slip up, you should always start over. Change is a continuous process. You are where you allowed yourself to change. It’s either you move forward, or back—but you’re never at square one. Keep that in mind.
Your old negative beliefs then slowly become a mere memory. However, don’t forget where you came from. You may have a better outlook about yourself, but you can use this particular kind of memory as an early warning device whenever you’ll face at-risk situations again. Forgive but never forget.
We become wiser this way. Through time. We better how we handle our emotions even though recalling the past. After all, it’s how we learn from mistakes, right?
4. Invest in your skills.
You learn skills in identifying and facing all these issues head-on. These skills could be dealing with the unhelpful stuff, or balancing your daily activities, or better yet, a specific new skill you’ve always wanted.
As you feel better about yourself, you’d want to develop and possess a particular set of skills that will help you attain the particular success you want.
Working your self-esteem is a never-ending process, but it only gets better if you commit to learning incessantly. Devoting yourself to improving your low self-esteem should make learning other meaningful things easier.
Like, really, it’s quite simple … Decide that you want to work on your self-esteem. When it’s better, learn skills even other people would be proud of. At this point, what would you still feel bad about?
5. What you would tell your best friend, tell yourself.
Now imagine for a while that it’s your best friend that’s going through a low point in their life. What would you tell them?
Remember that people with low self-esteem tend to think they don’t deserve anything awesome. That they need to go through some sort of suffering. In many ways, allowing low self-esteem to win is like disrespecting oneself.
And there lies the problem. You may be too critical or judgmental about yourself in trying to solve life’s problems, without even realizing it.
So then, when you think things could get worse, tell yourself what you would your best friend if they were going through the exact same things you are.
Would you tell them they’re weak? That they’re not working hard enough? That they’re not really being serious?
You probably would not, at least not yet. As their best friend, you wouldn’t be rude. You’d help them feel better. Do something that would divert their attention for a while.
You’d show them some love.
In the same way, watch how your self-talk goes. Being self-critical could distort your perception of a situation, or of yourself, when in fact, it isn’t that bad.
I mean, a situation is a situation, alright. It may not get better at this point, but it could get worse if you’re only being critical of yourself that you don’t even notice you’re actually making great progress. A pat on the back is what you’d need then, not harshness!
Assessing and evaluating are fine. But constantly telling yourself you’re not up to snuff? That habit needs to stop. For let’s say in one day, how much time do you allow for just torturing yourself that way as if you deserve it? Multiply that by seven for the week, 30 for the month, 365 for the year … you get it. You’d better be productive instead.
Love yourself. You could do that no matter the situation.
Think About It
It would be perfect if there were no shitty stories in our lives. It would be just fine getting by if we didn’t have to deal with some painful experiences. Whether or not they could be avoided altogether, they just happened, and they could leave us scarred for life.
But then again, such is life. Cliché … I know. Apparently, life hands us lots of things we don’t want … but do we need them?
Well, I don’t know whether that should warrant all the low self-esteem in the world.
But still, we learn. All the tips we read or hear may only sound superficial, but they can actually hold very true when we’re in the trenches trying to remember and apply them.
Self-esteem is a sensitive and beautiful thing. I believe it can even push one to do things—great things—one hasn’t even imagined. Self-esteem has that magical influence on the mind that pushes the body to move. The drive to fight low self-esteem is perhaps even the same one that pushes us to do things meaningful.
And each of us has that one thing that means the world to us. It deserves our attention.
(Top image: Laura Hadden)