Why people with low self-esteem experience anxiety
This article takes a look at some aspects of the relationship between low self-esteem and anxiety. Anxiety, as is now commonly known, is the emotion we feel when we are threatened and low self-esteem can be seen as a ‘threat’ to the individual and their ability to thrive and survive.
Low self-esteem is not like an ‘external’ threat. Rather it is an ‘internal’ threat where the individual, because of their negative self-image and associated negative behaviours, becomes a threat to themselves and their well-being. From the relatively minor e.g. always backing down in an argument and feeling second best, to the much more serious e.g. acts of self-harm because the person feels they deserve to be punished, low self-esteem is a very real form of threat.
Our emotional brain, whose job it is to alert us to threats, does not at a basic level distinguish between types of threat i.e. a threat is a threat regardless of its source or origin. However, if low self-esteem is not considered as a possible cause of someone’s anxiety then any attempts at dealing with it might potentially be unsuccessful. Concentrating on physical symptoms of anxiety and/or assumed or real external threats without considering low self-esteem might be detrimental to someone’s chances of recovery.
Low self-esteem, left alone, effectively places the person in a permanent fight, flight and freeze state - a permanent state of anxiety.
Past, present and future
A function of our emotional brains is to consider the relationship between our past, present and future. People with low self-esteem often have difficult or problematic pasts; pasts that are constantly woven into their present with all the implications this has for their futures. In this instance, anxiety is the emotional brain’s attempt to communicate with its ‘owner’ to do something about this negative, repetitive and, yes, threatening process. The longer it continues, the greater the levels of anxiety.
Neuroscience has identified parts of our brains whose job it is to go into our future and, based on an assessment of our present approach to life, determine the likely future ahead of us. If the conclusion is for a negative future then this is, again, a threat to us. The result is anxiety.
Perfectionism and anxiety
People with low self-esteem are often perfectionists because faced with constant disappointments they seek to deal with them through striving for perfection. This opens up what might be termed a ‘fantasy-reality’ gap i.e. the difference between how things are and how someone wants them to be. We all have a fantasy-reality gap, it’s just that they can be larger for people with low self-esteem. People with adequate levels of self-esteem are OK with who they are and what they do, so have no need to strive for the impossibly perfect.
High levels of anxiety ‘pour’ into this gap because perpetually striving for perfection, an ultimately impossible goal, can be a long-term threat to physical and mental health. Perfectionism can be exhausting and extremely demoralising if left unchecked.
The vicious circle of anxiety
As anyone who experiences anxiety will testify it is an unpleasant emotional state to be in. Understandably people seek ways out of this state, but when these attempts are problematic the anxiety becomes worse because the threat level has increased. The original threat – the low self-esteem – is now compounded by behaviours that often provide only a short-term escape from the anxiety. These typically include avoidant, addictive and obsessive-compulsive behaviours, all of which threaten the present and future well-being of the individual. A vicious circle of anxiety can be set in motion when people make understandable if unhelpful attempts to deal with it.
If you experience anxiety or know someone who does then I hope this article has been helpful in identifying a possible cause of this emotion that you may not previously considered.
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About Mark Evans
As a counsellor & coach in higher education I have an interest in the relationship between low self-esteem, anxiety and educational achievement. In my experience the students/clients I work with are often unaware of low self-esteem as a cause of anxiety.
I am a qualified Human Givens therapist & coach and work in higher education and business.