Low self-esteem: The broken record

We all have the broken record moment, when our self esteem is low. For some this can be more extreme, frequent or permanent than for others. Where does low self-esteem come from and how can we change the record?

We all carry in us a critical voice, which can give a running commentary full of frightening self doubt, unease, crushing condemnation and dissatisfaction. A voice, which has high standards and can never be pleased, is always on guard, which anticipates failure and humiliation.

It is a broken record, because it never allows peace and contentment. It is broken and if we listen and act on it, it will not protect us, but ultimately break us.

Where does this all come from? Our values, sense of self worth, our expectation of others, what we think they expect of us, the rules of interpersonal exchange, all that is defined by our childhood experiences:

  • the people we grew up with (especially the prime care givers like parents)
  • our social and cultural context
  • how people related to us and each other
  • how people modelled dealing with conflicts, self doubt, and love. 

Sometimes (but not necessarily) attitudes and difficulties are passed down from generation to generation, like anxiety, mistrust, or low self-esteem. 

Low self-esteem thrives on an environment with the following ingredients:

  • devoid of praise
  • where nothing is good enough
  • where achievement is not celebrated
  • where love is conditional and has to be earned
  • where conflict is dealt with by accepting fault and guilt, when it is not ours to accept
  • where we are told we are ugly
  • where we are told we are not good enough
  • where we are told we are not wanted
  • where we are told that we will never succeed.

Like mud, this all sticks, especially in an impressionable young mind, that believes that others (especially grown ups) are right, and that there must be something wrong with us. We start to identify with what we are told, and then expect our life to be full of evidence that others have been right about us.

Our minds start to get programmed with these beliefs, the record gets recorded, and it is already as broken as our sense of self worth and entitlement to be treated with love, respect and honest.

Some people are very skilled at covering up their lack of self worth. Surely, it is distasteful, arrogant and selfish to blow one’s own trumpet, be dominating, and self-satisfied with one’s achievements? But is that self-esteem? Others can become bullies and want others to experience the fear and failure they carry in their own hearts.

If self-esteem is a broken record, then most of us have a whole collection, a variation on the theme, a record for most occasions:

  • At work: Sooner or later people will find out you are an imposter, that you are no good, and make mistakes.
  • In relationships: If people do not like you, it is your mistake. You need to try harder. And by the way, you are not really likeable or loveable.
  • Regards your body: You are fat, skinny, ugly etc.
  • In social situations: You must be entertaining, intelligent, not look stupid. Nobody really likes you, and when you walk away, they will all laugh about you. Compliments are not to be trusted and accepted.
  • In therapy: You must get this right. Do not look foolish. Ultimately there are more deserving clients than you.

These are just some.

The recording is meant to keep us on our toes, to help avoid nasty surprises, to keep us safe. But because the recording is highly critical, and will always find something to complain about or warn us of, it becomes a drain on our energy. It limits positive thought and our belief in being good enough. Ultimately the voice controls us, and we lose the belief that we can make positive choices. The end result can be anxiety, anger issues and depression.

Counselling and therapy is about identifying our broken record (collection), understanding where it comes from, learning how to stop the record playing and setting upon making a new recording, which is reassuring and full of possibilities, which is supportive, reliable and realistic, which is constructive not destructive.

Changing the record may be hard, takes some exercise and determination. Initially, it may even feel uncomfortable and like a risk. But it can be changed, and the broken record finally laid to rest.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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