Self-esteem: Working on the most important relationship of all

Much has been written about self-esteem and how we evaluate ourselves, yet many people remain locked in a fraught and fragile relationship with the one constant we have in our lives: ourselves.


Why is this? Why do self-worth, self-confidence and a sense of peace about who we are seem so elusive? The issue is multi-layered, but I can tell you that a better relationship with yourself is entirely possible and worth exploring.

How does low-self esteem affect us?

I would like to start at the end and work backwards. How does low self-worth affect us? I mean does it really matter? The answer is a resounding yes, it really can seep into so many aspects of our lives. When our self-worth is low, we can experience a raw sensitivity, like our skin is paper thin and the merest touch feels like pain. In the same way, life experiences and the words or actions of others can leave us with doubts, wounds, and messages about ourselves that cause us to experience feelings of low self-worth.

Then there is the spectatoring on ourselves – this is when instead of looking outward and being engaged and present, we are looking back at ourselves, with doubt, self-consciousness, fear and criticism.

What we don’t always realise is that it is us shining the torch so brightly in our faces, it is us over-observing ourselves and it is us who can redirect this anxious gaze back into the world where we can engage and connect, living in freedom and spontaneity - instead of fear and self-loathing.

Spectatoring on ourselves is linked to the role of the ego. The ego is the 'I'. Most of us when thinking of the ego, think of egotism (an inflated sense of self) but we are all aware of our ‘I’ and wired to protect it. Seeking acceptance and belonging are biological imperatives linked to our survival. Therefore, feeling on the outside of things, feeling unacceptable or unwanted can cause intense fear and pain.

How does low self-worth develop?

From infancy through adulthood, we all experience times of rejection, criticism, shame and humiliation. For some people who are neglected or abused, this can be especially impactful but so too can ‘small’ experiences, such as a telling-off from a teacher, a romantic rejection, or a hurtful playground remark.

As our being acceptable and accepted is so deep-rooted in survival, even seemingly innocuous experiences can trigger the fight, flight, freeze response. This can become stored in the brain, ready to become activated at the first hint of us being judged or rejected again. And so the pattern forms, the safety-seeking behaviours begin – avoidance, anger, defiance, over-self-monitoring, self-consciousness and an inability to be present.

How can we heal low self-worth?

Self-compassion is the cornerstone of recovery. When we can come to ourselves with kindness, compassion and care, we begin to deactivate and soothe our anxious parts. We need to be good to ourselves, we are good to others, right? Why do we find it so hard to turn that care and attention to ourselves?

Learning to be self-compassionate is a discipline, something to be learned and practised. We have grown up in a society that has sometimes viewed self-care and self-compassion as vain and indulgent. Please shake off this belief if it is one you hold. When we are grounded and secure in our own being, we are our best selves to meet others, so if you really do struggle to extend kindness to yourself, try it in the knowledge that all of your relationships will benefit.

How to begin the self-compassionate journey

Here are some ways to be self-compassionate.

List five things you really like about yourself.

These don’t need to be things you display all of the time, but qualities you know you hold. Be aware should a critical voice arrive to challenge you on these things. Meet this critical part of you with gentle words and return your attention to your list.

List five things that soothe your nervous system

This might be a walk, a chat with a friend, a pamper session, watching a funny film, or even making a cup of tea. Really try and identify those times you feel most at peace or energised.

Practising self-compassion

Now it is time to practice self-compassion. When you feel low, misunderstood, or less than, remind yourself of the qualities you hold alongside the parts of yourself you are less comfortable with. Meet all of yourself with kindness. By all means, learn the lessons that you need to grow, and be accountable for your mistakes, but don’t live there. Keep things moving.

Make a point of self-soothing, making a conscious decision to practice something that brings you peace and comfort and do this in a mindful and deliberate way. Practice this daily.

Shame and the body

Shame rests in our bodies. In the tension we hold when in a group of people, in the butterflies we feel when we receive unwanted attention, in the way we hold our breath or hyper-ventilate when we are afraid. From blushing to self-harm, our bodies are the vessels through which shame moves. And it is in our bodies we can find calm and connectedness.

When you are experiencing stress or anxiety, check in with your body. What sensations are you feeling? Where is the tension or anxiety being held? Breathe into your body, soothe the areas that are feeling the emotion and offer compassion to those parts.

Colour breathing is a great way to achieve this. When tension or anxiety is present, imagine breathing in a mist of colour; purple, blue, yellow, whatever colour feels comforting to you. Breathe this mist in through your nose, allowing it to glide through every inch of your body. Exhale through your mouth at a slow and steady pace.

Be mindful

Anxiety about who we are rests in our thinking. Overthinking leads to over-analysing, and then we can get caught in an inner dialogue that goes around on repeat. We can step right outside of that by bringing mindful attention to what is. Focus your attention outwards, be present with what is around you, whatever it is that you are doing or who you are talking to. Practice doing things with mindful intent instead of living in your head.

Finally, recognise the shared humanity of being in existence. We are complex creatures all trying to find a way to belong and connect and relate to one another. No one has it all figured out, so don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve got this.

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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Margate, Kent, CT9
Written by Olivia Oven, Dip. MBACP Online Counselling and Psychotherapy
Margate, Kent, CT9

Counselling and Psychotherapy

Olivia is a professional Counsellor working online throughout the UK, supporting people in recovery from trauma, difficult relationships, anxiety and low self-esteem

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