The Problem of Low Self-Esteem and How to Change it

Carrying low-self esteem around all your life is like trying to go on a long, hilly walking adventure and going out with a 20kg weight in your rucksack when other people have packed light. You’re not going to enjoy the trip as much as the others; you may lag behind and be more tired when you reach the peaks, and you are likely to compare yourself negatively to others if you don’t. As we shall see, you can choose to change your level of self-esteem and either eliminate or massively reduce the load.

Do you really believe that you deserve good things in your life?  If not then you are probably suffering from low self-esteem. You may be surprised how many people who outwardly look very confident, successful or both are suffering from low self-esteem underneath. For instance, think of all the well known and “successful” people who have become addicts of one sort or another. Addiction to one thing or another (drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, work, control) is often one of the most obvious signs of low self-esteem, since it allows a hiding or avoiding place from dealing with feelings of self-dislike.

Some people suffer from chronic low-self esteem, and it is then an ever-present problem in most things that they do. It might not be the first things that people indicate as a problem in their lives, but it is insidious – so, often people who come to counselling with one problem or another end up talking about their low self-esteem at some stage. Low-self esteem is often like a bedrock - a problematic base to other life issues. Normally, these issues won’t be fully resolved until some work is done on self-esteem. For other people, self-esteem can vary at different times as a result of experiences and relationships: good ones can help build up self-esteem - a string of bad ones can herald a self-esteem nose-dive. 

What Causes Low Self-Esteem?

“Self-esteem is the reputation we acquire with ourselves.” Nathaniel Branden

Sometimes we hold false beliefs about ourselves that we do not question. We think of them as facts and not as opinions, even if other people question us when we express them. Low self-esteem can become a vicious circle where the more we believe we are not worthy, the more it feels true, or the more things go wrong in our lives. 

Often low-self esteem springs from early relationships with our parents or siblings. Perhaps we were sent the message that we weren’t important, perhaps we were ignored, neglected or abused and internalised the message that it was our fault. Many people develop low-self esteem after being bullied at school (even though statistics show that most people are bullied at one time or another); others find that their first romantic or work relationships were hurtful, controlling or destructive in some way or other. Sometimes a number of bad experiences can have a cumulative effect on how we think of ourselves; sometimes an incident from the past can trigger low self-esteem in the present.

How You can Change Things 

None of the above is to suggest that it is easy change how you feel and think about yourself. It is no small thing to alter patterns of self-esteem and you cannot just throw a switch or go to one session of therapy and change it forever. What you can do though is begin. Begin by being aware and accepting that you have a problem and by valuing yourself and your future happiness enough to want to change it. The words of the Buddha are apt here: “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” 

To start to change things, try focusing on your positive strengths. List 10 achievements and ten good qualities that you have – if you find this difficult that may in itself be a sign of low self-esteem - ask a trusted friend and you may be surprised by the results. Incidentally, I am not suggesting that you swing heavily the other way and become all puffed up, egotistical and even narcissistic (narcissists have deep down low self-esteem, in any case). Having good and deep self-belief is none of those things. You might also try looking at your negative beliefs, asking yourself if they are useful and where they come from. You might ask what you would rather focus on instead.

People with high self-esteem have better self-love and it is well said that if you can love yourself you can love others better. As Ayn Rand said, “The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.” Those with better self-esteem will not only find that others start to treat them better, but also, and sometimes more importantly to their overall happiness, they will find that they treat others better, too. For instance, to give love confidently can be amongst the greatest joys of life.  

Counselling and Some Books to Help

Going to Counselling can help you change your patterns of low self-esteem. Indeed, just deciding to go in the first place is a personal statement that you value yourself and would like to improve things for the better. A therapist can help you to highlight what your negative patterns are when it comes to your self-concept. You might find it useful to discuss and work through past experiences – even if they are painful, you can perhaps lay some old ghosts and forgive yourself and others and move on. The past cannot be changed but how you think about it and how you approach the future can be.

Acceptance is the most vital thing. When we love someone unconditionally, we accept that they have weaknesses and will occasionally mess up or even hurt us, but we still love them.  Start to believe that about yourself – you are worthy of it! You may feel that you have room for improvement – and indeed you might, but then again, who doesn’t? As I often say to my clients, “saints are thin on the ground.”

Finally, there are many good books around about helping your self-esteem, but I have found these two to be particularly useful:

Taming Your Gremlin – Rick Carson

Ten Days to Great Self Esteem – Dr David Burns

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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Congleton, Cheshire, CW12 4WB
Written by David Seddon, MA Couns, BA Philosophy, MBACP Accrd - couples & individuals
Congleton, Cheshire, CW12 4WB

I specialise in working with relationship issues, anger, depression, anxiety and bereavement. I have a good track record for helping people improve relationships, change behaviours and reach a happier and better life. I'm a warm, supportive listener who is committed and passionate about assisting pe...

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