What maintains low self-esteem
Our beliefs about ourselves (core beliefs) can often emerge from early life experiences. As adults, there are things we do on a day-to-day basis that will keep these beliefs alive. The way we interpret our daily experiences, the unhelpful rules and assumptions we live by, and particularly, our responses to certain day-to-day situations, all serve to keep our negative core beliefs going.
We tend to pay attention to things we expect and interpret things in a way that is consistent with our expectations. As a result, we tend to remember things that happen that are consistent with our beliefs. So if your core belief is “I’m a failure”, it's likely you will focus on the times you make mistakes or don’t do something well. You ignore your successes, or play them down, and don’t acknowledge the times when you had done even an acceptable job. Your thinking is biased towards only those times that have confirmed your belief that you are a “failure.”
Unhelpful rules and assumptions keep your core belief alive. Unhelpful rules and assumptions like, “I must do everything 100% perfectly, otherwise I will fail” will affect how you behave. You will run yourself ragged trying to do everything perfectly, or keep your distance from others to avoid rejection, or not show anyone the true you in the hope that you will be liked. Restricting your behaviour like this means you don’t get an opportunity to put your negative core beliefs to the test and see if they are true. You never intentionally do a mediocre job and test if dire consequences follow. You never get close to others to see if you really would be rejected. You never express your opinion to see if people still accept you regardless. These rules make us behave in ways that are unhelpful to us. Essentially they stop us from putting ourselves ‘out there’ to see if the things we believe about ourselves are true or to see if the consequences we fear will happen.
Certain situations can reinforce your core beliefs if your rules and assumptions are broken. Such at-risk situations are always going to arise because our rules and assumptions are unrealistic. At risk, situations activate dormant low self-esteem and your core beliefs. Consequently, you are more likely to think that things will turn out badly or you become extremely critical of yourself. Thinking like this is likely to influence your behaviour. You might avoid doing certain things, try things out but quit when things get too difficult, take precautions to prevent a negative outcome, or withdraw from situations. These behaviours are unhelpful because they lead to negative unhelpful feelings (such as anxiety, frustration, depression, or shame), confirming your core belief and maintaining low self-esteem.
How might this work in practice? Let’s say that your negative core belief is, “I am incompetent,” and you believe you must do everything perfectly. As long as you follow your rule, you might feel okay about yourself, because your incompetence is hidden for the time being. However, let’s say you encounter a new and challenging experience. You are now in an at-risk situation for low self-esteem because your rule risks being broken. When this happens, your belief, “I am incompetent,” is activated. This might change your behaviour, you might overwork, procrastinate or over prepare. Or pull out completely if things get too difficult. Doing this can make you feel anxious, uncertain, and doubtful. Your biased expectations, unhelpful behaviours, and anxiety themselves may impair your performance, and if that happens this confirms to you that you were right – you really are incompetent.” Even if your biased expectations do not come true, by taking safety precautions, you might believe that everything is a “close call” this time and that you might not be so lucky next time. This too maintains your core belief. If your rule is actually broken, your response might be to criticise yourself. And doing this makes people more likely to isolate themselves, neglect themselves, become more passive and avoid doing enjoyable things, – all because they don’t think they deserve positive things. Thinking and behaving in this way is likely to make you feel depressed. One symptom of depression is negative self-talk, which will keep your core belief activated, and so your low self-esteem continues.