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Low self-esteem is characterised by a generally negative view of oneself. Your self-perception tends to be negative and critical. You might often ignore your strengths, achievements and good qualities in favour of focusing on mistakes, places you feel you are ‘lacking’ or ‘not good enough’. So, having a low self-esteem means that you broadly hold negative beliefs about yourself, and these beliefs impact your everyday life.
Low self-esteem can often start in childhood. It is usually the result of an accumulation of experiences. These experiences could be quite negative e.g. having a critical parent, experiencing bullying, experiencing abuse etc, or they could be characterised by a lack of something e.g. not being praised when you did well, not feeling that you were paid attention to or cared for etc. It is the accumulation of these kinds of experiences that formulate a core belief about yourself e.g. “I am not good enough”. Additionally, these experiences may not occur only in childhood but can start later on in life and this is how your belief about yourself could change to one that is negative.
While our life experiences do play an important role in self-esteem, we cannot forget genetic components and other compounding factors that might make someone more susceptible to negative thinking and low self-esteem. There is some evidence that self-esteem is heritable to some extent (Neiss, Sedikides & Stevenson, 2006) – which means that if your parents and grandparents had a tendency for low self-esteem you might also be ‘wired’ to think more negatively about yourself. Additionally, we should also consider mental health – during a depressive episode you can have quite a negative perception of yourself and the world and this would likely impact your self-esteem. Mental health factors are also linked to our genetics as well. Therefore, we can think about our self-esteem being an amalgamation of our inherited traits as well as our life experiences. Either way, there are things you can do to help.
Now that we have an idea of what low self-esteem is and how it develops, how do we know if we have low self-esteem?
Pay attention to the thoughts that you have throughout the day. Do you notice that you talk to yourself in a critical way? If you make a mistake, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Your thoughts are a big indicator of your core beliefs about yourself and the kind of stories that you tell yourself about your experience will likely maintain those negative beliefs.
Another indicator of low self-esteem would be in our everyday behaviour. Do you tend to avoid doing certain tasks or avoid certain situations? This is often a result of the negative and critical narrative that you hold about yourself. Maybe it feels easier to try to avoid making a mistake rather than experiencing the negative emotions that might arise if you do make one e.g. guilt, sadness, fear, anger…
Let’s look at an example of “Jane”:
Jane began to realise she had low self-esteem since she was a teenager. During this time she experienced bullying in school, and with the accumulation of negative experiences in social interactions Jane developed negative and critical beliefs about herself. Jane has also experienced social anxiety for many years now. She was able to understand this about herself by recognising how her thoughts, feelings and behaviours were impacting her on a daily basis.
For example, one day Jane went into work as usual and a co-worker stopped by her desk to have a chat with her – just some small talk about what she did on the weekend. Jane was able to notice the physiological signs of anxiety at the sudden encounter. She starts to feel a bit panicked and thinks that if she continues to have the conversation with her co-worker then she might say something embarrassing and get made fun of. Jane politely excuses herself from the conversation at the earliest opportunity. Jane then spends several minutes thinking about the interaction and all the ways in which her co-worker might have noticed she was anxious, thought that she was rude for ending the conversation quickly, and might not want to talk to Jane ever again.
In this example, we can see that Jane is quite critical of herself. She is worried about making ‘mistakes’ in social situations and we can see how this is impacting her thoughts and behaviour. She comes to negative conclusions about herself, such as “people think I’m rude” and “people do not want to talk to me” – if we take these a step further we could come to understand that at the core Jane believes “I am unlikeable”. This narrative will continue to impact Jane in future social interactions and Jane will most likely continue to avoid social situations if she does not address her underlying beliefs about herself. Additionally, we could also see how these experiences are maintaining Jane’s experience of anxiety.
From this example, we can see that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are key indicators of low self-esteem.
Now we understand what low self-esteem is and how we might be able to recognise it through noticing our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, let’s look at what we can do to have a more healthy self-esteem.
What do we mean by a healthy self-esteem? So, healthy self-esteem doesn’t mean having a totally positive perception of yourself. Healthy self-esteem means having a more balanced perception where you can accept weaknesses – the parts of you that you may want to change or find difficult to like – but you can also notice your strengths and good qualities rather than ignoring them to focus on the negative.
One way to tackle low self-esteem is through therapy. A therapist can help you to recognise your negative thoughts and beliefs and how this is impacting your behaviour. Through the process of therapy you can learn to recognise your unhelpful beliefs about yourself and work on creating a new, more balanced perception. One modality of therapy that may be particularly helpful with this is CBT, which focuses on changing our thoughts and behaviours.
As well as CBT, another avenue might be practising mindfulness. This can be a useful tool to increase your self-awareness. Without recognising your negative beliefs, it will be quite difficult to make any changes. There are many resources available online and through app stores to get you started on your mindfulness journey. Journaling is also a really great way to start.
Let’s return to our example of Jane:
Jane started going to therapy once she recognised how her thoughts, feelings and behaviours were impacting her life negatively. She was ready to make some changes. With the help of a therapist Jane was able to approach social situations with a new perspective.
Going back to Jane’s interaction with her co-worker, Jane used mindfulness (awareness of the present moment) and was able to recognise that she was stuck in her negative thoughts. One of the mindfulness tools that Jane learned to use is mindful meditation – she allowed herself to focus on her breathing and body sensations as well as noticing any thoughts that came to mind. She then tried to note down what she noticed after the exercise. After Jane took some deep breaths to address her anxiety, and once she was able to calm her body, she tried to look at the interaction with a more balanced perspective.
Jane was able to challenge some of her negative thoughts. She recognised that her co-worker initiated the interaction and therefore must have wanted to talk and interact with Jane – this opposes Jane’s original belief that no one wants to talk to her. Jane also looked back on how she acted during the interaction and there was nothing that she said or did that would be cause for embarrassment – so Jane could recognise that her worries were not based in the here-and-now but based on a hypothetical outcome. Jane was also able to see that by avoiding talking to her co-worker she is reinforcing her beliefs that social interactions are ‘bad’. So, Jane resolved to go talk to her co-worker at lunch in order to challenge herself and her negative core beliefs.
Jane was able to recognise more positive aspects about the interaction upon reflection and she was also able to start challenging her beliefs by choosing to behave differently and by choosing to stop avoiding social situations. Over time, the more Jane practises these techniques that she learned in therapy, such as cognitive restructuring and mindfulness, and the more she makes efforts to change her thoughts and behaviour with guidance from her therapist, the more Jane could improve her self-esteem and reduce her social anxiety symptoms.
If you feel ready to start your journey towards a healthier relationship with yourself and improved self-esteem, please do not hesitate to contact us to start therapy with one of our counsellors.
Fennell, M. (2016). Overcoming low self-esteem: A self-help guide using cognitive behavioural techniques. Hachette UK.
Michelle B. Neiss, Constantine Sedikides & Jim Stevenson (2006) Genetic influences on level and stability of self-esteem, Self and Identity, 5:3, 247-266, DOI: 10.1080/15298860600662106