What self-esteem is, how it develops and what influences it has kept psychologists busy for a long time, and whilst a definitive understanding continues to elude us, there’s a general agreement that self-esteem refers to the hidden thoughts, feelings and beliefs you have about yourself. Note that this is different to self-confidence, which is based more on external measures of success and value. One can have high self-confidence, particularly in a certain area or field, but still lack a healthy sense of overall self-esteem.
How we perceive ourselves directly affects the ways in which we navigate life, giving either a solid or shaky foundation, and problematically low self-esteem means living life with a perception of inferiority, operating from a place of ‘I’m not good enough’, that can and often does sabotage your ability to flourish.
In my clinical approach, I believe that for therapy to be truly effective and create lasting change, we’ll need to build a nuanced understanding of the ways in which you see yourself. To get a sense of whether your self-esteem is in a good place, use the following common manifestations of the belief ‘not good enough’, which I have taken from my clinical practice, to reflect on your attitude towards yourself.
If you do not believe you are fundamentally ‘good enough’, you’ll be likely to think that everyone else is doing a much better job than you.
You find it hard to directly express your needs
This could mean telling others that you are annoyed with them, that you want someone to be more emotionally available to you or even simply that you feel you deserve a wage rise. If you find it hard to believe that others will want to please you or meet your needs, then instead of pursuing what brings you joy, it’s likely that you will bury what’s authentic and express what you believe is safe. This can mean that others experience you as passive or passive-aggressive, as directly asserting yourself feels too risky.
Whilst most of us do not relish confrontation, it takes self-belief to be different and stand out when expressing an opposing opinion. You’re aware even the idea makes you feel anxious, so you are likely to avoid it altogether, or dilute the message to minimise perceived risk.
You struggle to establish boundaries in relationships
Boundaries are a way for us to take care of ourselves, and limit potential feelings of resentment, anger and disappointment that come if we allow others to overstep the mark. Boundary areas include physical, emotional and sexual, but also intellectual concerning your beliefs and your expectation that they will not be dismissed. A lack of boundaries can leave you exhausted thanks to having to deal with consequences, and more vulnerable to remaining in a one-sided, abusive or co-dependent relationship.
You frequently self-doubt
We all second-guess ourselves at times, but it’s a problem if you’re often untrusting of your judgment
and fall heavily on the opinions of others to make decisions.
You’re highly sensitive to criticism
This often leads to extended periods of rumination, as you try to work out if someone did indeed mean to undermine or challenge you.
You pretty much always reject compliments
Ok, so you might just be acting humble, but frequently rejecting forms of flattery instead of saying thank you tends to mean you don’t believe those things are true.
You regularly insult yourself
Perhaps you call yourself names, either internally or in conversation with others, because you made a mistake or perceived that you made a social error. In practice, when I highlight this tendency to clients they are usually surprised as they’d assumed that everyone does it! However it’s a big no-no for our self-esteem.
You have a habit of comparing yourself to others
We are a social species with social mentalities, so we all notice others to some extent, particularly if we have a competitive streak and want to gauge how we’re measuring up. However if you do not believe you are fundamentally ‘good enough’, you’ll be likely to think that everyone else is doing a much better job than you, particularly if it’s a new-ish skill.
You don’t try incase you fail
Failure can be especially tough if you have low self-esteem as you tend to experience more shame. So it’s understandable that if the consequent guilt and shame makes you want to crawl under a rock, you’ll avoid putting yourself in that vulnerable place.
Given the above, it shouldn’t therefore be a surprise that various studies have confirmed that self-esteem has a direct relationship with our overall well-being, so it’s good to note that an inability to be our bestest cheerleader is not fixed. It is measurable and malleable, meaning we can test for and improve it.
Whilst strong self-esteem is not a panacea that will fix all of your problems, or help you sail smoothly through a life free of struggle and suffering, it will help you find the courage to try new things, build the resilience to bounce back from failure and make you more susceptible to success. It’s not about pushing yourself harder, and it’s definitely not about beating yourself into submission. Low self-esteem doesn’t just go away with positive thinking and pretending you feel better about yourself than you really do tends to be unsustainable. So instead of brushing it off or shaming yourself for your experience, how about changing the aim to one of increasing self-acceptance? Harness a curiosity about yourself and find the approach that has strategies that move you towards positive change.