A person with low self-esteem feels unworthy, incapable, and incompetent. In fact, because the person with low self-esteem feels so poorly about him or herself, these feelings may actually cause the person's continued low self-esteem.
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Many people look in the mirror and see someone they don’t like very much. They see faults, flaws and failures. They feel shame, embarrassment and maybe even anger toward themselves.
Part of the reason some people have poor self-esteem is a discrepancy between expectations and reality (though this reality is usually distorted). According to Ryan Howes, Ph.D, psychologist, writer and professor in Pasadena, California, “Deep down we’ve all constructed an idea of who we ‘should’ be: how we should look, act, think, feel and be regarded by others.”
Not meeting these “shoulds” can have a negative impact on self-esteem. “When we fail to match those standards, one response may be frustration, anger or even hatred for the parts of ourselves that don’t measure up,” he says.
The Origin of Self-Esteem Struggles
Low self-esteem can result from a variety of factors, according to Celeste Gertsen, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Port Jefferson, Long Island, who specializes in helping people overcome self-esteem struggles. “Low self-esteem can stem from problems in the family, societal problems (such as poverty or discrimination) or an internalization of loss,” she says.
It can develop at a young age. “It starts early, as soon as we’re old enough to know our own name,” Howes says, possibly sparked by the desire to get our needs met. As he explains, all of us have a need for “attention, love, safety, affirmation and belongingness.”
We learn that we have some control over getting these needs met. When these needs aren’t met, however, we look for reasons why. Howes gives the example of getting rejected by a friend. Some people automatically assume that the rejection is personal, either because they weren’t charming enough or are just flawed in general. (In reality, there are many reasons for rejection. A person might be “… choosing the wrong type of friends or basing the friendship on something negative like substances or gossip,” Howes says, or it may be simply a matter of poorly developed social skills.)
“String together enough of these beatings and I’ll begin to blame my poor social skills for my loneliness — the beginning of self-hatred,” Howes says.
Why Some People Struggle But Not Others
Regardless of their experiences, some people seem to struggle more than others with their self-esteem. Why? According to Howes, a shaming environment may be one explanation.
In shaming environments, individuals internalize the idea that if they act out, they’re not just behaving badly, but they are bad, Howes says. “A boy sneaks a cookie from the cookie jar — is he told that is the wrong behavior, or that he’s a bad boy? If the message that you are fundamentally bad is drilled in enough times, it tends to stick.”
And this belief that you’re bad at your core colors your entire perspective on life. “Good things that happen to them are a fluke, bad things are what they truly deserve and end up reinforcing their shame,” Howes says.
According to Gertsen, “some people internalize negative events, see negative events as permanent and all encompassing (global) while others see [one] as temporary and don’t internalize the negative event.”
Alternatively, believing that you’re a generally good person who makes mistakes helps you to accept your flaws and work on them, Howes explains.
Thus, adjusting a distorted perspective is crucial in working through self-esteem issues. “When people can take a non-distorted look at themselves, they’ll see they’re like everyone else, with strengths and weaknesses,” Howes says.
Challenges & Strategies to Build Self-Esteem
“Trying to help someone accept that they are OK can be as difficult as telling them what they always thought was the color green is actually red,” Howes says. Initially, it seems unthinkable: “It just can’t be.”
Low self-esteem and its accompanying distorted perspective also can serve as an anti-anxiety strategy that brings comfort. “In a way, self-hatred is a system they’ve known and one that has worked,” Howes maintains. People might think, “If it’s always my fault, I don’t have to confront anyone or feel ill will toward others,” even though asserting your boundaries and being able to communicate effectively with others are essential tools for healthy relationships.
Similarly, for some, taking an accurate look at their limitations and even strengths can be sobering. Since “self-acceptance doesn’t mean whistling a happy tune and feeling great all the time,” Howes says, some people may be wary of assessing their attributes. “Both [strengths and weaknesses] could mean we have some work to do — using our talents or working on our shortcomings.”
When working with clients to improve their self-esteem, Gertsen also runs into various challenges. Clients might lack social support, repeat behaviors that create negative results or dismiss or not appreciate their positive qualities.
Fortunately, there are many ways to bolster self-esteem. Howes helps his clients “gain some perspective and see that while they may have work to do in one area (procrastination or physical health, for example), they have many other qualities of equal or greater importance (intelligence, loyalty, kindness, for example).”
Doing charitable work also can help someone chip away at their low self-esteem, because, according to Howes, “It’s hard to simultaneously hold onto self-hatred when you’re actively engaged in acts of charity.”
He says that it’s tougher for people to rationalize that they’re terrible if they’re helping others, thereby helping to quell negative self-talk. “When people begin to care for others they’re doing, feeling and creating goodness. It’s difficult to rationally say ‘I made three people’s lives better today, but I’m no good.’”
Gertsen says that positive psychology offers many techniques for building self-esteem. She suggests finding people “who support your growth and development,” seeing a counselor, problem-solving what you can change, accepting the things you can’t, finding activities that you love and engaging in them regularly and reducing “physical stress with meditation and exercise.”