Self-esteem is the overall opinion we have of ourselves and our ability to live and lead our lives.
When my self esteem is good I feel great: I smile, engage with people, talk freely, express my feelings, laugh, love and live life to the full. However, when my self esteem is low it’s a very different picture. I worry about my appearance; I avoid contacting people, reduce my exercise, eat unhealthily, start mind reading and read people’s intentions incorrectly. It skews my perception to a negative view of myself and others. A really unhealthy place to be.
So to unravel how we end up in this uncomfortable place:
Our perception of ourselves is learned initially during our childhood by the experiences we have with people we come into contact with: our parents/carers, close family members, friends, neighbours, teachers and the media. They have a huge and vital influence over our lives as they sow the seeds of our self-esteem.
I was lucky and had a positive childhood but it didn’t protect me from developing low self esteem during a relationship. My significant other at the time was controlling and critical, both of which undermined my self esteem.
If you experience more negative criticism or very few positive comments at any age this tends to stick in your mind and affect the way you see yourself and your abilities. A bit like a fore gone conclusion, an expectation of failure is set up. Negative comments stand out and resonate for years to come. These take root and invade your mind so that when facing a challenge or change in life you may doubt your ability to cope and avoidance starts to creep in. It becomes rather a vicious cycle with the negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself, leading to a reduction in expectation and unwillingness to risk being wrong. You may make very relevant excuses for why you can’t do something.
For many people there is a low level background of feeling inadequate and assuming other people believe this too. Worry about what other’s think can stultify us into inaction. Keeping ourselves safely within the manageable confines we feel comfortable in – our comfort zone. Here we sit, wasting the infinite potential every human being is born with until we have a light bulb moment and suddenly see the light. We realise we have to change something if we are ever going to feel alive! Knowing what to change is the problem because by then it feels normal to feel negative and inferior.
There is a way forward:
The first step is to change the way you think. It has become a habit to think negatively about yourself, to hear the voice inside you saying ‘you cant do that, you cant cope, you’re not good enough. You have believed this for some time and it is a habit that has not been challenged. To change you need to weed out the negative thoughts and plant positive, kind and nurturing thoughts. To start treating yourself how you would treat your best friend. To become encouraging and supportive to yourself. Quite hard at first but with assistance totally manageable. Once started and practised like any new habit the pattern becomes established and a new you is able to emerge: now the seed can grow healthily and stand tall and proud.
Your positive thoughts will then create positive beliefs about yourself. The internal critic is eradicated and replaced by the inner truth that encourages you saying: You can do it, you are good enough’. Strengthened with these beliefs your behaviour is then changed. You dare to experiment and even if you don’t succeed immediately you are supportive, flexible and forgiving of yourself. You cut some slack and then try again. Knowing that you are as good as anyone else and deserve to enjoy your own potential. You then believe in yourself and what you can do.
Thankfully self-esteem is not fixed but changes throughout time due to internal and external influences. Ongoing maintenance of our self-esteem is essential to maximise our ability to live a full and meaningful life.