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Low Self-Esteem: What Does it Mean to Lack Self-Esteem?

What is Low Self-Esteem

low self-esteemLow self-esteem is characterized by a lack of confidence and feeling badly about oneself. People with low self-esteem often feel unlovable, awkward, or incompetent. According to researchers Morris Rosenberg and Timothy J. Owens, who wrote Low Self-Esteem People: A Collective Portrait, people with low self-esteem tend to be hypersensitive. They have a fragile sense of self that can easily be wounded by others.

Furthermore, people with low self-esteem are “hypervigilant and hyperalert to signs of rejection, inadequacy, and rebuff,” write Rosenberg and Owens. Often, individuals lacking self-esteem see rejection and disapproval even when there isn’t any. “The danger always lurks that [they] will make a mistake, use poor judgement, do something embarrassing, expose [themselves] to ridicule, behave immorally or contemptibly. Life, in all its variety, poses on ongoing threat to the self-esteem.”

While everyone’s self-esteem is vulnerable to other people, who may openly criticize them, ridicule them, or point out their flaws, I would argue that an even greater threat to each person’s self-esteem lurks within. Rosenberg and Owens explain:

“As observers of our own behavior, thoughts, and feelings, we not only register these phenomena in consciousness but also pass judgement on them. Thus, we may be our most severe critic, berating ourselves mercilessly when we find ourselves making an error in judgement, forgetting what we should remember, expressing ourselves awkwardly, breaking our most sacred promises to ourselves, losing our self-control, acting childishly—in short, behaving in ways that we regret and may deplore.”

This harsh inner critic, which Dr. Robert Firestone refers to as the Critical Inner Voice, contributes to a negative perceived self. Having a negative perception of oneself can have serious consequences. For example, if someone believes that other people don’t like them, they are more likely to avoid interactions with others and are quicker to react defensively, cynically, or even lash out. Rosenberg and Owen argue that “the nature and degree to which we interact with others is strongly influenced by these perceived selves, regardless of their accuracy. Indeed, our perceived selves represent one of the most important foundations on which our interpersonal behavior rests.” Furthermore, when we perceive ourselves negatively, whether we label ourselves awkward, unlovable, obnoxious, shy, etc., it becomes more and more difficult to believe that others could possibly see us in a positive light.

“In a nutshell, to have low self-esteem is to live a life of misery,” conclude Rosenberg and Owen.

Overcoming Low Self-Esteem

The good news is that it is entirely possible to overcome low self-esteem! There are two key components to combatting this negative self-image. The first is to stop listening to your critical inner voice. The second is to start practicing self-compassion.

Stop Listening to Your Inner Critic

 The critical inner voice is that internal observer that hurtfully judges our thoughts and actions. This nasty inner critic continually nags us with a barrage of negative thoughts about ourselves and the people around us. It decimates our self-esteem on a consistent basis with thoughts like…

“You’re stupid.”

“You’re fat.”

“Nobody likes you.”

“You should be quiet. Every time you talk you just make a fool of yourself.”

“Why can’t you be like other people?”

“You’re worthless.”

In order to overcome low self-esteem, it is essential that you challenge these negative thoughts and stand up to your inner critic. On PsychAlive, we have an entire section of articles, several Webinars and an eCourse devoted to this subject. The first step is to recognize when you start thinking these kinds of negative thoughts about yourself. Then, you can choose not to listen to your inner critic’s character assassinations or bad advice. It can be helpful to imagine how you would feel if someone else was saying these things to you; you’d probably feel angry and tell them to shut up or explain that they are wrong about you. Take this approach in responding to your inner critic.

One way to do this is to write down all your inner critic’s criticisms on one side of a piece of paper. Then write down a more realistic and compassionate appraisal of yourself on the other side. For example, if you write a self-criticism like “You’re stupid,” you could then write, “I may struggle at times, but I am smart and competent in many ways.”

Challenging your inner critic helps stop the shame spiral that feeds into low self-esteem. When you recognize the critical inner voice as source of your negative self-attacks, you can begin to defy this inner critic and see yourself for who you really are.

Start Practicing Self-Compassion

In many ways, the cure for self-criticism is self-compassion. Self-compassion is the radical practice of treating yourself like a friend! It is a wonderful way to build more confidence in yourself. Research has shown that self-compassion is even better for your mental health than self-esteem.

Dr. Kristen Neff, who researches self-compassion, explains that self-compassion is not based on self-evaluation or judgement; rather, it is based on a steady attitude of kindness and acceptance toward yourself. While this may sound simple, treating yourself with compassion and kindness may be challenging at first. However, you will develop more self-compassion as you practice over time.

Here are the three steps for practicing self-compassion:

1) Acknowledge and notice your suffering.

2) Be kind and caring in response to suffering.

3) Remember that imperfection is part of the human experience and something we all share.

You can find self-compassion exercises on Dr. Kristen Neff’s website.

How to Develop Self-Confidence

Research into self-esteem shows that both low and high self-esteem can create emotional and social problems for individuals. While high levels self-esteem can be linked to narcissism (read more here). Low levels of self-esteem can be linked to social anxiety, lack of confidence, and depression. The healthiest type of self-esteem is moderate self-esteem that is based more on valuing one’s inherent worth as a person and less about comparing oneself to others. In this sense, if your goal is to develop more self-confidence, it is better to focus on having high levels of self-worth rather than high levels of self-esteem.

I’ve written previously about building self-esteem and developing more confidence. In addition to challenging your inner critic and practicing self-compassion, here are a few other strategies for feeling better about yourself.

Stop Comparing Yourself to Other People

Looking to boost your confidence by measuring yourself against others is a big mistake. Dr. Kristen Neff explains, “Our competitive culture tells us we need to be special and above average to feel good about ourselves, but we can’t all be above average at the same time…There is always someone richer, more attractive, or successful than we are.” When we evaluate ourselves based on external achievements, other people’s perceptions and competitions, “our sense of self-worth bounces around like a ping-pong ball, rising and falling in lock-step with our latest success or failure.” Social media only exacerbates this problem, as people post their picture-perfect moments and shiny achievements, which we compare to our tarnished, flawed everyday lives.

In order to build a healthy sense of confidence, we need to stop comparing ourselves to others. Instead of worrying about how you measure up to the people around you, think about the type of person you want to be. Set goals and take actions that are consistent with your own values.

Live Up to Your Own Moral Code

Self-confidence and self-esteem are built on self-RESPECT. If you live a life that is in line with your own principles, whatever they may be, you are more likely to respect yourself, feel more confident, and even do better in life. For example, a study at the University of Michigan found that students “who based their self-esteem on internal sources–such as being a virtuous person or adhering to moral standards–were found to receive higher grades and less likely to use alcohol and drugs or to develop eating disorders.”

To feel good about yourself, it is important to have integrity and make sure that your actions match your words. For example, if eating healthy and looking your best are important values to you, you will feel better if you maintain a healthy lifestyle. When your actions don’t match your words, you are far more vulnerable to self-attacks. The inner critic loves to point out these shortcomings. It is valuable to think about your core principles and act in line with those beliefs when you are trying to boost your confidence.

Do Something Meaningful

As human beings, we tend to feel good about ourselves when we do something meaningful, taking part in activities that are larger than ourselves and/or helpful to others. This is a beautiful way to go about building confidence and developing healthier levels of self-esteem.

Studies show that volunteering has a positive effect on how people feel about themselves. Researcher Jennifer Crocker suggests that you find “a goal that is bigger than the self.” When pursuing meaningful activities, it is important to think about what feels the most significant to you. For some people, this may mean volunteering at a homeless shelter, tutoring children, taking part in local politics, gardening with friends, etc. Follow the breadcrumbs of where you find meaning, and you may find your self-esteem along the way.

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