“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
We live in a world mellifluous of opposites, and a vast array of diverse people with different characteristics: the rich-poor, the lazy-active, the introverted-extroverted.
We, ourselves, are at a blossoming age where we are developing our sense of personal identity and our confidence about what kind of person we are. Our identity is important to us, as young people, as it is a way of outwardly expressing our individuality and developing ourselves into who exactly we want to be. Therefore confidence plays a huge role in how we handle ourselves, and conceptualise our beliefs about our potential abilities.
Narcissism has been found to be on a steady incline (30% in the last 30 years), with young people having the tendency to over-estimate their abilities and to love themselves… a bit too much. With the up-rise of the ‘selfie’, the extravaganza of ‘I’m clearly better than you’ and youth grandiose delusions, I can actually say, ‘I kind of saw that coming’. On the opposite side of scale, several young people experience a much lower self-esteem and hardly love themselves at all. Though I am not an avid fan of extreme narcissistic qualities and would like to pray that there is still hope in the expression of modesty amongst our generation – low self-esteem can undoubtedly be very damaging to a person compared to over-confidence.
So, as a topic that is both relevant to my personal journey and one that I frequently teach in therapy for individuals accessing mental health services, I ask - what is self-esteem?
In a nutshell: Self-esteem is our ability to value ourselves and is not a solid, or fixed view.
It involves our beliefs and opinions about the kind of person that we are, which affects the things we do and how we go about doing them.
Positive(and of course, moderate) self-esteem is a route to better overall wellbeing, allowing yourself to do and try the things you want to achieve. Negative self-esteem can prevent you from reaching your potential (by making you more inclined not to try the things you want to do), as you focus more on your weaknesses or the mistakes you have previously made.
For an overview of self-esteem, refer to McLeod's article (2012).
The human self is, in my opinion, fluid. We have the ability to filter (or bias) information, especially about ourselves, and is subject to our reactions to experience. People form their personality and how they are from the reactions they’ve had to events – so, in the heart of life’s challenges, some people may have their self-esteem either strengthened or shattered depending on their reaction to that very event or a series of occurrences. Nobody is the same. Some people appear to have it easy, exuding an air of budding confidence and ‘having it all together’; whilst others’ view of themselves are as fragile and subject to change like standing on a frozen lake made of brittle ice.
As I’ve so often mentioned before, young people face a turbulent time of challenges and lessons, familiarities and exoticism in the big, fat world around us – and self-esteem is something that can change how we access our potential for great things.
The gist of self esteem
Our self-esteem is governed by the thoughts we have in response to a given situation. For example, we could either have a positive or negative thought response when something happens in our lives.
Obviously, our thoughts act as a buffer determining what actions or behaviours we have in these situations. Positive thinking is a more favourable and healthy method, as opposed to the above demonstrated ‘questionable narcissism’, which is… well, I’ll leave that to your opinion. More positive thoughts after a negative event are truthfully-made statements (not to be mistaken as an ‘excuse’ for your actions) which can pull us through to carry on after a tough situation and instigate us to be a lot more productive than we would have been after negative or narcissistic thinking.
Negative (and yes, even narcissistic) thoughts can leave us demotivated and unwilling to persist or change our actions during these tough situations – and ‘low and behold’ these thoughts are often biased and inaccurate. So yes, to any narcissistics out there, I apologize… but you are probably not one of the most special people living on this Earth (unless you actually are, then this statement doesn’t apply to you).
Negative thoughts are a normal and understandable reaction to such events, as most people will feel down when the outcome of the situation isn’t comparable to the value of their efforts. The best way through this is to acknowledge that these feelings occur, are temporary and are often untrue, so that you can challenge your thinking in order to become more resilient and to be able to more easily get back up from the stresses of life.
The most common mistakes that people have to negatively bias their thinking is to:
‘Someone didn’t say ‘Hi’ back to me, maybe they hate me. Maybe they look down at me or think I’m stupid.’
‘I failed this essay, I’m not going to get a good grade ever again. I’m never going to pass my degree.’
- Ignore positive information:
‘Someone just complimented me on my looks, but they are probably just lying or being nice because they pity me.;
- Seeing everything as ‘All or Nothing’:
‘If I can’t even hold a conversation then I must be a complete loser.’
- Attempting to mind read other people or foretell the future:
a) Mind reading: ‘My friend has been a bit quiet after coming back from work, did I do something wrong or upset them?’
b) Foretelling: ‘If I try to talk to new people, they’ll make fun of me and I’ll end up looking like a fool.’
We experience cognitive distortions all the time, even when we don’t initially realise – for a full list of these thought processes click on this PDF.
Changing your self-esteem
1. Identify the roots of your self-esteem:
Obviously, not everyone has a deep set history of why they experience lower self-esteem… but we live in a high standard and judgemental world. The values and unspoken rules we run by is making it harder for human beings to achieve the ideals that are beyond realistic reach. Lower self-esteem can derive from the symbols and images in society that we see daily, dictating the expectations from us in relation to the desirable body image, appearance, social life, as well as educational and career achievement.
On a more personal front, negative experiences can threaten or damage our self-esteem, and can really knock us back when we are so feverishly trying to solidify our sense of personality and self-identity. Previous experiences such as, criticism from others, neglect, punishment, failure, being different, peer pressure, work pressure and hardship can all contribute to a sense of de-valued self-importance.
Figuring out the roots of your self-esteem via these experiences and accepting the conclusions that you have created of yourself are an understandable reaction to your personal life experience – the only thing to do is to challenge these beliefs. Become better from these experiences, learn from them, persist in spite of them.
Any judgements are not facts about you, and they can be altered.
2. Identify which areas you need to improve on:
Take a moment to imagine that different areas of life are represented by different bubbles in your atmosphere. The amount of self-esteem you have is not constant and stuck simply in the giant existence of your life, but fluctuates in intensity across these separate areas, as well as in different stages of life and for the different situations you find yourself in. As an example, I may feel more confident towards my friends, but clumsy and awkward around new people. I may feel competent regarding my educational achievements, but feel apprehensive in my job. Noticing which areas of your life you feel more concerned about can highlights key areas to focus your change in thinking – so if you feel like your social life is a problem area for you, it’s obvious to work on this area than applying your focus on an area you are already confident in.
3. Recognise the consequences of lower self-esteem:
So you know why you have the self-esteem you have and the reasons why they came into being, the next little thing to do would be to recognise the consequences of your thoughts so that you can facilitate proactive behaviour and change. The consequences of lower self-esteem can affect various areas that are particular to you, for example:
- Personal relationships:
Lower self-esteem can make an individual more inclined to form damaging relationships, rather than healthy ones. Some people feel as if they don’t deserve to be treated with love or respect, and enter relationships with people who have as a low a view of them as they have of themselves.
- Social life:
Lower self-esteem can cause an individual to be overly sensitive to criticism and rejection from others. They may not reach out to make friends with new people or avoid activities that can potentially expose them to judgement, eventually leaving them feeling isolated and frustrated.
Individuals who believe that they are incompetent or unintelligent can struggle in the workplace as they avoid tasks or responsibilities which they don’t feel comfortable doing, or overstress trying to create the perfect piece of work. People who don’t think they are good enough are less likely to try for interviews or applications for employment.
Negative thoughts tend to keep you in the same position you are in now and can eventually confirm the negative views you have about yourself – this way, you create a direct consequence in response to these beliefs and have a less chance of coping with a similar situation the future. By expecting the worst, you tend to react badly to situations and intensify your low expectations over time. Please refer to the vicious cycle of negativity below:
With a little thought, it’s easy to see how our own beliefs affect the way we behave – even small things like our posture, eye contact or excessive observation of details are all a result of the self-esteem we have in that situation. These parts of our behaviour, like not speaking up or trying new things, are ways of protecting ourselves from being exposed to our fears – focus on small parts that you feel you can tackle to change, and later the bigger change will fall into place.
If you are willing to try, making changes won’t be easy. You need to be open to take risks, step out of your comforts and perhaps, face some failures and disappointments. Accept these as a part of the learning process, keep on making small changes and begin to test out how to act differently in new situations. You’ll never know if the grass is greener on the other side, if you don’t make an effort to get there.
4. Changing your beliefs:
So the final, and ever-existing part of my blog posts, are a set of top tips in tackling the little (and often unthought-of) niggling monster of lower self-esteem. Taking the small steps in challenging your beliefs can inevitably, motivate you to try and try again even in the roughest, toughest bad-boy situations that leave feeling down in life:
- Take the time to think about your problem:
In order to change your beliefs, you ultimately have to recognise and understand your negative beliefs. Think about what your weaknesses are, the consequences of these and why you might have started to feel like this in the first place. Knowing and accepting the path that formulated your negative views about yourself will help you target what areas need to be changed and how.
- Challenge your thoughts, like a lawyer in a courtroom:
When you have identified what negative beliefs you have, rationalise it and gather an evidence base to challenge the statements you make (like trying to convince the jury inside your own head). You could even write them down so that you have that list as solid proof when you are feeling in the dumps about your competency – for example, if you feel unattractive, note down when you receive a compliment, or if you feel like your work isn’t good enough, make note of all the great pieces of work you’ve made before.
- Try a positive thinking exercise:
Write down things that you like about yourself, or think about your best features. Think about things you’ve achieved, skills or talents you have (or others have noticed). Often when we are experiencing low self-esteem, we see ourselves in a blind sighted, one dimensional way and ignore any positive experiences we have previously had. These lists have been known to be helpful to look back on to boost confidence on a bad day or when you are feeling nervous about an upcoming situation.
- Take up a good, old hobby:
If said this way too many times, but taking up an old or even a new hobby can often open some things about yourself that you never realised before. It expresses some positive qualities which may have gone unnoticed before, and can challenge the thought that you don’t have much good qualities about yourself.
- Be a ‘sweetie-pie’ to yourself:
Using kinder language towards yourself is something I teach a lot during placement and is a really effective way of changing your mentality. Rather than putting yourself down and being harsh to yourself, imagine you are giving advice to a good friend or explaining something to a child – but using the same words for yourself. You wouldn’t tell a friend or a child that they were ‘stupid’ or ‘incompetent’ if they were having a bad day, so why should it be any different for you? Though it may sound silly, this kind of self-talk often provides reassurance and motivates positive action, as opposed to keeping yourself in a dark hole you don’t want to be in.
- Bask in the glory (a little):
Don’t just brush off or ignore any praise you get, and then live in a little cave of feeling worthless and unvalued. Accept the praise you do get, remember it when you aren’t feeling so great and also, give yourself praise for the things you have achieved to spur you on when you think you’re down in the mud.
- Dump the critic:
Look at the people you surround yourself with on a daily basis and how they make you feel. If there is a particular person who constantly makes you feel rubbish about yourself, then why should you have to spend so much time with them? If all they do is judge you in a negative (and not constructive) way, then they probably don’t care – and you shouldn’t care too. Spend more time with people that make you feel good about yourself and support you to be better. In the event that you are your biggest critic, try to dump the part of you that isn’t very helpful in letting you do the things you want to do and guess what, you may be more willing to do the things…you want to do.
- Be assertive:
Set yourself goals (small, realistically achievable goals that can fuel-start you and have a meaning for you), these will eventually lead up to you being able to step out of your comfort zone and confront situations that are fearful to you. By communicating these to others, you will find you are often treated with mutual respect by taking the steps to do what you feel is right for you.
- And of course, the staple ‘don’t forget about your physical wellbeing’:
Regular and healthy sleep, eating and exercise goes undetected but can drastically change our mood and how we function in a short space of time. On the plus side, a healthier lifestyle, can also improve the image you have of yourself and will boost your sense of self-esteem.
Your personal sense of self, can be partly moulded by others judgements and perceptions of you. Remember that you can’t please them all and not to dwell too much on the negatives. Your self-esteem should be able what makes you feel better about yourself and how can use this to tackle with more difficult situations you come across in life. Nobody is happy and self-assured 24/7 – but creating the foundation for building your confidence will open the gateway for more successful outcomes in your relationships, social life and work experiences. Positive self-esteem promotes better emotional health, as you learn to cope better and are more willing to take life by the antlers (yes, I was trying avoid another cheesy saying) when you’re feeling the struggle.
Hopefully, you feel these tips are helpful in creating an improved resilience in the troughs and turbulence of student and working life – and that my tips aren’t so effective, I turn you all into a gang of narcissistics.