‘We go through our lives either loving ourselves or hating ourselves with bursts of confidence and despair in between it all.’
Life is never as straight-forward as it is often depicted on forms of media: unlike character constructs in books, TV or movies, our personalities are not set for life by certain restrictions and life rarely ends in the ‘happily ever after’ scenario that is typical of fairy-tales: rather, as we grow and learn through whatever challenges reality throw at us, complex situations such as the entering and exiting of relationships and different phases throughout life such as going through puberty and the classic mid-life crisis can strongly alter our inner psyche.
What is self-esteem?
As well as dealing with trying to find our place in the world, we often have to strive to find confidence within ourselves as we battle with our inner neuroses, which is not always an easy task. Our perception of ourselves is what is referred to in clinical circles as ‘self-esteem’. Individuals that have a self-esteem which appears healthy are able to bounce back from negative experiences and are able to give themselves credit where credit is due. However, our self-esteem can become tarnished as a result of what life decides to spit at us, and the environment we are raised in is a key component to how we perceive ourselves throughout our adulthood. Unfortunately, not every home is a happy one and a low self-esteem can arise as a result.
How can the environment you are raised in affect your self-esteem?
Most parents mean well when they’re trying to bring you up, and they themselves are human and they are therefore capable of making many mistakes as there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to parenting. However, it’s also common for them to bring their own baggage into the relationship, and it may cause many things to go awry, particularly if they themselves have either strongly denied their baggage or are aware of it but haven’t given themselves permission to heal due to a sense of co-dependency, which I’ll discuss in more detail here. Some parents have more on their plates than others to deal with, and their lack of self-esteem and self-respect can (unfortunately) rub off onto their kids. Things can become further complicated if you live within a classically dysfunctional family when you are growing up: self-esteem can often be damaged through dysfunctional (co-dependent) or absent relationships as a measure to compensate for what you feel is missing by playing a certain ‘role’ in order to keep the peace.
What are the symptoms of a lowered self-esteem?
There is a range of symptoms associated with this condition. Additionally. there is a range to which your self-esteem can be lowered; the vast majority of us have a mildly lowered self-esteem at some point in our lives due to a loss of confidence within ourselves and our abilities, but usually we bounce back after a couple of days. However, there are more disturbing symptoms which arise as the condition becomes worse. Tragically, in severe cases, some people choose to resort to taking out their pain on themselves or others or worse, choose to end their own lives as a form of escape. It tends to appear more often within people that are perfectionists by nature: you can learn about perfectionism and its traits here.
Some of the symptoms of lowered self-esteem include the following:
- Having a perfectionistic attitude i.e. putting themselves down
- Inability to accept compliments from other people
- Relaying all credit from a project onto other people unnecessarily when you have played a part in it
- Having an inferiority complex i.e. using ‘luck’ or ‘fate’ as an excuse for their success rather than their own sense of worthiness
- Automatically blaming themselves for failures that are not necessarily their fault
- Using negative self-talk
How can a low self-esteem affect your quality of life?
There are multiple prongs of attack in which a lowered self-esteem can affect how you perceive life, and they include the following:
- Talking negatively about yourself
I know myself and a lot of other people have done this whilst looking in the mirror and criticizing their body image, or calling themselves ‘stupid’ for doing something wrong. On a personal note, I’ve never been the so-called ‘skinny’ woman to begin with thanks to my northern European DNA, and back in my teens (in the ’00s) I’ve found myself discouraged by the images in magazines when I was younger, but now I’ve wizened up and realized the things that go on behind the scenes. These days, I’m OK with myself most of the time: I still have my ‘fat’ days but I realize that it’s more important to be healthy than to be ‘skinny’.
- Having trouble bouncing back from rejection or change in life circumstance
This is what is known in clinical circles as ‘resilience’: in mild situations such as a rejection after a job interview it’s normal to feel pain for up to a few hours before moving on (and for seasoned job hunters the pain may last only minutes), and for something more severe such as a relationship breakup or a death of someone close it would take up to a couple of months to fully heal: every circumstance is different here. For some people, however, the prospect of feeling such pain is too much to bear, and so, tragically, they decide that it would be better for them to avoid the situation in order to avoid pain rather than taking a risk and potentially gain something significant in their life from it, or at least having a memorable experience which they can learn from.
- Experiencing negative feelings
I’m sure everyone’s been here at least once before: if you say you haven’t, you’re either a robot or you’re in strong denial in my humble opinion. In life, there are bound to be bumps in the road along the way, and it’s normal to have both moments of joy and of suffering: it’s all part of the journey. However, as I’ve mentioned above, there are multiple types of strong emotion which can wreak havoc on how you feel about yourself; such feelings include guilt, anger, anxiety, and sadness: in small doses, these are OK but there is a limit to which these can be felt before they start to affect your state of being. In more severe cases, these feelings may also start to spread externally and may begin to affect your relationships with those closest to you.
- Putting up with crap from people in your inner circle
We all have to do this sometimes, whether it be dealing with the nutty relatives, in-laws or the boss or co-worker you don’t like. We do occasionally clash with people, I get that: if we all had the same personalities, life would be utterly boring in my opinion. However, when this toleration of others reaches the level of abuse such as being hit or being unreasonably talked down to, then it becomes a problem. People with low self-esteem often have trouble with these types of relationships, as they are not kind enough to themselves to leave their relationships or to seek help. This is a dangerous type of co-dependency, as the person being attacked often makes excuses for the behaviour of those committing the attack and therefore allow the vicious cycle to continue. Sometimes this type of behaviour can have very tragic consequences, as some of these relationships end up in one person killing the other.
- Fear over-ruling your sense of curiosity of new things
Whilst I do say this: some people are just stubborn by nature and refuse to try new things and are very stuck in their ways (I’ve had first hand experience at this: Dad I’m looking at you!) it can be a little difficult sometimes to distinguish between the two. What I mean is people who instantly ‘freeze’ or begin to panic at the idea of exiting their comfort zones for worry of not being able to conquer their fears or being ‘worthy’ of the challenge being presented in front of them. This can also include the fear of being ‘judged’ by other people within different types of social activities; people with low self-esteem are often hyper-vigilant in examining peoples’ facial expressions and body language and often interpreting their dislike, even when there may be none from the other parties involved.
- Not being willing to look after yourself
This isn’t the same as not being physically able to look after yourself and I mean no disrespect to those types of people. What I mean here is someone who is perfectly capable of being self-sufficient but who isn’t willing to properly take charge of their lives. This can include those who decide to self-medicate through their choice of poison such as alcohol or other types of drugs. Not that I’m condemning the drinking of alcohol entirely: I believe it’s OK in moderation such as having the occasional social drink with friends and/or family. It’s when it gets to the point when it becomes an addiction and you are spending so much on drink (or drugs) that you lose the capacity to sustain yourself through regular means that it becomes a problem.
- Resorting to self-harming, assault, homicide or suicide
These are some of the more severe and tragic consequences of lowered self-esteem. For some, turning the pain on themselves can appear superficially like a method of gaining control and an endorphin kick, but realistically this type of behaviour is the symptom of something far more serious. This can be demonstrated either through the use of cutting oneself or through other methods of abusing the body such as severe food restriction and/or purging. For a few people, instead of internalizing their pain, they choose to let their feelings be known on other people, either by wounding or killing a fellow human being. The final method is in my humble opinion the most tragic of all: where some people that are so trapped within their circumstances that they seek death as their only means of escape. (Thankfully, I’ve never been there, but I know someone close to me who came awfully close themselves: thankfully they decided against it at the last minute…)
Can a lowered sense of self-esteem be corrected, and if so, how?
That’s one of the good things about self-esteem: unlike a lot of things in our lives, it is not set in stone. Even if we end up with a crappy perception of ourselves through a miserable childhood, it is still possible to alter the way we think about ourselves; albeit it takes dogged persistence and a little bit of wisdom and self-love which takes time to develop. A low self-esteem is no easy fix, however, this can be achieved with the help of a counselor or a psychologist or having people close to you who you trust. If you get discouraged occasionally, that’s perfectly normal: I myself have battled low self-esteem most of my life due to multiple circumstances and despite some bumps in the road along the way, I believe the end result is, to coin an Aussie expression, totally worth the hard yakka.