– confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect.
“The self-concept is what we think about the self; self-esteem, is the positive or negative evaluations of the self, as in how we feel about it.” – Smith and Mackie: ‘Social Psychology’.
What is self-esteem?
The importance of self-esteem and its impacts have been researched and examined through psychological, social and behaviourist lenses since the 18th century. Self-esteem ranges from person to person from an egotistical, narcissistic level, to a low one. Ideally, people will have a healthy, balanced self-esteem, recognising and accepting all good and bad aspects of ourselves. As well as stemming from specific attributes (I’m good at writing, I’m bad at whistling), self-esteem can also have a ‘global’ application (I’m a good/bad person).
What influence our self-esteem?
The encompassing positive and negative thoughts often fluctuate, influenced by various aspects of our lives, but most argue that our self-esteem is most influenced by our early years. Through our parents and family, school years, and adolescence, we are particularly vulnerable to the opinions and evaluations other people give of us.
A bad report from a teacher might make you doubt your intelligence for years. To this day, on a personal note, the word ‘stroppy’ makes me feel like a five-year-old again. These negative ideas or opinions can become ‘core beliefs’, broad, often sweeping judgements about ourselves that impact the way we think and behave. Every time we encounter something that supports or ‘proves’ this belief, it grows and strengthens, and our self-esteem can get lower and lower. They become deep-seated and we take them as verbatim truths about ourselves.
“Of all the traps and pitfalls in life, self-disesteem is the deadliest, and the hardest to overcome, for it is a pit designed and dug by our own hands, summed up in the phrase, ‘It’s no use – I can’t do it.’” – Maxwell Maltz
How does it affect our mental health?
When we have low self-esteem, we tend to be overly critical towards ourselves, over any part of who we are. Someone suffering from low self-esteem could be hypersensitive to criticism, dissatisfaction, indecisiveness, the desire to please everyone, perfectionism, guilt, envy or pessimism.
The link between our self-esteem and our mental health has been emphasised time and time again, with those suffering from low self-esteem often also suffering from depression, anxiety, stress and affect our relationships with others.
The World Health Organisation emphasises the need to strengthen the self-esteem of students, as a way to protect them from mental distress and equip them to cope effectively with difficult situations, in ‘Preventing Suicide’ (2000).
How can we improve our self-esteem?
It may be that you don’t realise you have low self-esteem. In fact, until my counsellor mentioned it, I didn’t think I did. Someone with low self-esteem might criticise themselves a lot, seriously or through deprecating humour, they might overlook positive qualities or successes.
1. identify negative core beliefs
The way to combat low self-esteem, is by looking at the negative core beliefs that we have established over time, identify them and adjusting them. Look at a belief you have about yourself, where did it come from? Why do you believe it, what evidence is there for it? Odds are, none. Because it is a subjective opinion, meaning it is personal, individual, existing within the mind; its synonyms are ‘biased’, ‘personal’, ‘illusory’, ‘abstract’, ‘fanciful’.
Subjective: based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions/dependent on the mind or on an individual’s perception for its existence.
2. develop a new, balanced core belief and find evidence for that.
Recognise when you evaluate yourself negatively and start acknowledging your positives. A positive thing about yourself could be anything at all:
- maybe you have really nice handwriting
- maybe you’re kind,
- have good taste in music or film,
- maybe cats really like you.
Re-adjusting your beliefs, behaviours and assumptions about yourself, especially ones that are so deep-rooted, takes time and effort. It is difficult. Start taking stock. Write things down. Write the negative and analyse them and then write down the positive things down and keep them in sight. For every time you call yourself an idiot, unworthy or ugly, compliment your creativity, your ability to keep a houseplant alive, the fact you put on a bra this morning (honestly good effort on the bra thing).
What’s essential as human beings is that we evaluate ourselves in a balanced light. Self-esteem is not a narcissistic emphasis. Its not about thinking you’re the bees’ knees, its about self-respect, self-love. You’re good at this, and that’s fine. You’re not so good at something else, and that’s fine.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” and that includes yourself, darlings.