A person’s self-esteem is arguably one of the most significant determinants of their level of contentment in life. Contrary to popular opinion, somebody who is said to have healthy self-esteem, is not somebody who thinks of themselves only in a glowing light, or somebody who experiences only positive emotions, or somebody who has achieved a high level of success, or even somebody with an especially large group of friends. Healthy self-esteem exists when someone has a good awareness of who they are at their core, including both their strengths and their weaknesses, and has a sense of positive feeling towards this authentic sense of self. People with healthy self-esteem tend to expect that others will also like them too. They demonstrate a good ability have healthy interpersonal boundaries, in that they don’t tend to personalise other’s negative behaviours, but are at the same time able to accept feedback non-defensively, because their strong sense of self allows them not to feel so wounded by the idea that they may have made an error.
After all, we are all human. People with healthy self-esteem are not perfectionistic, they can allow for mistakes in themselves and others, because they understand the difference between a person and their behaviours, and their sense of self is not overly defined by other people’s reactions to them. Put another way, it is as if someone with healthy self-esteem has an anchor in the midst of an ocean that can sometimes get stormy. This anchor means that no matter what happens around them, a person with healthy self-esteem will never get too far from themselves. A person’s sense of self not only impacts the kinds of relationships they are able to develop, but also the way that they regulate emotions and their resilience to challenges that life throws.
Signs You are Suffering from Low Self-Esteem
In contrast, people with a less secure sense of self are more likely to feel derailed by other’s behaviour or negative feedback. Some common signs of poor self-image are:
- Defensiveness or lowered mood in response to constructive criticism
- The presence of an inner critical voice that feels difficult to tune out.
- Overly judgemental attitudes towards people who display vulnerability of some kind
- Exhibiting behaviour that is either self-deprecating or arrogant/denigrating of others
- Anxiety about getting to know people/getting closer in relationships
- A sense of worthlessness
- Expectations of rejection from others (and overlooking signs of liking from others)
- Debilitating feelings of shame that can lead to social withdrawal, isolation, or self-sabotaging behaviour
- Over-investment in cultivating an ideal image of self, such as excessive concern about appearance, wealth, or a competitive approach to life aimed at proving that one is ‘better’ than others
- Feelings of emptiness and difficulty identifying authentic wants/desires
- Frequent enactment of behaviours aimed at seeking validation from others (e.g. self-sacrifice, people-pleasing, over-functioning, or interpersonal seductiveness)
As can be noted from the above list (which is by no means exhaustive!), people with low self-esteem can behave in quite a wide variety of ways. This is likely to be dependent on their particular pathway that led them to having difficulty with their sense of self.
What Causes Low Self-Esteem?
There are a variety of pathways that have been suggested to lead people to have low self-worth, but for the most part it appears that the foundations for self-esteem are put in place early in life and develop predominantly in an interpersonal context. As Attachment Theory suggests, what this means is that depending on how others respond to our authentic expressions of emotions and wants in our early years, we will internalise ideas about how acceptable/unacceptable we are at our core. Later on in childhood, peer relationships start to play a more important role in terms of giving us feedback about how acceptable we are. Later still, in adolescence and on into adulthood, romantic relationships continue to give us this feedback, positive or negative.
Sadly, for many people, something of a vicious cycle develops with self-esteem whereby individuals who had rejecting experiences with parental figures, go on to experience bullying from peers, and later involvement in abusive/unsupportive relationships in adolescence and adulthood, leaving those individuals’ self-concept in tatters. Given we are unconsciously predisposed to select partners who confirm our pre-existing view of self and others, starting off life with poor self-worth can lead people to feel that the cards are stacked against them. Clinical experience and research alike suggest that getting into more supportive, healthy relationships will build healthier self-esteem over time, but for people caught in the above cycle of rejection and mistreatment, it can be hard to feel drawn to someone who will create a more nurturing environment for their self-worth.
How Can Next Wave Psychology Help Restore My Self Esteem?
With a solid grounding in Attachment Theory, Relationship Therapy, CBT, and Emotion-Focussed methods, Dr Amber Denehey can provide clients with the opportunity to learn about their own unique patterns of relating to themselves and others and develop new behaviours that are more supportive of their self-esteem. In addition to providing practical strategies, one of the most powerful things that psychological therapy can provide for people experiencing the above painful cycle is an initial secure, respectful, and healthy treatment relationship that fosters the beginning of a positive spiral for that person’s relationships outside of sessions.