For the past 18 months the Coronavirus, and the subsequent lockdowns and isolation, have dramatically increased incidents of anxiety and depression. Mental Health is at the forefront of people’s minds. It is not unusual for people, including Prince Harry, Meghan, Ben Stokes, Naomi Osaka and other sports stars to ‘come out’ and confess to having mental health problems. It’s become something of a badge of honour. The result has been an apparentincrease in the number of people suffering from low self-esteem.
Self-esteem can be defined as how we feel about ourselves at any point in time. By definition, therefore, it fluctuates according to our circumstances.
What are the causes of poor self-esteem?
Frequently, it has to do with how we were treated as children, by our parents, teachers, peers, siblings and others. A critical parent or teacher who always says that you should do better engenders a feeling that you aren’t ‘good enough.’ Teasing or bullying by your peers or siblings can have the same effect. It may take many years to expunge these feelings. There might be medical issues or trauma. These are all external forces of others inflicting something on you.
However, one of the most enduring causes of low self-esteem is comparing yourself to others and finding that they have more money than you, are better looking than you (whatever that means), are funnier than you, have more followers on Instagram, get more likes, have a better job, have a fancier car, etc. The list is endless. Whilst it is natural to compare ourselves to others, it can be detrimental to our well-being if we hold onto the comparisons. Therefore, the goal is to believe that we are ‘good enough’ in isolation, irrespective of what anybody else may or may not have. If Jeff Bezos can travel into space and I can’t, does that make me ‘unworthy?’ If my friend plays off a golf handicap of 3 and I’m off 21 does that make me a lesser person?
Other causes of low esteem may be when you do things that you know are wrong – for instance; dishonesty, malicious gossip, cheating at sports, trolling someone, being racist or deliberately unkind. Not doing things that you know you ought to do can reduce self-esteem. Procrastination may be the cause or the result of low self-esteem.
Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and author of five number one New York Times best-selling books on vulnerability, courage, shame and empathy said, ‘There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggled for it and that was: the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it – they believe they are worthy.’
The question is: How do you get to believe that you are worthy?
- The first step is wanting to improve your self-esteem. Without that desire it will probably never happen. In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the tailor Motel Kamzoil wants to ask Tevye for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He plucks up enough courage and makes the move. Tevye looks at him with some disdain, ‘But you’re only a poor tailor.’ In a rare show of defiance, Motel draws himself up to his full height and proclaims boldly, ‘Yes, but even a poor tailor’s entitled to happiness.’ Or at least as ‘entitled’ as anyone else. You never have to apologise for living.
- To begin with you need to know that you are intrinsically a good person, assuming that you are!
- To me, the foundations, the cornerstone, in establishing self-esteem is taking responsibility for yourself. You can’t blame anyone for your problems, not your parents, your children, your friends, the government, your minister of religion, the government. You need to ‘own’ your problem and take steps to resolve any issues. Taking responsibility is very empowering and builds self-esteem. ‘It’s up to me, I can do it.’
- Can you give yourself a positive mindset? Or are you going to wallow in self-pity and self-flagellate in perpetuity? Do you really believe that you are ‘not good enough?’ Wouldn’t it be far better to treat yourself like you would treat a friend? You wouldn’t tell your friend that they were worthless, so why are you telling yourself that? Extend the empathy you would show them to yourself.
- Self-esteem is often closely associated with people’s occupations and their working conditions. If you’re unhappy in your work in any way, speaking out, with strong evidence, will give you confidence and the feeling that you are not being exploited.
- Having a vision of what you want to accomplish gives you a sense of purpose. Making a plan, instead of bemoaning your fate, gives you confidence. Every day make a list of what you want to achieve. Ticking off each task builds self-esteem. Be proud of what you do. I had this theory that everybody should metaphorically hang their signed day’s work on the wall, like an artist. Some days you’ll look at it with pride and on others you’d wish you’d done more. If you thought that it would be inspected by others, you would probably put in more effort.
- Accept that you will never be perfect or be the best at anything in the world, especially as there is only one best. It shouldn’t stop you trying, but in the meantime just be the best you that you can be. It’s a continual work in progress. Acceptance is a great strategy for coping in a great many situations.
- Taking a risk can do wonders for self-esteem. Success will be affirming and if it doesn’t work, ‘at least I tried.’ The greatest risk may be not taking a risk. I wanted a celebrity to endorse my book, but was feeling too diffident to write to her ‘cold.’ I decided to take the risk and sent what I thought was a compelling letter. I didn’t receive a response. However, I was no worse off than if I hadn’t written, so what did I lose? Nothing. I’m proud of the fact that I tried. Not trying is the ultimate failure.
- You may try some meditations or affirmations, a plethora of which you can find on the internet. When I was feeling particularly forlorn while on radiotherapy, one such affirmation was given to me by my friend, Terry Cooper, who runs a large therapeutic practice. He said that I should look in the mirror and say aloud:
- I love you exactly as you are
- I care for you in this difficult time
- I’m strong
- I will get through this
- I felt loved and loving at the same time and I steeled myself to keep going through the pain.
- After a particularly bruising failure and feeling sorry for myself I was buoyed by ‘When a diamond falls into the mud, it is still a diamond. When dust rises to heaven it is still dust.’
- Kindness and making people feel good about themselves will increase self-esteem. Simple things like eye contact, mentioning people’s names, subtle praise and a warm smile are affirming for both parties. Malicious or snide remarks will do the opposite. Slander will reduce your self-esteem considerably. You may feel ‘superior’ for the moment, but the poison will eat away your view of yourself.
- If envy is impacting on your self-esteem, can you look at the object of your envy differently? Can you see that they are being the best them that they can be and then admire what they’ve done? Moving from envy to admiration will make you feel good about yourself.
- If criticism or the harsh judgement of others affects you, can you neutralise those feelings? Every statement in the universe, including this one, reflects on the person doing the saying. Can you realise that they are only talking about themselves and therefore you shouldn’t take things personally? It can be difficult and may take some time. Can you dispassionately analyse what they’re saying? If the ‘criticism’ is ‘justified’ – for instance, someone tells you that you are a messy eater and it’s ugly – can you, or do you want to, change your eating habits? If not, let it flow in and flow out, again without touching you – water off a duck’s back.
- With practice you can become impervious to aggressive behaviour.
- Whilst you need to take responsibility for your self-esteem, affirmation and admiration from others can put a spring in your step. Being told that someone believes in you can lift even the darkest clouds. It shouldn’t be relied on, but it is most likely a reflection of the effort that you make in adding to the lives of others.
- Avoid mixing with people who bring you down, either directly or with negative energy. Seek out people who fill you with energy. Join clubs and organisations that interest you and where you are welcome.
- Saying ‘no’ can add to your self-esteem. People are often scared to say no because it may be unpopular or they may be excluded. If you have a strong or principled view, express it. Strength is attractive.
- If your lack of self-esteem is so overwhelming that you are having difficulty in functioning properly, you need to seek professional help.
Your self-esteem is in your hands.
You have the power. Use it