Through the Looking Glass
We often spend so much of our time worrying about what others think of us that we tend to forget how important our self-image is. Our overall assessment of ourselves is a very important aspect of our personalities. We can either be accurate judges of our skills, abilities, values as well as our faults and drawbacks or have an unrealistically high opinion of ourselves, feeling superior than those around us, in other words extremely arrogant, self indulgent and big headed or we can have an extremely poor self image, putting very little value and trust in our own ideas and opinions.
Our self-esteem is often shaped by external factors in our lives, such as our relationships with our parents, siblings, friends, teachers and other important people who influence us. Growing up, all the positive feedback we get regarding our achievements and attention we receive from these people such as praise, being heard, being respected, being trusted all leads to building up a healthy self esteem. However, if we are constantly criticised, shouted at, our flaws and mistakes are labelled as failures, we are punished, beaten, ignored and ridiculed, we will naturally develop a low self esteem. All these negative experiences, the ones we never think about become our inner voice, berating us for every little thing and telling us we are losers until we actually start believing it. Scary, isn't it?
Of course all of us tend to feel bad about ourselves at some point or the other. The question is, how do we know when we have a self-esteem problem?
We can start by listening to the dialogue going on in our minds. If our mind is frequently saying things like " You're stupid and pathetic and will never amount to anything" then we definitely have a problem. Obsessing over our faults and mistakes is another indicator of low self-esteem. If we are unable to accept compliments, for example, if someone tells us we've done a good job and we instantly think "LIAR! I COULD HAVE DONE
BETTER!" red flag right there. If the fear of failure holds us back from doing well at work or school, for example, we believe we won't do well on an exam or presentation so we decide not to show up for it at all, that should also make us stop and think about whether we have self esteem issues. Also, if we avoid stressful situations, such as being assertive and standing up for ourselves (telling the mean bully at school or work to get a life) simply because we cannot deal with them, we have a serious problem.
Self-esteem determines the way we lead our lives. People with low self-esteem tend to mask their problems in different ways. They may pretend they are happy, confident and successful while being terrified of failing all the time. These people need constant reassurance from others and need continuous successes to avoid being "found out" as impostors. This eventually leads to problems with procrastination, competition, perfectionism and burn out. They may also wear a mask of rebellion and pretend the opinions of others, especially powerful figures of authority do not matter to them. These people usually tend to blame others around them excessively for their own faults, undermine or fight authority and be perpetually angry with themselves for not being good enough. And of course there are the self appointed "losers" who act helpless and wait for people to come to their rescue. They tend to be over dependent on others and use self-pity or indifference as excuses not to improve their lives. These people tend to have problems with assertiveness.
There are many drawbacks to a low self-esteem. It can lead to loneliness, unnecessary stress and even clinical problems such as anxiety and depression. It can hold us back from performing well academically as well as in any job we hold. It can also create problems in our relationships and friendships and lead to underachievement and other problems such as drug and alcohol abuse and in the worst-case scenario, suicidal ideation. Negative consequences tend to reinforce low self-esteem, creating a downward spiral leading toward non-productive and self-destructive behaviour. Getting scarier, right?
To improve serious self-esteem issues it might be necessary to see a professional counselor. However, there are steps we can take to help ourselves before we have to resort to that. The first step would be to have rebuttals ready for that harsh, critical inner voice. For example, if your inner voice says "She turned me down for a date. She must hate me! I'm ugly and worthless and this is so embarrassing I'll never live it down. I am dying alone!" just ask it to shut up and say to yourself (and make sure you sound reassuring) "Okay, so that was not ideal and it hurt, but just because one girl said no doesn't mean they all will. There are other fish in the sea and I'm a nice, intelligent and attractive person. There's always next time."
The second step would be to pamper ourselves a little. We can take good care of ourselves, such as eat healthy, get plenty of sleep and exercise, take care of our figures, hair and skin so on and so forth. We can also make fun plans with ourselves such as watching a movie, getting a massage, gardening, getting or a pet, basically doing things we enjoy. We can reward ourselves when we have accomplished something, for example, we can celebrate good grades, or a promotion at work, by going out with friends and complimenting ourselves for our hard work. We can make a list of all the things we like about ourselves and things we have accomplished that we are proud of, and look at it whenever we're feeling down. We must also learn to forgive ourselves for things we couldn't achieve and try not to resort to self-hatred and blame. In fact, we should pamper ourselves even when we feel we don't deserve it!
Last but not least, we can try to ask for help from others, even if it is the most embarrassing thing in the world. People with low self-esteem often feel they have no right to ask for help, it is important to overcome these feelings and ask people we love and trust to just listen to us while we "vent" our frustrations, ask them what they like about us, ask them to tell us about things they think we are good at, ask people who love us to remind us sometimes that they do. Ask for a hug, that always helps (from personal experience).
Sometimes, we can have low self-esteem when it comes to certain aspects of our lives but be perfectly confident in other areas. This does not mean we don't have a problem. We just have to figure out why we're having issues in that particular area and work on it to make it better. So you see, working on improving our self-esteem can be difficult, but a lot of fun as well (the pampering part). It is our responsibility to practise giving positive feedback and rewarding achievements instead of punishing mistakes of those around us, especially children, to prevent the development of low self-esteem. Of course the opposite (big headedness) has its drawbacks too, but we'll leave that for another article.
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