When your self-esteem is low, you feel depressed and hopeless. You see life negatively. Everything seems difficult, or too much trouble. It feels as if the world is a bad place, full of people who will abuse or ignore you; you feel helpless to do anything about it. You see yourself as a victim. You treat other people as potential enemies, or saviours, and sooner or later they treat you badly or let you down. This further lowers your self-esteem, and so a vicious cycle is set up.
When your self-esteem is good, on the other hand, the world feels like a good place, full of friends, potential pleasures and opportunities. You can assert yourself, ask for what you want and express your feelings. You feel potent, and know that you can make a difference. Other people in general respond to your positive attitude, so that, even when you don’t get your way, you feel good about yourself and them. This reinforces your self-esteem and stimulates your inner growth.
The above two paragraphs describe the two ends of a spectrum. If they were shown as two points joined by a line, few of us would say that we live at either end of it. Most of us get through life somewhere near the positive end, and we move up and down it in response to things that happen to us. Events involving loss or threat, such as losing your job, ending a relationship, being bereaved, falling ill or having your house broken into, can give your self-esteem a huge knock. On the other hand, when you are promoted, fall in love, pass an exam, face a challenge or win a prize, then you feel pleased and proud – your self-esteem is boosted.
A healthy person can absorb some knocks to their self-esteem and bounce back if their basic sense of self is positive. Some people, however, do not have a positive sense of self. It is as if their most comfortable position on the spectrum mentioned above – the one that they always tend to return to – is at the negative end. When they get a knock, they can’t bounce back. They are suffering from chronic low self-esteem.
What Causes Low Self-Esteem?
When we find ourselves unable to ‘bounce back’ after a blow to our self-esteem, it could be for any one of a number of different reasons.
• The latest blow is just one too many
If you lose your job after several years of calm and happy employment, when your family life is going well, initially it may be devastating, but you have a good chance of finding the resources to cope, once the shock has worn off. If, on the other hand, you have just been divorced, have moved house and are getting over a bad case of shingles when you receive your redundancy notice, and then hear the next day that a parent has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, then recovery will be much more difficult!
Sometimes life just throws an unbearable amount of trouble at us all at once, and we have to mobilise all the support we can from friends, family and community to help us survive it.
• We are vulnerable because of unsorted childhood issues
Heavy blows dealt to our self-esteem early in life can undermine our capacity to respond positively to the challenges we face later on, as adults, if we have not had the chance to address or to heal them.
• Our physical health is not good
Our self-esteem is bound up with our physical well-being, and is vulnerable to illness and injury. If we get ill or have an accident, it can feel as if our body has betrayed us. Our trust in the world as a safe place may be shaken, temporarily. And of course, if the illness or accident involves us in a spell in hospital, that can further damage our self-esteem.
• We have very little power in a situation
The more we feel potent, the better our self-esteem. Redundancy may not feel so bad if you think you can easily get another job, even a better one; if not, it can feel devastating. It can also feel devastating if you are the only one of a racial or social minority, and have reason to believe that you are the victim of prejudice.
The degree of power you have depends not just on who you are, but also on where you are – the social context. If you are not sure of your ground in any sense – for example, because you are in a foreign culture, or speaking an unfamiliar language, or in an unfamiliar role – you will feel dis-empowered.
Institutions can increase or diminish the self-esteem of the people in them by their day-to-day practices. For example, some hospitals attach a plastic bracelet with a number on it to the patient’s wrist, on admission. However necessary this may be, if you are the patient, it can feel as though the hospital is claiming your body as theirs, taking away a degree of power from you just when you most need it. On the other hand, institutions where you are greeted with courtesy, treated with respect and given choices, will enhance your self-esteem.
How Can I Build Up my Self-Esteem?
• Take care of your physical health
Make sure you have good food, relaxation and enough sleep. Try to make sure that you have 10–15 minutes of moderate exercise (e.g. brisk walking) every day, and about 20 minutes of more vigorous exercise three times a week (something that raises your heartbeat and makes you sweat). Have a massage whenever you can. Nothing is better for increasing self-esteem and beating stress! Learn to recognize your own stress indicators, and when they occur, take time out to look after yourself.
• Avoid, whenever possible, situations where you have little power, and institutions that undermine your self-esteem
This may be difficult or appear impossible in the short run, but may be essential to your long-term mental and physical well-being. De-stress your home as much as possible: make sure it is as tidy as suits you, with good lighting and supportive seating.
• Set yourself a challenge that you can realistically achieve, and then go for it!
Start with something relatively small, such as, ‘Getting fit enough to walk up the steps to my flat without getting out of breath or taking the lift’. (But not ‘Running the Marathon this year’ unless, of course, that is a realistic goal for you!) Then, when you have achieved it, reward yourself! Tell your friends, and let them praise you for it. Then set yourself another challenge. Learn to enjoy your own achievements.
• Learn something new
It doesn’t really matter what it is, whether it’s car maintenance, or speaking Russian or flower arranging. The important thing is that it interests you and will give you a sense of achievement. The longer you have been away from learning anything new, and the more different the new subject is from your normal life, the more benefit this will give you! For example, if you are an intellectual sort of person, take up weight training or yoga. If you are a handy, craftsman like person, try and learn a foreign language, or teach yourself a new style of dance…
• Find out what you most enjoy, and then find ways of doing it as much as possible
If you enjoy it, you probably have some talent for it, whatever it is. Doing what we are best at is the most empowering and self-nourishing kind of activity.
• Join in with others, if possible, to take action about the things that annoy you
Whether it’s the amount of dog mess in your street, government policy on asylum-seekers, the worldwide arms trade, or whatever most angers you. Of course, the trick here is to find the right group of fellow-campaigners, a group where you feel respected and empowered. Unfortunately, political campaigning groups can be as damaging to the self-esteem of their members as other kinds of institutions! This is perhaps an area where continuing struggle is not only necessary, but a sign of love for oneself, one’s fellow-humans and for the world. Give yourself regular treats, to remind yourself that you deserve nurture and pleasure. Programme some fun into your plans for each week, to nurture your sense of humour and creativity.
• Learn to sing!
To free your voice is empowering to mind, soul and body. Singing strengthens the lungs and the legs, gives joy and hope, and is a powerful medium for self-expression. You can do it alone, or as part of a group. Many places now have ‘Choirs for the Tone Deaf’ or ‘Can’t Sing’ groups, which take on the fact that many of us may have had painful experiences with music teachers in the past. They can teach ways of addressing this, involving breath and relaxation techniques.
(Some contributions from How to Improve Self-Esteem by Penny Cloutte)