When someone feels good about themselves and who they are, they are said to have good self-esteem. Having healthy self-esteem is essential to living well and being a productive member of society. Low self-esteem not only affects an individual’s internal world, but their external actions as well, limiting their ambitions and choices in life. As Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” defines it, self-esteem is as essential to living a good life as having good nutrition, a safe environment, and even love.
Anyone’s self-esteem can fluctuate throughout life. Ideally, however, there is not too dramatic a change from day to day. Having a healthy internal monologue is essential for maintaining balance with self-esteem. After all, self-esteem that is too high can be as detrimental as low self-esteem and can suggest the presence of mental disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder.
Self-Esteem vs. Self-Image
It can be difficult to understand the distinctions between self-esteem and self-image. They are interrelated, but different. Learning the differences between these two can help individuals understand self-esteem and develop healthy self-esteem.
In short, self-esteem is how someone interprets their self-image. A self-image includes how an individual perceives herself, but also includes how others perceive her. As an example, a person might narrate their self-image as “I am a kind and constructive member of my social circle.” This might also translate into “My being a kind and constructive member of my social circle means that my friends like me.” As a result of this positive self-image, this individual might then say “I am happy with who I am.”
Oftentimes, low self-esteem starts with negative or faulty self-image.
Recognizing Negative Self-Image and Low Self-Esteem
Recognizing how either low self-esteem or negative self-image works within ourselves is often hard. Negative ideation can be habitual and therefore “normal” in an individual’s eyes. Self evaluation is key to assessing how selves and maintaining balanced self-esteem.
Not everyone with low self-esteem is shy or unassuming. Oftentimes, those with a negative self-image overcompensate with exaggerated confidence. Some might even insult or tease others.
Some patients develop mental illnesses as a result of low self-esteem, including depression and social anxiety. Those with eating disorders, additionally, have skewed self-images.
Signs of either scenario may include:
- Self doubt
- Negative thinking or pessimism
- Refusal to accept responsibility
- Faulty boundary setting or maintenance
- Social withdrawal
- Lash out at others
- Demonstrate aversion to compliments
Physical symptoms associated with these conditions include.
- Stomach issues with no outward cause
- Back pain
The Causes of Low Self-Esteem
Low self-esteem can stem from a triggering life event or can come from the confluence of multiple triggers. It can also stem from an individual’s natural characteristics or all of the above.
Patients can uncover the roots of their low self-esteem in a therapeutic setting working with a mental health professional. Identifying these roots is the best way to move toward a healthy self-image and self-esteem.
Causes of low self-esteem can include:
- Disapproval from authority figures or parents
- Emotionally distant parents
- Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
- Contentious divorce between parents
- Bullying with no parent protection
- Academic difficulties
- Guilt associated with religion
- Social beauty standards
- Unrealistic goal setting
Building a Positive Self-Image
There are a number of strategies individuals can employ to develop a positive self-image and, as a result, healthy self-esteem:
Neutralizing Our Thoughts
Any thought runs through our brains throughout the day. They are arbitrary, and not necessarily true. What many individuals with poor self-image or self-esteem tend to do is believe any and every thought that goes through their heads. A helpful technique can be identifying thoughts as “just thoughts” and allowing them to flow through your mind and away. Giving random thoughts power and credence can be destructive.
Spinning Negative Thoughts
Another reliable technique is spinning negative thoughts into good ones:
- “I’m fat” turns into “I have nice curves”
- “I don’t deserve love” turns into “My loved ones value me”
- “I am a bad person” turns into “I’m giving it my best”
Many people compare themselves to others constantly, especially since the advent of social media. Individuals need to remember that others may be putting a best face forward and may be hiding their struggles. Comparing your life with someone else’s is impossible and destructive. By engaging a professional in a therapeutic setting, those with low self-esteem can learn the tools they need to stop these destructive patterns.
Working in a therapeutic setting with a therapist or counselor can help those suffering from low self-esteem. Leveraging psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, the patient and professional can discover the sources of the patient’s self-esteem struggles and begin the healing process.
Therapeutic options include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for tool-building and giving patients “assignments” to work on at home through journaling.
Trusting a Therapist
Since many of those who suffer from low self-esteem have a faulty internal narrative, learning to trust a therapist and opening up to that person can help the patient reframe that negative thinking. A therapist’s objectivity, acceptance, and neutrality provides a safe space in which the patient can learn that others accept him or her. In this way, the therapeutic work serves as an exposure therapy of sorts similar to the approach used with patients with disorders such as agoraphobia.