Low Self-Esteem

Self-Esteem: It’s something we all have at some point, we can gain more of it, lose some of it, or maybe even feel that at times it’s running on empty. When our self-esteem is low, we tend to experience most negative emotions more often and strongly than those with higher self-esteem. When our self-esteem is low, we are also more likely to experience anxiety, depression, hostility, anger, social anxiety, shame, guilt, embarrassment, loneliness, etc.

What is Self-Esteem?

So what is self-esteem? Is it the lack of new fashionable clothes? Not having a new car? Not being friends with the popular kids at school? Not being in with your boss at your job? Self-esteem can be caused by several different factors, and it can even be different in different situations. Self-esteem is the result of your self-confidence, and your self-respect. The reason your self-esteem can differ in various situations, is because your confidence in those situations can vary. Your confidence may be a bit lower while giving a difficult presentation at work or school; However, your confidence may be high while you’re at home with your family, or hanging out with friends.

The “masks” of self-esteem

When our self-esteem is low, there tend to be three different masks behind which we feel we are hiding…

  • The Impostor: this is someone who feels they unhappy and unsuccessful, but pretends to be perfectly happy and successful. This person may be in denial, and too scared to realize it. They often live in fear of being “found out” as a person who is unhappy and unsuccessful. This person may often point out their successes to others to keep up their mask of positive self-esteem. This person often suffers from perfectionism, procrastination, competition, and burn-out.
  • The Rebel: this is someone who wants to appear as if they do not care what other people think of them or anything else. In reality, this person often experiences a fear that they are good enough for anyone else. They will often point out that when others judge them or criticize them, it does not bother them. This person often has problems with authority figures, and may blame others for their problems.
  • The Loser: this person often plays the victim, that they are helpless and need someone to come rescue them. They often use self-pity of others to shift attention away from the fact that they are not taking responsibility for their own life. This person will often ask others for advice and guidance – for others to tell them what to do, they are also usually very passive and lack assertiveness. This person is often an under-achiever, and may overly rely on others in relationships.

Causes of Low Self-Esteem

  • Overly Critical Parents: When parents set hopelessly high standards of behavior and expectations, it is very likely that you may have felt guilty for not being able to reach them. You may have felt “not good enough”. If this is a pattern that continues throughout childhood and adolescence, you may still try to strive for perfection. You may be self-critical of yourself. If this is the case, then the implicit message you received from your parents is that you are not good, and never will be. When we learn these “messages” from our parents as children, it gets built into the image we build of ourselves, which is why it can last so long into our adulthood.
  • Significant Loss During Childhood: sometimes experiencing the death of a parent, or experiencing your parent’s divorce can lead to low self-esteem. You may feel abandoned, despite your other parent being there. Often when divorce happens, the other parent is so struck with their own grief, that they do not realize they are not supporting their children the way they need it. It is not the fault of the parent, or child, it is just what happens. When we are grieving, we often do not notice what is happening around us. So, if your parent was struggling with their own grief, your feelings of abandonment may have been even stronger. You may become overly dependent of future partners or friends as an adult – or you may start turning to addictions to avoid feeling lonely, whether it be addiction to food, work, drugs, etc.
  • Parental Abuse: Just like during our parent’s grieving, abuse by a parent of any kind is one of the most extreme forms of deprivation. Whether it’s emotional, physical, or sexual abuse – it can leave us feeling inadequate, insecure, or untrusting of others. What the child in this situation often thinks, is “If I’m so bad that my own parents do not want to give me love, I do not deserve love from anyone.” When a child is abused, there is avery high rate of them becoming an abuser as an adult. These adults often have problems with becoming intimate with others, as they feel they cannot trust anyone.
  • Parental Alcoholism or Drug Abuse: When parents are addicted to alcohol and/or other drugs – the family life is often chaotic, and leads to an unpredictable  family atmosphere. This also makes trusting others more difficult for the child. They may never know when mommy or daddy is going to be in a “good mood” (when they’re high or drunk), or when they’re in a “bad mood” (such as during cravings, when hung over, or during extreme drunkenness).  Many times people turn to addiction to hide painful feelings. By using in front of their children, the parents are leading by example that the child should avoid all painful feelings and turn to denial and stuff them down.
  • Overprotective Parents: When a child has what is often called “helicopter parents”, the child never gets a chance to learn to do things on their own, and the parents are sending the message that the world is unsafe. If the parent must protect them all the time, they are sending the message to the child that if they (the parents) were not there, the child would surely be in danger. As an adult, this person may feel insecure, as they no longer have their parent to serve as their protector. They may also be afraid to tryanything new or to go new places.
  • Overindulging Parents:  this would be the “spoiled” kids you remember going to school with. They get everything they want, when they ask for it. They never learn to work for things they have, or to have to wait for things they want. This person, as an adult, often expects the rest of the world to bend over backwards at their every wish.

What’s the Point of knowing all this?

I feel it’s important to know the cause of your low self-esteem, so you can understand why it is you feel the way you feel. The point of this is not to blame our parents. Chances are, they suffered from the results of their childhood as well. All parents do the best they can with what they have – and sometimes what they have is not very much. Once you know the reason behind your low self-esteem, you can start working to challenging the cognitive distortions they cause and rebuild your self-esteem.

This post will continue on Thursday, where I will discuss things you can do to raise your self-esteem.

Works Cited and Suggested Readings

University of Texas at Austin Counseling Center: Self Esteem

Low Self-Esteem, Technology Addict, and Fear of Relationships

Isolated, Low Self-Esteem, and Want to Come Out to Family

Bourne, E. J. (2010). The anxiety and phobia workbook. (5 ed., pp. 313-314). Oakland, CA: Rainycoast Books.

Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.

Low Self-Esteem
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