If you had to describe yourself in just a few words, which would you pick? Would you describe yourself as hard-working, gutsy, and resilient? Funny and charming? Or perhaps your description wouldn’t be so kind.
Sometimes that nagging voice in our head can get the better of us. It can trick us into thinking that we’re embarrassing, awkward or unloveable — even when friends or family say otherwise.
Because, let’s face it: it can be hard to believe them. They could hold up a mirror up and list all the wonderful traits and qualities that you have but you’d still find a way to zero in on the negatives.
Other times your self-doubt might be a little more subtle. You might put on a show and pretend to be confident even though, deep-down, you’re not happy in your own skin.
If you are struggling to love yourself, chances are you’re suffering from low self-esteem — and you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, a recent YouGov study highlighted that almost one in three (34%) Britons don’t like themselves, making low self-esteem a prevalent problem.
What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem is all about your overall sense of self-worth. It’s about how much you like or appreciate all the little things that make you unique. In other words, if you looked long and hard in the mirror could you honestly say that you feel good about yourself?
Everyone can be critical of themselves from time to time. But if you have low self-esteem it can weigh you down and have a detrimental impact on your mental health.
Often when we struggle with low feelings of self-worth we convince ourselves that things will eventually get better — that we’ll love ourselves and be happier once we get that job promotion, get fitter, or find ‘The One’.
There’s no doubt that achieving our goals can give us a much-needed confidence boost. But, ultimately, it’s still possible to tick all the boxes on your to-do list and still be deeply unhappy.
Because self-esteem isn’t just about hitting verifiable targets or benchmarks. Usually, it’s connected to an internal logic that’s immune to standard notions of achievement.
The good news is this means you’re not ‘destined’ to have low-self esteem just because you’re not where you want to be in life. You can find a way to be happy, confident and self-assured, even when you miss your goals.
That’s because your sense of self-worth can’t ever be fulfilled by external validation, it needs to come from within.
Why is it important to cultivate a strong sense of self-esteem?
- It improves our relationships with others. Having healthy self-esteem sets the tone for the relationships you have with other people. Because you can only connect with others as deeply as you can connect with yourself.
- It’s easier to bounce back from hardships. Some studies suggest that when our self-esteem is higher, emotional wounds such as rejection and failure feel less painful.
- It helps us be assertive. We tend to be more confident in our decision-making.
- It allows us to set boundaries. We’re less prone to people-pleasing and find it easier to express our needs.
- It makes us less vulnerable to anxiety. Studies suggest that a healthy sense of self-esteem may act as a buffer to anxiety. That’s because when our self-esteem is higher, we tend to release less cortisol (the stress hormone) into our bloodstream. The cortisol is less likely to linger in our system and this, in turn, makes us less vulnerable to anxiety.
- It helps us stand up for ourselves. We’re less likely to tolerate abuse or mistreatment because we know we deserve to be treated better.
- It helps us achieve our goals. A healthy sense of self-esteem allows us to recognise our strengths and learn from our mistakes. We persevere because we don’t have an intense fear of failure and genuinely believe in our capabilities.
Why is self-esteem important in child development?
Ask any parent what they want for their child and they’ll say that they want them to be happy and healthy. And developing a healthy sense of self-esteem is arguably the first and more important step to making this reality.
It’s an important lesson because self-esteem can make a big difference to a child’s perspective on life. Kids with strong self esteem like to try new things. They’re curious and aren’t worried about failure.
Instead they’re willing to learn from their mistakes and try again until they get it right. They’re also less likely to tolerate mistreatment. These are all valuable skills that’ll help as they grow and mature into adulthood.
Here are a few tips to help your kids develop their self-esteem:
- Praise their efforts, as well as their successes: Children often chase perfection because they want to please their parents. But what happens when, one day, they’re not successful? If you praise your kid solely for their achievements, you might find that they quickly become demoralised or demotivated. That’s because they may start to fixate on their goals, and shy away from risks in fear of failure. It’s okay to celebrate big and small wins, but it’s arguably more helpful to praise their effort, progress and attitude. For instance, instead of saying “Well done on passing your piano exam” you could say “I’m proud of you for sticking with your piano practise, you’re getting better and better!”
- Ditch the harsh criticism: The critical messages kids hear about themselves from others can quickly translate into how they feel about themselves. In other words, phrases like “You’re so lazy” won’t motivate them or spur them on to do better. They’ll probably just believe this to be true and do little to change their ways. Instead, be patient and correct them, focusing on what you want them to do next time. And where needed, lead by example and show them how to do better.
- Listen and acknowledge what your children have to say: All parents want their child to believe that they have something valuable to offer the world. That’s why it’s important to make sure they know that their thoughts and opinions matter. Try to include them in decision-making. Even if it’s something as arbitrary as allowing them to decide what activity you’ll do this weekend, it could boost their sense of self-worth.
Low self-esteem and childhood
Low-self esteem isn’t something to downplay. Kids with low-self esteem may feel unsure of themselves and think that others won’t accept them. They may struggle to stand up for themselves when they’re treated poorly and refuse to ask for help.
When it comes to new activities, they may give up easily or not even try at all. And if they make a mistake or fail, they may struggle to cope, which can lead to problems in their relationships or studies later down the line.
How to work on self-esteem
You might feel like you’ve struggled with low self-esteem your whole life, or perhaps it’s a relatively new feeling. Whatever triggered these emotions, remember that we all have the capacity for change. All isn’t lost.
Over time, it’s possible to nurture your self-esteem and become more confident in your own skin. It’s by no means easy and it won’t happen overnight, but just keep going. Because, in the end, you’ll start to feel calmer, confident and more hopeful.
Over time, it’s possible to nurture your self-esteem and become more confident in your own skin.
It’s by no means easy and it won’t happen overnight, but just keep going. Because, in the end, you’ll start to feel calmer, confident and more hopeful.
We’ve compiled a few tips to help get your self-esteem back on track. Just stick with whatever works for you and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Remember it’s all about ditching self-criticism in favour of self-compassion.
Focus on your lane
There’s a popular saying that ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ — and, for some of us, it couldn’t be more true. It’s easy to scrutinise yourself using other people as a benchmark. But if you constantly compare your achievements to your friends, family and peers, it might put you in a negative tailspin.
Social media doesn’t help either. After all, it’s where we go to flaunt the best aspects of ourselves so, if you scroll long enough, chances are you’ll find someone who appears better or more capable than you are. It can leave us feeling inadequate and deflated but the reality is, our own life should be the yardstick, not someone else’s.
If you want to nurture your self-esteem, try to focus on your own path. Any time you avoid a mistake or improve, remind yourself of how far you’ve come. And if you find yourself being jealous or resentful of other people’s triumphs, try to reframe your thinking. Instead, say ‘good for them’ and try to position their achievements as separate, rather than in competition, to yours.
Celebrate your success and strengths
Do you dismiss your successes and put them down to ‘luck’ or ‘chance’? Or maybe you shy away from the spotlight and batt off any compliments you receive?
You may think this displays humility but it’s not narcissistic to say “thank you” when you receive a compliment. Instead of being self-deprecating, try to celebrate your accomplishments.
If anything, it shows that you have faith in your capabilities. We’re all good at something — whether it’s cooking, doing crossword puzzles or simply being a good listener — so take time to pat yourself on the back.
Celebrate the everyday wins as well as the big accomplishments. And if you tend to rebuff compliments, try to rewire your thought process. For instance, you could prepare a few simple responses to compliments (e.g. “Thank you” or “How kind of you to say”) and train yourself to say them whenever you receive positive feedback.
Spend time with people who make you feel good
You probably find that there are some people — and some relationships — that make you feel happier than others. Maybe you have a relative who always hypes you up when you’re feeling low or a friend who always manages to lift your spirits whenever you’re spiralling. Spend time with the people who make you feel good, rather than those who bring you down (e.g. those who make snide comments or compare you to others.)
Remind yourself that the wonderful people in your life have chosen to spend time with you. That’s because they can see and appreciate how truly incredible you are.
You might also find it helpful to jot down any compliments they give you. Sometimes it can be difficult to be our own cheerleader and having these kind words to look back on might give you the boost you need.
We all have an inner critic. We formed it in childhood to help shield ourselves from judgement, shame and embarrassment. But, as we grow older, this little voice might have grown louder and more critical — and this may be particularly the case if you struggle with low self-esteem.
Getting your self-esteem back on track starts with challenging any negative thoughts you may hold about yourself. Maybe you tell yourself that you’re “not smart enough” to get that promotion or that “nobody cares about you”. Chances are this isn’t the case, you’re simply jumping to the worst-case scenario.
Identify the negative thoughts whirling around your brain and write them in a diary or journal. Ask yourself if these thoughts are really true? Could there be any other explanations? Would your friends and family agree?
Then write down some evidence that challenges these negative beliefs. For instance, “I’m intelligent and worthy of getting the promotion because I hit my targets this week” or “I know people care about me because my friend calls me every week for a catchup.” This will stop you feeling like an imposter and teach you how to replace self-defeating thoughts with positive ones.
Even if you make a mistake, be gentle to yourself. Think of what you would say to a friend in a similar situation. Odds are you’d be kind and compassionate because we often give far better advice to others than ourselves.
Did someone make a cruel comment that you can’t quite let go of? Are you constantly ruminating over the way you’ve been wronged in the past? Or maybe you simply can’t forget (or forgive) your own misdemeanours?
Falling into the trap of rumination, self-hatred, or even pity can do real damage to our self-esteem. In time, we may even start to adopt a victim mentality.
That’s why forgiveness is such a good healer. In fact, some studies suggest that the practice of forgiveness can help to boost your self-esteem and resilience.
Forgiving others isn’t always easy though, so if you need a helping hand, try checking out the ‘Forgiveness’ episode of Self-care, our audio and video therapy library.
Set yourself a challenge
We all feel anxious or nervous from time to time. But this shouldn’t stop you from trying new things.
Even if it seems small, set yourself a challenge that you can get your teeth stuck into e.g. Couch to 5k or volunteering. Achieving your goals clearly demonstrates your strengths which may give you a confidence boost.
Learn to be assertive and practice saying ‘no’
It’s easy to fall into the habit of people-pleasing, especially if you suffer from low self-esteem. You may want to position yourself as helpful and kind. But, in reality, always saying ‘yes’, even when you don’t want to, can leave us feeling resentful, overburdened and even burned out.
Setting boundaries and being assertive isn’t selfish. It’s all about respecting other people’s needs and limits and expecting the same for yourself. If anything, it can actually help to strengthen your relationships with others.
Speak to someone
Low self-esteem isn’t something you have to deal with alone. For many people, the negative thoughts they’ve created about themselves are so deeply ingrained that they may need a little help untangling them. A psychologist, for instance, can help you identify the unhelpful thinking patterns you may have developed.
They’ll also help you trace whether your low self-esteem stems from childhood, whether it was triggered by other issues such as bullying or abuse, or if it coexists alongside another mental health condition. Therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may be particularly useful, for example .
Whatever’s on your mind, therapy offers a safe space where you can tap into how you’re feeling and learn how to become a happier, more confident you.
Because remember: you have so much to offer the world just as you are.