Low self esteem is very prevalent in our society today. A survey of school children reported that on average 69 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls in junior school said they were “happy the way I am”. In senior school, only 46 percent of boys and 29 percent of girls claimed this satisfaction. Low self esteem is associated with a greater propensity for depression, anxiety, envy, anger, loneliness, fear of rejection, addictions, eating disorders and self harm.
Feeling bad about oneself is very painful and the psyche acts to protect a person from experiencing these feelings. In psychotherapy, the strategies that protect a person from this pain are known as defence mechanisms. One type of defence mechanism is the creation of a false persona, which acts to cover the inner feelings of low self esteem. For example, perfectionists strive to feel good about themselves by avoiding failure, people pleasers and high achievers strive to gain recognition from others, and loners isolate themselves from others to avoid the pain of rejection.
Defence mechanisms may have short term benefits, but they never take away the underlying problem. The following approaches can help to increase self esteem, each step being effective alone or in combination with others.
1) Increase your self- awareness
An important first step is to have greater awareness of our self critical thoughts and gain insight into their source. These critical and tortuous statements are often unconscious and habitual. Uncovering their origins, which are frequently from the childhood or teenage years, renders them more understandable. For example, a person who feels useless may trace these feelings back to a traumatic experience, time of failure, or critical remark. When we begin to understand that these critical voices are not a voice of truth from our essence, but something learned from an external source, we can begin to take them less seriously and to stop identifying ourselves with them.
2) Challenge your inner critical voice
Challenging this voice helps us to see that a lot of the statements it makes are based on irrational thinking and are not true. For example, a person who is a perfectionist can ask himself, ‘Is it really true that if I don’t excel in this exam I don’t have value?’ A people pleaser can ask, ‘Is it really true that if someone doesn’t like me I’m not good?’ In this way we develop a more realistic attitude and become less controlled by our critical thoughts.
3) Express your feelings
When a person feels a sense of shame or inadequacy, there is a tendency to want to hide this from others. Sharing these painful feelings, which are often guarded as secrets with a supportive person helps to normalize them. Great emphasis is placed in psychotherapy on creating a trusting relationship which will help a person to share his feelings fully. Empathy as well as non judgmental and unconditional acceptance are considered to be essential to facilitate this process. It is also important to express any other painful feelings which may be associated with low self esteem, such as anger, disappointment, sadness and guilt.
4) Express your authentic self
Expressing our true selves helps us identify with our inner goodness. One way is to start to drop our defence mechanisms. For example, people pleasers begins to say no when it is appropriate to do so, loners start to mix more with people, perfectionists lower their unrealistic standards of success.