How To Overcome My Low Self-Esteem

In childhood, if we are exposed to invalidating experiences at a time when we don’t have sophisticated reasoning capabilities, the way we often make sense of these negative experiences is by falsely concluding that we don’t matter. This childhood trauma carries over into adulthood and leaves us feeling deficient and not “good enough,” or lacking worth.

Self worth and self-esteem are often used synonymously but I see them as different concepts. Self-worth is the foundation on which self-esteem is built. If self worth has been internalized then a person’s self-esteem will remain relatively stable in the face of challenge and adversity. Self-esteem will always fluctuate because it is impacted by external factors like accomplishments and failures but if self-worth has been internalized then it will only oscillate within a narrow margin. If it has not been internalized however, then the self-esteem can easily become devastated.

It’s important to realize that having low self-esteem is not a character flaw or a personality defect but rather the unfortunate outcome of the false conclusions that we draw about our worthiness stemming from childhood. Since these conclusions are based on the quality of care we receive from the important people in our lives, if we feel loved, we come to see ourselves as “loveable” and a feeling of positive self-worth is internalized. If we are treated unkindly or with indifference, if our feelings are ignored or minimized, we come to see ourselves as “unworthy”. This internal belief is accompanied with many anxieties, and the way we manage these anxieties often results in behaviors that are self-defeating. We sadly undermine our self-esteem and reinforce our belief of being deficient at our core.

The following are fears that result from failing to internalize self-worth.

A fear of confirming one’s inadequacy

There is a self-disparaging internal voice that you suspect is true but would like to believe is false. This critical voice creates an ever-present fear or anxiety that something will happen and you will no longer be able to question whether or not it is true because you will now have proof of your internal defect. In order to defend against this possibility there is often the relentless pursuit of success. Achievement becomes all-important because those who doubt their self-worth use achievement as a measure to confirm their worth. Life therefore becomes constricted and devoid of pleasure since all the focused attention is put exclusively into achieving or put into avoiding situations in which one might risk failure. Since success can never be guaranteed, and the prospect of ‘failure’ is terrifying there is a reluctance to learn new things, and pursue challenges. Failure and success, however, exist on a continuum. There is no such thing as absolute failure because with each failed attempt we move a step closer to achieving success.

Another common self-defeating behavior is that of procrastination because, after all, if you don’t try hard then you can tell yourself that had you put in the effort or completed the task you would have succeeded.
What’s unfortunate about this tendency is that it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because it increases the likelihood of failure.

Denying weakness is another way that one’s fear gets expressed because weakness or limitation is felt to be a confirmation of the depth of their deficiency. This is unfortunate because none of us is equally strong in all areas, and in fact, if a weakness is denied, the difficulty will become more obvious as time passes, and then one’s fear of inadequacy will become a reality.

Fear of exposing one’s inadequacy to others

This fear is displayed by self-consciousness and a high sensitivity to scrutiny and judgment. There is also a reluctance to disclose thoughts and feelings with others for fear of jeopardizing the relationship if you “true self” were to be revealed. Relationships, therefore, often take on a superficial quality, lacking real intimacy, and resulting in feelings of loneliness and isolation, which is then used as evidence of internal defect.

Fear of losing what one has

Since a person suffering from low self worth feels like an imposter and fraud their accomplishments are often not attributed to their hard work and competence but rather to chance and luck. Since chance and luck are unpredictable, and not within one’s control, there exists an ever-present anxiety that their achievements and accomplishments cannot be repeated. This is unfortunate because a capable person afflicted with low self-worth is unlikely to step out of their comfort zone and reach their full potential.

Fear of abandonment

For some people, their anxiety stems from a belief that they are bad, and undeserving of anything good. Filled with insecurity they are likely to reject desirable people and healthy relationships because they are suspicious as to why a desirable person would want them. They believe it is just a matter of time before they will be truly seen and rejected, and so they often sabotage their own relationships so they can silently tell themselves that they were the cause through their own actions.

In order to begin to recover from low self-worth that gets expressed in all the ways discussed, we must recognize the common self-defeating behaviors that produce the kinds of outcomes, and responses from others, that reinforce this negative self-image.

Hyper-vigilance

The problem with this heightened state of attention is that the threshold for perceiving danger is so low that you are likely to see threats even when none exist. Imagine you are hiking along a trail and you see signs posted along the way, “Beware poisonous snakes”. In this context, with a heightened sense of danger, you might be more likely to see a stick lying across the pathway in front of you as a snake. If these warnings, however, were absent, you would not be anticipating danger, and in this less vigilant state you would be more likely to see the stick as just a stick. In its application to relationships, a person is likely to be hypersensitive and perceive rejection even if it doesn’t exist.

A Low Threshold for perceiving insult

Since a person with low self worth will see him or her self in a devalued way their feelings get projected and they imagine that others see them in the same diminished way. With this internal belief everything is interpreted through a filter of negativity and so they respond to others as if they have been mistreated. This reaction is likely to provoke a negative or even aggressive response, which once again will sadly be used as evidence that they are being wronged.

Viewing mistakes as unacceptable

For a person with low self-esteem making a mistake is unacceptable. Mistakes are not seen as unavoidable because we are human beings, and not perfect beings, but are rather seen as indicative of flaw and defect. A person afflicted with low self-worth will find it difficult to acknowledge fault. They will have a tendency to blame others and not see their own contribution to the difficulties in their relationships.

Attribution of Accomplishment to external factors

Since a feeling of efficacy is absent, a person with low self-worth doubts their ability to be impactful, and believes that the outcome of a given situation has less to do with them, and more to do with chance, and so they feel helpless to change their situation.

A compulsion to please

There exists a wishful fantasy that doing for others and making them happy will secure their love. They also have this idea that there is a ‘universal’ rulebook that others must treat you in the same manner that you treat them. So, even though people pleasers choose to put the needs of others first, they also unconsciously expect others to do the same for them. This usually creates a conflict in the relationship because it is as if an agreement has been drawn up by one person, and then imposed upon the other. In this way people pleasers set themselves up for disappointment and a feeling of being failed or wronged by others.

A Need for external validation

Since a feeling of positive self-worth has not been internalized, external validation is needed in order to maintain the self-esteem, just like oxygen is needed to maintain life. Since attention, approval, and admiration become a necessary source of esteem, it is easy for self-worth to be tied to the attitude of others, which gives them power over you and your self-image. This renders them vulnerable to manipulation and abuse.

A Tendency to engage in controlling behaviors

Finally there is a tendency to engage in controlling behaviors, which are often used to defend against unwanted negative outcomes. Those afflicted with low self-worth mistakenly believe that they should be unaffected and impervious to life’s set backs and disappointments, and if they occur then this is taken as evidence of their unworthiness. The fear of experiencing negative feelings will therefore result in controlling behaviors because, after all, if you are able to control the actions of others then you are able to bring about the outcome you want.

In conclusion, in order to recover from low self-worth you must acknowledge your insecurity without judgment but rather simply as fact, and not evidence of flaw or defect. You must then recognize the kinds of self-defeating behaviors that you engage in to defend against the anxiety of feeling inadequate. It is only then that you can begin to recover from low self-worth because in order for change to happen, there must be a willingness to take the opposite action even if it is anxiety provoking. What is new and unfamiliar is always scary, but fear is not a reason to remain stuck in the same patterns of self-defeating behaviors that reinforce low self-worth.

To learn more go to www.preparetoleavethenest.com, a psycho-educational program for emotional preparedness for college and adulthood and recovery from low self-esteem.

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