How To Recover From Low Self-Esteem?

Building up self-esteem

In the previous podcast I spoke about actively working on building up your self- esteem rather than looking for ways to mask your feelings of insufficiency, and I suggested that one way of achieving this is to step outside of your comfort zone, and not shy away from challenge. What this means is that you don’t let the fear of doing new and unfamiliar things hold you back. I’m not suggesting that you do something that causes extreme anxiety, but I am suggesting that you engage in baby steps and do things that cause mild discomfort because this is necessary for growth.

Just like a snake, throughout its life span, sloughs off its old skin in order to grow, a person wears a feeling of comfort like a skin, and if it is not shed from time to time, it becomes an obstacle to growth. And so, if you desire to do something that feels scary, even if it is a fleeting desire, act on it, don’t allow yourself to come up with excuses out of fear. Rationalization and justification are very persuasive defenses that can trick you into believing that your idea is not a good idea or that you no longer want it.

To work on you self-esteem you must engage in personal development and get to know yourself better. An effective and simple way to achieve this is by committing to doing something new or different each week. I suggest you create two separate lists in a notebook that you title “likes” and “dislikes” and each week you add something new to one of those lists. You will not only feel a sense of pride and accomplishment by watching your list grow but this exercise will also help you to know yourself better because in order to like yourself, you need to know yourself so you can change the parts that you don’t like.

Another way to build your self-esteem is to recognize your achievements and accomplishments, and not minimize or dismiss them. For a person with low self-worth it is easy to overlook the “positives”, to see them as unimportant and at the same time to exaggerate the significance of the negatives. Negative events unfortunately are the ones that tend to stick in our memories and so we need to pay close attention to not ignore the positives so that our perceptions will not become skewed.

We must also become aware and cognizant of our “negative self-talk” and then learn the necessary skills to challenge these self-defeating inner statements. Don’t simply believe that what you think and what you feel is the truth. It is necessary to act like a detective and look for the facts to support your beliefs. In order to accomplish this, it is helpful to learn to identify the different forms of twisted thinking or cognitive distortions that our minds engage in. I will address this later on in the program. A cognitive distortion is pretzel-like thinking that causes you to believe things that are simply not true, and therefore will likely cause you to feel bad about yourself and pessimistic about your future.

Inside each of us exists a younger self or “inner child”, and if we are afflicted with low self-esteem our inner child never internalized a feeling of self-worth. Since the unconscious mind has no perception of time, we have an opportunity to try again to instill this feeling. We can provide for ourselves the types of supportive and compassionate responses that were lacking in the past but are necessary for the development of self-worth. We must pay close attention to the things we say silently to ourselves. We need to use kinder words, and stop with the self-condemning criticisms and character assassination. So, whenever you engage in negative self-talk, imagine you are saying these hurtful things to a hologram of your younger, vulnerable self, who is standing before you, and imagine the hurt in her eyes reflected back at you upon hearing these cruel words.

If you find it difficult to conjure up this mental image then perhaps you can try another exercise. On August 25, 2014, a successful executive created a public outcry when he was caught on a surveillance camera in an elevator kicking and yanking on the leash of a young female Doberman pincher who after the abuse is seen cowering and trembling in the corner. I watched that video and like many others found it heartbreaking to witness the cruelty meted out and the fear induced in this helpless animal. Perhaps you will find it easier to identify your “inner child” with the cowering little dog in the corner and the cruel figure as being symbolic of your abusive self because this is what you do to yourself when you engage in negative self talk.

Let’s return to the idea of getting to know your self better. It will be helpful for you to recognize the ways in which your feelings were invalidated since invalidation is a source of low self-worth. Invalidation can take many forms, some are obvious, and easy to recognize but others are more subtle. The following are examples of the kinds of attitudes and behaviors we might have experienced that caused us to falsely conclude that we weren’t important. It is also helpful to understand what might have motivated our parents to ignore our feelings or treat us with callous indifference so that we don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that it happened because we were not loved.

Our parents, once upon a time, were also little and dependent, and so it’s not unrealistic that they too have painful and unresolved feelings from their own childhoods. What this means is that the memories and feelings associated with those memories have been pushed down into the subconscious mind and hidden from awareness as a way of coping. Seeing their child’s distress, can therefore act as a conduit threatening to connect them with these disowned feelings. A parent may, therefore, reflexively turn away from their child in order to manage their growing anxiety by creatine distance from the memories that are pushing for release.

The child however, who is in need of soothing and comfort, experiences this withdrawal as a painful rejection believing that he is unloved. This mother, however, likely suffered her own emotional trauma in childhood, in which she felt unloved, and as a way of coping began to ignore her feelings, and pretend that she was unaffected.

Just like in behavioral conditioning, behavior that is ignored is eventually extinguished, feelings that are ignored will eventually become hidden from awareness. These suppressed memories do not get encoded, which means they are not put into words but are stored within the memory of the body instead, and are recalled in the form of anxiety.

Suppression is not the same as actively hiding something. With suppression, there is no awareness that something is being hidden and so unlike a hiding place, which can be forgotten, suppressed feelings and memories are never forgotten, they are only hidden from awareness, and remain in the subconscious mind. Just like the dragon in Lord of the Rings, who was awakened after a long slumber hidden deep in the mountain, so too can these memories and associated feelings be re-awakened and experienced as something terrifying.

I am also reminded of a movie, called American Ultra (2015), in which the main character is a government sleeper agent, who is activated upon hearing a nonsensical phrase recited by his handler. The words have no impact on anyone else but him but these particular words penetrate his subconscious mind, and what he knows, but has forgotten, is known again. The mother in my example, like the sleeper agent, is triggered when she sees her child’s distress. It activates hidden memories and associated feelings and so she turns away hoping that the painful memories will stop where they are, and return to their hiding place.

Another form of invalidation might be a parent who fails to sooth. Once again, a child may falsely conclude that they are not being comforted because they are unworthy of tenderness and love. Their parent, however, might not know how to provide comfort because soothing was never provided to them. Perhaps a parent feels entitled to steer their child into a future of their choosing because this was done to them, and they are simply repeating a familiar scenario. Or, perhaps a parent wants to prevent their child from making a mistake because they remember how horrible it felt to make a mistake, and so want to protect their child from having a similar painful experience.

Another possibility is that they see their child as an extension of themselves, and the idea that their child is not perfect causes them to feel like a failure. A parent may also want to live vicariously through their children, using their children to satisfy their unfulfilled dreams. A final example of invalidation is when a parent uses guilt or shame or withholds love as a way to manipulate and control their children’s actions. When children are exposed to these kinds of invalidating experiences, the way they often make sense of them is to falsely conclude that if their feelings are unimportant then they must not matter. This belief renders the self-esteem vulnerable to self-contempt.

It’s important to know that having low self-esteem is not a moral deficiency or personality defect but rather the unfortunate outcome of the false conclusions drawn to make sense of a painful situation. And so to reiterate, since these conclusions are influenced by the quality of care received from the important people in our lives, if we feel loved, we come to see ourselves as “loveable” and internalize a feeling of positive self-worth. If our feelings are ignored, we come to see ourselves as “unworthy” and internalize a negative feeling of self-worth. Low self–esteem, is a condition from which we can recover, but until then there is an ever-present fear or apprehension that our feelings of “unworthiness” will be confirmed as truth.

A fear of confirming one’s inadequacy

The best way to conceptualize a fear of confirming one’s inadequacy is analogous to waiting for a doctor to reveal the results of a medical test that will confirm something horrible to be true.
I’m reminded of the movie The Shallows (2016) in which the main character has escaped a fatal shark attack, and manages to find temporary protection on a rock outcropping in the ocean. Since the shark is close to the surface, she can see it circling around her slowly, and you can feel her sense of hopeless dread. In a similar way, a person with low self-esteem is also in a heightened state of anxiety because there is a question circling around in the mind like the ominous shadow circling just below the surface of murky water. This question isn’t clearly visible, its form is indistinct but you know it is threatening because the question is whether or not you are at your core fundamentally acceptable, and the unconscious fear is that you are not.

The belief of being “less than” or “insufficient” creates an anxiety that is often combated by the relentless pursuit of success. Achievement becomes all-important because those who doubt their value use their accomplishments as a measure to confirm their worth. Life becomes constricted and devoid of pleasure since all the focused attention is put exclusively into areas of achievement or rather into avoiding situations in which one might risk failure. Since success can never be guaranteed, and since the prospect of being anything less than perfect feels like failure, there is a reluctance to learn new things, and pursue opportunities.

Another common self-defeating behavior that manifests from the fear of confirming one’s perceived inadequacy is that of procrastination. What’s unfortunate about this tendency is that it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Procrastination increases the likelihood of failure because there is insufficient time to adequately prepare.

Denying weakness is another way that one’s fear gets expressed because any weakness or limitation is felt to be a confirmation of the depth of their deficiency. This is unfortunate because if a weakness is denied, the limitation will become more and more obvious as time passes, and then one’s fear of inadequacy will become a reality.

When I was a child, I fell out of a tree and broke my arm at the elbow. It was a bad break and my arm was in a cast for a long period of time. During that time the muscles grew weak and so when the cast was removed it was more comfortable for me to favor my strong arm. As one would predict the muscles continued to weaken, and my strong arm needed to be immobilized so that I would have no choice but to start using the weaker one. If action had not been taken the muscles would have completely atrophied and the damage would have been permanent.

Fear of confirming one’s inadequacy to others

In addition to the anxiety associated with confirming one’s inadequacy to oneself there is also a fear of exposing one’s inadequacy to others. A person such as this is therefore self-conscious and highly sensitive to scrutiny and judgment. There is a reluctance to share their thoughts, and feelings for fear that if their true and “unacceptable” self were to be revealed then the relationship will be threatened. Relationships therefore, take on a superficial quality, and lack real intimacy, resulting in feelings of loneliness and alienation, which are then used as evidence of defect.

Fear of loosing what one has

Since a person suffering from low self worth feels like an imposter 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 one’s accomplishments cannot be repeated. This is unfortunate because a truly capable person afflicted with low self-worth is scared to pursue challenges, and is therefore unlikely to reach his or her full potential.

Fear of abandonment

For some people, anxiety stems from a belief that they are bad, and undeserving of anything good. Filled with self-loathing they are likely to reject desirable people and healthy relationships since this is inconsistent with whom they believe themselves to be. They cannot understand how a desirable person would want them. They believe it is just a matter of time before they will be found out and rejected, and so they often sabotage their relationships. The motivation behind this self-defeating behavior is hidden from conscious awareness but the rejection will sadly be used to confirm their false belief that they will always be rejected.

All of these fears, the fear of confirming to oneself one’s own inadequacy, the fear of exposing one’s inadequacy to others, the fear of losing what one has, the fear of being rejected and abandoned, and the fear of being bad and undeserving, create a constant state of anxiety that can’t be understood the way a real external threat can. It is obvious, for example, to recognize that being held up at gunpoint is a real danger and therefore a rational fear. However, the kind of internal threat for a person with low self-worth is that their fear of being inadequate will be confirmed as truth.

Since we are discussing threat I would like to deviate slightly at this juncture and discuss a concept called the fight or flight response. This response refers to the physiological changes that take place in the body when we experience danger. The body does not distinguish between a real, and recognizable external threat and an unconscious internal threat. Psychoanalysts propose that anxiety stems from internal threat. According to their theory unwanted feelings and thoughts that have been dissociated require a lot of psychic energy to keep them hidden from awareness.

When this energy inevitably begins to fade, the body will feel the threat of these detached feelings striving to push through into conscious awareness and become exposed. It is this threat that activates the body’s natural fight or flight response, which releases cortisol, a stress hormone, and adrenalin into the bloodstream. Adrenalin alters the body’s physiology and creates a state of arousal: increasing heart rate, respiration, sweating, and if warning bells were to exist in the brain, a shrill alarm would be going off signaling the presence of danger. This process is automatic, it happens beyond our control, and is mediated by the system in the body called the Autonomic Sympathetic System.

We interpret these physical symptoms as evidence of danger, and when we feel threatened and vulnerable, predictable patterns of behaviors are manifested. If we are able to pay close attention to these patterns, and are open to the possibility that these behaviors exist when our self-esteem feels threatened, then armed with this insight we can evaluate whether or not a different way of responding would be more helpful instead of the old habitual and reflexive ways.

Common symptoms of low self-esteem

Hyper-vigilance

From an evolutionary perspective the hunter who was hyper-vigilant was unlikely to become the prey and so being in an alert state is protective, and often helpful. The problem with this heightened state of attention is that your threshold for perceiving danger is so low that you are likely to see things as threatening even when threat does not necessarily 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 who has been rejected in the past, and experienced it with great distress, is likely to remain hypersensitive to rejection, and therefore easily 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, they believe that others see them in the same diminished way and so anticipate disregard and disrespect. Since we see what we expect to see, if we anticipate slight and insult we will likely experience slight and insult even if it doesn’t exist.
Our defensive reaction is therefore likely to be an over-reaction causing a negative response, which will then be used as evidence of disrespect.

Viewing mistakes as unacceptable

For a person with low self-esteem making a mistake is unacceptable because it is seen as indicative of a personality flaw and personal shortcoming. A person afflicted with LSE will therefore find it difficult to acknowledge fault, they will have a tendency to blame others for their mistakes, and easily see themselves as the victim.

Attribution of Accomplishment to external factors

Since a feeling of efficacy is usually 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. This easily results in a defeatist attitude, leaving them feeling that they have no power to make a difference or bring about positive change.

There was an experiment conducted many years ago by Martin Seligman,who was a behavioral psychologist. In the first part of the experiment he wanted to establish, what’s called a classical conditioned response. He rung a bell and then immediately afterwards administered a light shock to a dog that was placed in a small electrified crate. After several of these pairings the dog learned to anticipate the shock when hearing the bell and would react as if he had just received the shock even when it hadn’t been administered. After conditioning had been established, the dog was placed in a larger crate with a low fence down the middle, one that was easy to jump over. The floor on the one side of the crate was electrified but not on the other. When Seligman put the dog on the electrified side and administered the shock, he expected the dog to jump over to the other side in order to escape the shock. Instead the dog lay down and took no action to avoid the shock. This poor animal had come to believe that he was helpless, and that there was nothing he could do to change the situation and so effort was futile.

The dog was unable to recognize that the circumstance was different, and that he was no longer unable to escape the shock since the fence was now low enough to jump over. This didn’t matter though because he had learned helplessness. He had internalized a feeling of powerlessness, and was therefore unable to make a distinction between that, which was in his control, and that, which was outside the limits of his control.

A compulsion to please

There is also a compulsion to please, which stems from the false belief that doing for others and making them happy will secure their love. Since a people pleaser is a ‘giver’, they often have a belief that others will appreciate their helpfulness, and selflessness and remain committed and loyal to the relationship. Even though ‘givers’ put the needs of others first, they silently expect others to do the same for them. This often creates conflict in a relationship because their expectation is analogous to a contract that is drawn up by only one person and then imposed upon the other. Since a person with low self-esteem needs to feel appreciated in order to feel acceptable, they may look for any opportunity to be helpful, and then become hurt when their help is not wanted or appreciated. Since there is this need to be liked, a person with low self-worth is vulnerable to being used and mistreated.

A Need for external validation

Since a feeling of positive self-worth has not been internalized, external validation becomes a necessary source of self-esteem, just like oxygen is necessary to maintain life. Since attention, approval, and admiration is needed to maintain the self-esteem, if others do not continuously provide these supplies, then they are experienced as failing them.

A Tendency to engage in controlling behaviors

Finally there is a tendency to engage in controlling behavior, which is 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 not then this is taken as evidence of their internal flaw. The fear of experiencing negative feelings will therefore result in controlling behaviors because the fantasy is: If you are able to control the actions and decisions of others then you will be able to control the situation, and bring about the outcome you want.

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