Low self-esteem and how Psychotherapy can help – Deidre Staveley
Self-esteem incorporates all the “self words” - self-concept, self-worth and self-image. It conjures up all the ideas we have about ourselves and what we think others think of us (O`Donnchada, 2000). It reflects a person`s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own self-worth. Our earliest experiences are internalised - they become part of who we are and how we interact with others. These early patterns set the stage for all the things we have to deal with for the rest of our lives. Therefore, we can recognise the importance of laying down the foundations and the structures to develop a healthy self-esteem, to enable us to move through life with a fluidity and ease. Self- esteem is the personal judgement of worthiness that is expressed in the attitudes the individual holds towards himself according to Coopersmith (1967), who considers parenting style to be the most important determinant of self-esteem. The central dimensions of parenting needed to promote self-esteem in the child are the acceptance of the child, setting clearly defined limits for the child`s behaviour, allowing individual expression and respecting the child`s unique personality and point of view. A sense of identity is an essential part of helping the child to develop as a separate and individual person, a sense of who he/she is and a confidence in his/her identity. By allowing the child to develop as an individual, we are allowing the child`s self- worth to grow and develop.
Self-esteem and Parental influences
Our growing-up experiences affect our self-esteem and continue to influence crucial aspects of our development. Relationships with those close to you-parents, teachers, peers, siblings and other contacts are especially important to your self-esteem. Many beliefs you hold about yourself today reflect messages you have received from those significant people who have had an influence in your life. If you received generally positive feedback, you are more likely to see yourself as worthwhile and have a healthier self-esteem. If you have received mostly negative feedback and were criticized, teased or devalued by others, you are more likely to struggle with poor self-esteem.
Parental validation enables a child`s self-mastery. This mastery develops and grows to include the ability to make decisions, to reason, to form and maintain relationships, to tolerate failure and disappointment and in turn determines the degree to which we respect and like ourselves. Low self-esteem can mean constant self-doubt and self-criticism, social anxiety and isolation, suppressed anger, loneliness and even a sense of shame. Our self-esteem develops during childhood and certain experiences may interfere with its development, for example: being subjected to criticism or abuse by parents and caretakers, neglect, having conflict with peers, being stigmatized for unusual appearance or behaviours; missing out on experiences that would foster a sense of confidence and purpose, or not receiving positive reinforcement for our accomplishments and achievements. Each one of us is a product of the family we are born into and the society in which we live. Within these structures we are constantly learning, observing and influenced by the behaviours of others and the world around us. Our very existence depends on our willingness to conform and obey to different degrees, but our later life reveals to what extent we have been influenced by our compliance, our conformity and other social influence processes.
Everyone has a critical voice, but people with low self-esteem tend to have a more vocal and intense critical voice. The critic is so woven into the fabric of your thoughts that it becomes an accepted part of your life, a part you don`t stop to question. Therefore, we fail to recognise the destructive and constant effect the critic has in our day to day life. Low self- esteem is reflected in negative thoughts and statements about the self.
The critic in you can:
• Automatically blame you when things go wrong.
• Remind you of your failures in life-but never remind of your accomplishments.
• Exaggerates your weaknesses - I`m useless, I can never complete anything, I will never achieve success in anything.
• Creates indecision-emanating from an exaggerated fear of making a mistake.
• Internalizes everything they perceive as negative.
• Diminishes your confidence in facing new challenges.
Challenges to Self-Esteem
Even a well-developed self-esteem can be challenged by sudden life changes or perceived failures, such as losing a job, ending a relationship, having financial troubles, and a host of other experiences and events that might cause us to question our worth or value.
We have all witnessed the consequences of the present economic downturn with unemployment, emigration and financial troubles. Unemployment is creating an unexpected challenge, resulting perhaps in a sense of helplessness that can overwhelm our coping ability and render us with a feeling of powerlessness. Low self-esteem comes from having a sense of having ` no control` over a situation. Additional pressures are being created in all our lives and how we learn to cope with these challenges will ultimately determine a healthier psychological recovery. Perhaps we have become accustomed to depending on our job description for our validation. When we can learn to look to ourselves for that validation, we can then develop a greater sense of self-worth and self- acceptance.
Self-blame is a distorted thinking style, a habit that manifests in blaming yourself for everything, whether you are actually at fault or not. Self-blame overlooks all the good qualities you possess, your accomplishments and achievements in life. We discount our achievements; consider them to be insignificant and in turn our concentration is directed towards how we have failed in certain aspects of our lives. Therefore, our thoughts and our perceptions can become distorted and misinterpreted. Our emotional states, physical reactions, and stress levels can all impact on how a person feels about their personal abilities in a particular situation. It is not however the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important, but rather how they are perceived and interpreted (Bandura, 1994).
How psychotherapy can help?
Psychotherapy and Counselling provide support in times of challenge and uncertainty. It enables the person to express, perhaps for the first time, their thoughts, feelings and emotions and develop the resources and skills to facilitate a new way forward. This enables the person seeking therapy to feel accepted and supported while expressing their feelings and emotions and the opportunity to talk about anything that is of concern to them. A therapist can work with someone to help identify the cause of their emotional turmoil, re-evaluate their negative self-beliefs, develop coping strategies and set goals to enable the person to feel empowered and help them to regain control. Most people can identify goals they want to accomplish, things they would like to change and things they would like to achieve. However, they may experience a lack of motivation and difficulty achieving these goals. Individual therapy can help you to recover from old hurts and develop self-esteem and the courage to try again. A person`s self-perception changes in response to consistent encouragement and acceptance, creating a renewed sense of purpose in their life.
When we can talk about ourselves with acceptance, in a positive and understanding way, we are acknowledging our own level of self-esteem. In time, a person can begin to recognise their own potential, their own capability and their own achievements. Critical self-talk can have a very damaging and destructive impact on the way we conduct our lives. Through an exploration of chronic negative self- talk and confronting our cognitive distortions, we can create a more accurate and realistic self-evaluation. By introducing cognitive restructuring techniques, we can recognise negative behaviour, eliminate obstacles and achieve goals with greater ease by focusing on developing self- esteem and social adeptness.
No psychological health is possible unless this essential care of the person is fundamentally accepted, loved and respected by others and by himself...
Bandura , A. (1977).
Self-efficacy: Toward unifying theory of behavioural change. Psychological Review.84 191-215.
Coopersmith, S. (1967).
The antecedents of self-esteem. W.H. Freeman: San Francisco.
Maslow, A.H. (1970)
Motivation and Personality (2nd ed.), Harper&Row: New York.
Mc Kay, M & Fanning, P. (1992).
Self-Esteem. Second Edition. New Harbinger Publications: CA.
O`Donnchada, R. (2000).
The Confident Child : A guide to Fostering Personal Effectiveness in Children. Gill & Macmillin Ltd: Dublin.