Helping you get through tough times

Self-esteem

Building our self-esteem is something most of us will have to work on all our lives. A lot of us will never reach a stage in life where we feel 100% secure about ourselves.

Certain everyday events can take a toll on our self-esteem, just like other events can make us feel better about ourselves.

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What exactly is self-esteem?

Put simply, it’s how well you think of yourself in comparison to others. Having low self-esteem means you feel like you don’t measure up to other people or their expectations.

Good self-esteem doesn’t mean being arrogant. People with good self-esteem don’t have to go around saying how great they are because they already feel OK with themselves.

Low self-esteem can stem from things that happened in childhood, like feeling unloved or experiencing an abusive relationship. It can happen after a traumatic incident, or an accident. It can also be a symptom of depression, if it affects your ability to function on a daily basis.

But sometimes people feel insecure about themselves for no obvious reason. They might be naturally shy, or unsure of themselves in social situations.

Signs of low self-esteem include:

  • feeling like you’ll fail before you even start something
  • feeling like you’re the odd one out all the time
  • feeling like everyone’s looking at you and judging you
  • feeling like you have nothing interesting to say
  • feeling like you can’t accept compliments
  • feeling like you have no talents
  • feeling too scared to try new things
  • not standing up for yourself when someone picks on you.

Aggressive behaviour, like bullying, can also be a sign of low self-esteem. If someone picks on other people, they’re probably doing it to make themselves feel good. Bringing other people down gives them a false feeling of self-confidence.

For a while, they feel like they’re better off than the person they’re bullying. Those feelings fade very quickly, meaning the bully will often repeat this pattern of behaviour. See bullying for more.

Self-esteem and relationships

Low self-esteem can influence the way you behave with other people. For instance, you might find yourself being unassertive (not saying what you think, feel or want), or doing things you don’t want to do.

Or you might find yourself trying too hard to please other people – agreeing with them and offering to do things for them in order to ‘earn’ their friendship.

Low self-esteem can also cause us to seek reassurance from our friends, because deep down, we’re not sure they like us. Sometimes we allow others to push us around because we believe our needs don’t matter.

Being treated badly by other people can reinforce the belief that we’re not good enough, and can lower our self-esteem even more.

Building self-esteem

When things go wrong, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of negative thinking or to blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault. It’s important to put things into perspective.

Just because you’ve failed a test, doesn’t mean you’re going to do badly in all your exams. Just because someone in class says something behind your back doesn’t mean everyone is talking about you.

Tips for feeling good about yourself:

  • Find something you like – even if it’s something small, you can always find something good about yourself to concentrate on. Maybe you’re known for your organisational skills, or maybe you’ve a good sense of humour. Identify something good, then build on it. Positive self-talk can help you build your self-esteem.
  • Act confident – sometimes the more confidently you behave, the more confident you begin to feel. If you feel like walking into a lecture hall with your head down and your eyes on the floor, change your behaviour. Stand up straight, make eye contact. Inside you might be quaking with self-consciousness, but if you begin to look confident, you might start believing it yourself.
  • Roll with the punches – when things go wrong, don’t use it as an opportunity to berate yourself for your failings. Instead, examine what happened, decide where you went wrong and use the experience as a learning curve. The more things that go wrong, the more lessons you learn.
  • Be nice – sometimes when people have low self-esteem, they can try and mask it by being overly critical or sarcastic about others. Carried to an extreme, this can lead to bullying behaviour. It sounds like a cliché, but being nice to other people, means they’ll be nice to you. Getting on well with others can bolster your self-confidence.
  • Be assertive – people with low self-confidence tend to react in one of two ways during a confrontation. It’s easy to feel as if you’re being attacked, so it can be hard to stick up for yourself. Some people simply surrender; others react with aggression to hide their insecurities. Don’t get angry but do stick up for yourself, in a calm, rational manner.
  • Don’t compare – there’s always going to be people who seem like they have the perfect life. But you never know what life’s really like for anyone else, and everyone has their own challenges. Focus on your own strengths and not on competing with others to build your confidence.
  • Make a list – write down five things you like about yourself, and keep them somewhere very visible. If you feel like it would help, write down three practical things about yourself that you would like to change or improve.

Accepting yourself

The word “should” can be dangerous to our sense of self-esteem. It’s a word used to express beliefs about how you should or shouldn’t be, or things you should or shouldn’t do.

Thinking too much about the word “should”, particularly in terms of achievements, appearance and relationships, can make us feel inadequate. Instead, try focusing on accepting and liking yourself as you are, and not as you should be.

The key to good self-esteem is self-acceptance. This means not waiting until you’re perfect before you can accept yourself. When you practise self-acceptance, you accept yourself completely, without criticising or judging yourself.

This doesn’t mean you can’t want to improve yourself, or work towards a particular goal. It’s important to set goals for things we’d like to achieve, or change things we’re not happy with.

Avoid setting conditions. Resist the temptation to tell yourself you’ll be ok if only you lose weight, or pass that exam. Having good self-esteem means liking yourself whether or not you succeed.

Challenging critical self-talk

When friends come to us with a problem we often help them by pointing out another perspective on the situation. So when they feel stupid because they didn’t pass an exam, we could point out that it’s not that they’re really bad at the subject, they just didn’t study hard enough for it.

The secret is to do this for yourself as well. Maintaining healthy self-esteem requires you to be aware of your self-talk. Recognise unhelpful self-critical thoughts and challenge your put-downs.

Your self-esteem levels can be worked on. Good self-esteem isn’t something you can achieve overnight, but it’s something you can work on and improve over time.

This article was last reviewed on 03 May 2017

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