Signs of Low Self Esteem

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: “Shortcomings” by They Dream By Day, Rospigg, & Bjurman

What Are the Signs of Low Self Esteem?

Do you struggle to feel good about yourself? Do you compare yourself unfavorably to others? If you make a mistake or experience a setback, do you assume that it’s because of your personal flaws or shortcomings? Do you assume that people don’t like you, and anticipate rejection at every turn? 

These are just a few signs of low self esteem, and if they’re present in you, it’s hard to feel confident in your own abilities and generally secure around other people. As a therapist and online life coach, I’ve worked with countless clients over the years who struggled with low self esteem. I know that this is an exhausting and disempowering way to live, but the good news is that with the right support, you can start to feel good about yourself again. 

On this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, we’re talking all about self esteem to provide you with insight and direction about how to achieve healthy self esteem and stay confidently connected to your self-worth through the ups and downs of life. 

Specifically, we’re discussing:

  • The importance of self esteem
  • Signs of low self esteem
  • Causes of low self esteem
  • How to improve your self esteem
  • How to know if you have self esteem problems

Tune in below or join me on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or Stitcher (or anywhere you get your podcasts!). 

The Importance of Self Esteem

Self esteem refers to your basic trust in yourself and your sense that you are worthy of love and respect. People with healthy self esteem are usually able to take setbacks in stride and cope with disappointment, set healthy boundaries with others, take guidance from their feelings, be appropriately assertive, and trust in their ability to be effective and make good decisions.  

People with healthy self esteem typically feel good about themselves, and more importantly, are able to support themselves compassionately when they don’t. 

When people with high self esteem experience inevitable rejection or disappointment, they have a realistic understanding of all the factors that may have contributed to their negative experience — not just singular focus on their own shortcomings.

Perhaps most importantly, people with healthy self esteem tend to be effective in relationships. Because they have a strong sense of themselves, they are able to stay calm(ish) when their partner or loved one is upset. They’re also able to have empathy for their partner’s feelings and perspective without feeling that their own is being attacked or criticised. Because they do not need approval or external validation to feel okay about themselves, they are able to tolerate moments when their partner is not at their best without becoming over-reactive. 

Because people with high self esteem trust their feelings and have a general core belief that they are worthy of being treated well, they tend to talk openly about how they feel, ask for what they need, and swiftly set healthy boundaries with people who are being abusive or disrespectful to them

Some Signs of Low Self Esteem

If you don’t feel like you are a fundamentally “good enough” person who is worthy of love and respect, you may blame yourself for many things and have a vicious inner critic berating you from the inside out. People with low self esteem often feel inappropriately guilty and ashamed, and are often consumed by negative thoughts about themselves

One of the hallmark signs of low self esteem is a tendency to compare yourself to other people, and often feel that you’re not as good as others are. Particularly for young people, feelings of low self esteem can be amplified by social media use, as they compare the curated images and “highlight reel” of others to their own life experiences… and feel like they’re falling short.

If you’re suffering from low self esteem it’s difficult for you to trust yourself. This often takes the form of minimizing your own feelings — particularly dark (but protective!) emotions like sadness and legitimate anger. When you feel guilt or shame for feeling upset, it is difficult to set healthy boundaries with other people, or talk about how you feel or what you need with others. This, in turn, has a negative impact on relationships. And having difficult relationships, contributes further to your feelings of low self esteem.

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Causes of Low Self Esteem

If you’re wondering, “Why do I have low self esteem?” here’s an overview of some of the common causes of low self esteem:

  1. Depression 
  2. Trauma
  3. Experiencing Loss and Grief
  4. Feeling “stuck” in a Toxic Relationship

Self Esteem and Depression

Low self esteem is one of the symptoms of major depressive disorder. This is an important distinction, because if depression is present, it may be causing feelings of low self esteem (low self esteem does not necessarily cause depression!) If you get into mental health treatment for depression, ideally using an evidence based form of therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy, as your depression lifts, it will also contribute to raising your self esteem.

Self Esteem and Trauma

People who have experienced a number of adverse life experiences including childhood abuse or neglect, or other significant early traumas may have symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD, one of which is low self esteem. Getting involved in high-quality, sometimes longer-term trauma-focused, evidenced-based psychotherapy will often help heal your self esteem as you work through the trauma.

Other Causes of Low Self Esteem

While mental illnesses like depression or PTSD can create feelings of low self esteem, it is also true that many people who suffer from low self esteem have not lived through extreme abuse, neglect or trauma, nor are they suffering from symptoms of depression. 

Sometimes they’ve experienced a loss such as a breakup, divorce, or layoff that has been a gut punch to their self esteem. People who’ve been stuck in a toxic relationship will often feel badly about themselves. 

Other times, what causes low self esteem is simply a long-standing negative thought pattern that emphasizes personal shortcomings, and overlooks strengths and successes. Shifting that inner dialogue can help people start feeling better about themselves and their lives.

How to Improve Low Self Esteem

There are a number of effective strategies for how to overcome low self esteem. Generally speaking, passive, insight-oriented “talk therapy” that seeks to create connections between life events and why you feel so badly about yourself, if not rooted in actual trauma work, will often just make you feel worse and more broken. Endlessly talking about how badly you feel about yourself, and why, will only amplify these feelings and make you feel increasingly stuck in them. 

A far more effective approach for how to overcome low self esteem is through a more positive, action-oriented approach such as CBT for self esteem. This type of therapy for self esteem does not keep you focused on the past, but rather teaches you new strategies to identify and shift negative, self-limiting thoughts. 

CBT also emphasizes empowerment, and encourages you to actively participate in behaviors that challenge you, and provide you with opportunities to experience your own competence. 

This strengths-based approach to self esteem counseling helps you correct the core beliefs about your “worthlessness” because it teaches you how to feel confident and effective in different situations. 

Another fantastic strategy for how to have high self esteem is through evidence-based life coaching that utilizes cognitive behavioral strategies. Particularly if your low self esteem is related to a recent loss or setback, this type of life coaching can help you feel better about yourself faster. 

Positive, future-focused life coaching can also teach you how to change the way you think, teaches you new skills for how to be more effective in common situations (particularly around communication and emotional intelligence). But good life coaching for self esteem will also help you set achievable goals and then take action to achieve them. Doing so, and creating a new reality for yourself, will help you feel positive, confident, and more trusting in your own abilities. 

Do You Have Low Self Esteem?

One helpful tool to measure your self esteem is our “How Healthy is Your Self Esteem Quiz.” This is an online self esteem test that explores whether or not (and to what extent) you have the signs of low self esteem. You can take this self esteem test online, and then get a report showing your results and recommendations for how to raise your self esteem. 

Self Esteem Podcast

For even more on this topic and a deep dive into the signs of low self esteem, the difference between “high self esteem” and “healthy self esteem,” an exploration of the causes of low self esteem, why traditional therapy can amplify feelings of low self esteem, and insight into the most effective ways of raising your self esteem, listen to this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. 

Warmly,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Signs of Low Self Esteem

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: “Shortcomings” by They Dream By Day, Rospigg, & Bjurman

Free, Expert Advice — For You.

Subscribe To The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. And you’re listening to The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. 

[Intro Song: Shortcomings by They Dream By Day, Rospigg feat. Bjurman]

Dr. Lisa: That haunting song, I think that’s really the only word to describe haunting is a song by Bjurman called Shortcomings. And I thought it was the perfect intro for us today because today we are tackling a big and very important topic. Today, we are talking about the signs of low self esteem so that in order to develop awareness about what low self esteem is, what it looks like out in the world, and also what it’s not. Additionally, we’re going to be touching on some of the causes of low self esteem. And most importantly, some ways to raise it so that you can feel confident and trusting of yourself as you go about your life because it makes a big difference when you have that confidence. 

Today’s experiential self-discovery activity is a How Healthy is Your self esteem self-assessment that I created just for you. You can get access to that by texting the word esteem, e-s-t-e-e-m to the number, 55444, or by visiting growingself.com/signs-of-low-self esteem/. It is the most recent blog post if you’re listening to this podcast around the time it comes out. I will also have a link to this assessment on my Instagram Linktree thingy, which you can get to at Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby on Instagram. Click on the link in my bio, it’ll take you to the tree and you’ll see a link to the How Healthy Is Your self esteem Assessment

If this is your first time listening to the podcast, welcome. I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I’m the Founder and Clinical Director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. We’re based in Denver, Colorado. But at this point, we have gone entirely online. We still do have offices that I am, yes, paying rent for the foreseeable future that absolutely no one is using because of this whole COVID situation, as are our many businesses. So we exist now entirely in the cloud, which is where I am connecting with you, my dear listener, every Monday for The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast where we’re talking about all kinds of different things. But all under the big umbrella of helping you feel good about yourself and your life, helping you have happy, healthy, satisfying relationships, and helping you do good things in the world and achieve your definition of success, whatever that might be. That is our general agenda. 

And today, our specific agenda is to talk about the topic of self esteem, and how it relates to all of those lofty goals: love, happiness, and success. And I’ll tell you why I felt really motivated to discuss this today. I spent a bunch of time recently going back through all of the comments and questions you guys have been leaving for me on the blog at growingself.com, and there were a lot of them. And so, I’m sorry that it took me a little while to get through all of those. But if you have left a comment on the blog, growingself.com, you might want to check back there sometime soon. Because I may have replied to you. I do try to reply to all those personally. 

And as I was going through all of these questions, what I was hearing over, and over, and over were questions from readers, from listeners about how to raise their self esteem. Because they believed that their low self esteem was responsible for a lot of the problems they were having or experiences they were having, particularly related to relationships. And I heard a lot from people who felt like they were just stuck in this space of low self esteem. And even that a number of them were engaged in therapy where they were just rehashing all this over, and over, and over, and trying to connect the dots about why their self esteem was low, but feeling they weren’t making any progress and feeling better about themselves. And then it felt like any hopes for a happy future were dependent on this. 

And as I was reading through those, I thought, “Oh, no. This is not helpful at all.” And so, I really wanted to dive into this topic to have a realistic conversation again, about what low self esteem is, what it isn’t, and how to move forward, and change this experience. Because no one deserves to stay here for a moment longer than they have to, right?

Defining Self Esteem

So let’s dive in here. Let me read you one of the questions that I got on the blog that was just like, “Oh, this is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.” This anonymous writer shares that he has been struggling in the aftermath of a breakup and feeling attached to an ex. And he says, “And I know, this has nothing to do with her. I’ve been in and out of therapy since I started high school. And I know that this whole thing is going on for me has to do with the fact that my self esteem is at an all-time low. My self esteem has been the crux of every relationship I’ve had for as long as I can remember. It’s always been thin, but now it’s at a low point. I’m trying to do things to build my self esteem, to feel better about myself, to feel happy about myself, because I know that’s the key for me. But am I just doomed to be haunted by her until I build my self esteem back up?” 

And you can just– This is an aside insert… “Am I doomed to be stuck in whatever unpleasant life circumstance right here?” Because I got that question from a number of other listeners as well. And he goes on to say, “Because repairing my self esteem could take months or even years. Am I doomed to be stuck in this space, even though I know what it’s really about?” And so again, there’s this idea that until his self esteem is better, he is doomed to be unhappy and unable to create healthy relationships. And I also got the sense from his question and a number of others that the “therapy” that they have been engaging in efforts to try to make this better, is not leading to results, and it is creating frustration. 

So I wrote a long, loving answer specific to this gentleman on the blog, growingself.com. But let’s just start breaking this down together so that we can have a conversation about this. First of all, let’s talk about low self esteem or self esteem in general. Okay, so when we talk about self esteem, right, that’s such a pop-psych word, what are we even talking about? Let’s define our term here. 

So self esteem refers to having a general sense of your own worth and also trusting yourself: trusting yourself to make good decisions, trusting your feelings, trusting your ability to be empowered in your little world, that you have, what we call in this field of psychology, an internal locus of control, meaning, “I have the power to change things in my orbit in the way I want them to be changed.” So all of these things go back to having a relatively healthy sense of self esteem. 

And this is important because if you don’t believe in yourself, and trust yourself, and have a general sense of your basic okayness, it can create a number of problems. And we will talk through what some of those are. But even more importantly, I really want to talk with you about how to improve self esteem and the strategies that are effective in doing that. Because I think to buy in too deeply to this idea that all of your problems are stemming from low self esteem can really turn into this personal growth cul-de-sac where it feels like you’re just going around, and around, and around. And you can’t change the way you feel. So you can’t change your life. So you keep feeling bad about yourself. And so you can’t change your life. And we’re going to just blast right out of that and talk about ways to actually change that. Because perseverating on your parents’ divorce or the fact that your father was emotionally disengaged for three years in therapy does not make that better. So you deserve better than that. And we’re going to talk about that. 

Okay. So first of all, let’s dive in a little bit to the signs of low self esteem so that you can understand what these are. And again, if you would like to get a little snapshot of where you are with all of these, text the word, esteem to 55444, and you can work along with the assessment and be thinking about your results as we discuss. So generally speaking, low self esteem tends to show up in a few different domains: one is a tendency to compare, another relates to self-trust, there is a third domain relating to self-criticism, a fourth that leads to fun catastrophic thinking. And then there is also a fifth relational domain that low self esteem tends to manifest in. So we’re going to talk through these. 

But also before we do, I would like to introduce to you a possibly new, possibly heretical idea about self esteem just for you to think about as we’re talking through these. I think, particularly in our American culture, there is this core belief or ideal that we should have extremely high levels of self esteem. And that is a good thing, that if somebody took my How Healthy Is Your self esteem quiz and scored 100%, that would be like, “Yes, I nailed it.” And actually, what is true is that having extremely high levels of self esteem can cause just as many problems as low levels of self esteem, like very low levels of self esteem. The problems that people with very high levels of self esteem have are not often problems that they themselves perceive as directly impacting them. But many times, those problems impact other people. 

So again, if you could imagine a bell curve, if you will. So most people are somewhere in the middle, and then there’s two tails with a low end and a high end. What tends to be most helpful for people is to have levels of self esteem that are somewhere in the middle, or middle to high, right? Average to average high levels of self esteem confer strengths. And we will talk about what those strengths are. But if you have really high levels of self esteem, it actually makes it harder for you, particularly in relationships. And we’ll talk about why that is, too. Now, of course, if you have exceptionally low levels of self esteem, that creates a number of different problems in the areas that I discussed. And so, I just want you to keep that in mind as we’re talking through these. And because if you hear yourself in some of these descriptions, that may not necessarily always be a bad thing. 

And also, as we talk through these and what your experience is if you take the quiz that I designed is that I think everybody struggles with some of this to a degree in certain situations. And so, we’re also looking at the pervasiveness of it and the extremeness of it. So if you occasionally feel some of these ways, it’s okay. I just wanted to say that out loud before we dive in. So you don’t listen to this and think, “Oh, no,” Because it’s really, it’s all okay.

Tendency to Compare

So first of all, when it comes to the comparison category, let me talk about some of the signs of really low self esteem. So people with very low self esteem tend to look around at other people and compare themselves unfavorably to other people. So they look at what other people are doing, or wearing, or driving, or posting on social media. And they think whatever they’re doing, or driving, or wearing is not quite as good as whatever somebody else is doing. And there’s also a tendency to assume that other people are happier, more competent, more likeable, better at whatever, or have something figured out that you don’t. And that other people feel like life feels easier for them. That can be another core belief for people with very low self esteem. 

And because of that tendency to compare, sometimes people with very low self esteem can work really, really, really hard to maintain their facade. They are jumping through hoops and accumulating gold stars, and taking great care with their appearance, and try really hard to seem as perfect as possible. So that they can seem like maybe they’re good enough, even though–and I think there’s more actually a function of–it’s because they don’t feel quite good enough without their efforts towards perfection. And as you can imagine, these tendencies of people with very low self esteem are challenging because, first of all, they’re exhausting. It is really hard and disempowering to constantly be comparing yourself to others and feeling like you don’t quite ever measure up in whatever anybody else is doing is always better than you. And killing yourself to try to be some imaginary definition of perfect, thinking that will help you seem better in the eyes of the world or cover up these perceived flaws. So that is not helpful. 

And what is also not helpful is a real extreme opposite end of that where, maybe, you compare yourself very favorably to other people. And you really do feel like you’re just a little bit better than most other people. And that, maybe, you do have things figured out that other people don’t have figured out. And that your way of being, and your opinions, and whatever, are actually better. That leads to unhappy relationships because your leading edge is one of judgment and conceit. And that makes other people feel bad. And it also deprives you of the ability to have a lot of empathy for others or take into consideration the lived experience of other people. So that’s not really helpful either. What is helpful is to be paying attention to what other people are doing and monitoring your progress. We are a collective species. We are social learners. And we learn from other people. 

And so, people with healthy levels of that middle-of-the-road self esteem, are often able to take in information from others and compete in a healthy way. They see other people and, maybe, feel inspired to do bigger and better things. But they don’t fall into this, “I’m a horrible, worthless person trap.” It’s more like, “I feel inspired to be my best self,” way of thinking. And also, that they have a desire to have the happiest, healthiest, best versions of themselves that they can. And I think also though, in that real healthy middle-of-the-road self esteem, there is a solid self-awareness of the fact that other people aren’t really that happy or–no, let me say–aren’t that much happier or more content in their lives than you are. 

And I think that imparts them from the fact that people with healthy levels of self esteem do often have healthy connections with others. And so, they know that their friends are more than their social media posts. And they know the whole story. And they know that everybody is working on things, and growing, and maybe, trying to put their best foot forward, but also still a work in progress. And that no one has a monopoly on the truth, or on success, or anything like that. So there’s more of a realistic assessment of the fact that we’re all in the same boat, just struggling, and trying to do good things, and failing sometimes, and succeeding at others. And that’s okay. So that’s the healthy self esteem mindset.

Trusting Yourself

Now, another area where low self esteem tends to rear its ugly head and be unhelpful is particularly in the domain of trusting yourself. So for example, people who have very low self esteem, they do not carry inside of them a high opinion of themselves. So they really struggle to feel like they’re good enough even on basic levels. And because of that, they need other people to tell them or show them that they are okay. So you may have heard the phrase external validation. That means that you’re looking out for someone to be holding up a mirror saying, “You’re good enough. You did a good job. I like you. I love you. I accept you. I think you’re nice.” People who have very low self esteem, because they do not have that inner dialogue, they need other people to do it for them. 

And so, they can become very dependent on that. And in addition, really looking outwards to other people can lead to a disconnection with your own feelings, particularly your own truth. So not trusting yourself to make good decisions and asking other people what they think you should do, because you fundamentally don’t believe that you can figure it out by connecting to your own inner wisdom, or that you’re competent to do X, Y, Z. So it’s shopping around ideas; what do you think all the time? Also, feeling that ineffective. People with low self esteem might want to do positive things or make positive changes in their lives, but they have this core belief that they can’t really do it. So they try a little bit. And then at the first sign of it not going quite the way they’d hoped, they’re like, “That’s it. I can’t do it.” And they collapse and they stop trying. So that can be another real problem related to low self esteem. 

Furthermore, people with very low self esteem really struggle to legitimize and take information from their own feelings, particularly their dark emotions like sadness, or anger. People with really low self esteem will blame themselves for feeling sad. “I shouldn’t feel that way.” “All these people are starving in whatever corner of the world so I should be more grateful.” Or if they feel angry, they will feel guilty that they feel angry and try to talk themselves out of it. And along the same lines, again, that disconnection from feelings, for example, anger, if you don’t have a solid connection to your anger and that wait-just-a-second sort of feeling, it is very difficult to set boundaries with other people or to ask for what you need. If you can’t tell that you’re sad and that it’s okay for you to be sad, and maybe, you do actually need help, how can you possibly be appropriately assertive and say to someone, “I’m not okay right now and here’s what I need.” You can’t. 

So people with very low self esteem struggle to do that. Also, there’s this general sense that because their feelings are bad or wrong somehow, they struggle to share those feelings with other people for fear of upsetting other people or being judged by other people. And really, it’s a projection because they’re, oftentimes, judging themselves for having bad feelings. And so, they assume that other people will judge them as well. 

Lastly, another phenomenon that is related to this not trusting oneself… Because people who have very low self esteem struggle to legitimize their own healthy feelings of sadness, anger, self-protection, they will often tolerate bad behavior or thoughtless behavior, inconsiderate behavior from other people much longer than they should. And if/when it does finally build up to the point where they’re like, “I can’t take this one more second. How dare you!” It tends to be explosive and big. And so, that can be disruptive to relationships. 

Whereas, someone who has a healthier sense of self esteem, a stronger level of self esteem–that middle ground again–will be able to say, “I’m feeling angry right now,” when it’s a three, as opposed to a nine. And they’ll be able to say, “Why do I feel angry? You know, what? It’s because this happened. And this is actually hurting my feelings. And I think if I want to have a good relationship with this person going forward, they probably need to know about this so that we can work together to not have that happen again.” Or that, “I need to set some boundaries around my time because I don’t want to wind up feeling resentful.” 

These are all inner dialogues that people with healthy levels of self esteem tend to have. And it’s based on a trust in themselves and the sense that they are competent to know what’s okay with them, what’s not okay with them, their feelings are valid. And that there is a general sense of competence in solving problems or communicating with other people. And that if/when they do, other people won’t hate them because they said how they were feeling, that there is this general understanding that it is okay for them to have feelings, to need things. That’s what we all need. So that’s what that healthy part looks like. 

Now, of course, if we go into the unhealthy spectrum here, when people are supremely confident, and know that they are really great, and probably better than most people, there can be a certain fragility when other people don’t agree with that. They expect maybe to get special treatment. They expect to be thought of extremely well. They expect that other people will defer to their feelings, wants, and needs. And also, that it’s okay for them to vent any and all feelings without any filter or consideration for how other people may receive them, which again, can take a toll on relationships when people go too far in the other direction, or have long lists of rules and demands that other people need to follow. So we don’t want to go all the way to that side of the spectrum either, do we? 

Self-Criticism or Complaint

So another general domain for low self esteem can show up in the area of criticism or complaint. People with very unhelpfully low levels of self esteem tend to beat themselves up just mercilessly. Whatever they do is not quite good enough. And if they make even the tiniest mistake, or even if they don’t do something perfectly, like 100%, it’s just this really self-critical inner dialogue that makes them feel really bad about themselves. And just this running commentary around like, “You’re so weird. Why are you so… Why would you say that? Who says that? Nobody else says stuff like that. Everybody hates you.” 

It just goes on, and on, and on, and on until these global, even name-calling kinds of self-critical thoughts. And it’s just a huge spiral downward. And along those same lines, this is often in combination with a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong, and broken about you, and that you are just uniquely horrible among people, and that you are inherently unlovable, unlikable, and, “What’s wrong with you anyway?” 

And so, it’s just really not helpful because when you have this inner dialogue going on in your head, it is paralyzing. Nothing you do is ever good enough. Because even if you were perfect, that critical inner voice would be like, “Oh, okay. Now, you’re like Miss Perfect, right? Now you think you’re so much better than everybody else, don’t you? Why do you try so hard anyway?” You can’t win. You can’t win. So some of that is not helpful. 

And what also interestingly happens in people with really low levels of self esteem, because they believe that they are so awful, when someone: friend, partner, co-worker boss, comes to them with even constructive feedback, or–God forbid–in the context of a relationship, a partner may actually be upset with you about something, sometimes. It’s been known to happen, right? 

But it is so overwhelmingly catastrophic because it ties into all of these worst core fears and anxieties that people shut down and, interestingly, can get really defensive. It’s like a fight for death. And it turns into this big, black and white, all or nothing thing. Somebody’s boyfriend says, “I really prefer when we put our keys on that little key rack on the inside of the door when we come home. Otherwise, I wind up, I can’t find them. I’m looking for them all over. Would you put your keys on that rack from now on when you come in?” Somebody with really low self esteem will be like, “Oh, he hates me. I’m the worst girlfriend he’s ever had. He’s probably thinking about breaking up with me right now. He probably is comparing me to his last girlfriend.” 

And it just turns into this big mushroom thing. And someone is so paralyzed and overwhelmed with all of these horrible ideas that it turns into this fight or flight response. And there is a good likelihood that either they will freeze, and withdraw, and go into their room for three days, or lash back out at their boyfriend, like, “You don’t love me! You’re cheating on me. Aren’t you?” or whatever.  So that can happen. I know it sounds extreme. And I’m talking about it in hyperbolic terms. But it can lead to some really interesting things, this tendency to self-criticize. 

Now, a healthy, middle-of-the-road self esteem is very open and even grateful for constructive feedback that helps them learn and grow. If we go to that overly high, self-confident extreme, what you will see is people who know everything about everything. And they cannot hear what other people are saying about feedback, about the way they’re being received because it’s ridiculous, because they’re perfect. They can’t take guidance from other people. They are not open to learning and growing because they have it all figured out. 

So the middle of the road self esteem would look like an eagerness almost for, “Okay, I did a good job. And this is something that I’m still developing around. Let me take a realistic look at how this project went,” say at work. “Well, I’m 90% really pleased with how this went. And 10% is here’s what I’ll probably tweak next time in my process to make that go a little bit more smoothly.” And if you can imagine, there’s this realistic sense of oneself, and appreciation for all of the strengths, and helpful parts, and good things, but also this awareness in the most healthy way of like, “Where are my growing edges? Where am I still learning? Where am I developing? How could I have maybe communicated that a little bit better? What would I do with that next time?” 

And that is not self-criticism. That is a commitment, really, I think, to be in one’s best self, which comes from a realistic ability to notice what went well, what didn’t go well, what will I do again. And that is a phenomenal strength for people who have that ability to notice what they do well, and also keep an eye on where they’re developing. That is wonderful. And so, if you have extraordinarily high self esteem, you wouldn’t be able to do that–the growth part of it. So there’s that. 

Tendency to Catastrophize

Now, another tendency that we’ve talked about a little bit already and other aspects is people with very low self esteem have a tendency to catastrophize. And so it is, oftentimes, based on jumping to conclusions about what is happening. Oftentimes, jumping to conclusions about what other people are thinking or feeling, usually about you, right? So jumping to a conclusion that somebody doesn’t like you. And it all really stems from this general core belief, this general feeling like, “I don’t like me. I don’t feel good about myself. Therefore, I am going to emotionally project my truth onto the imagined psyches of all the people around me. So I’m going to assume people don’t like me. I am going to assume that if something didn’t go the way that I wanted it to, it was because of a fundamental deficit or flaw on my part. And that if I had been a better and more worthy person, that would have gotten differently, right? I would have gotten the job. That relationship would not have ended,” whatever it was. 

And then also, really, that… Being convinced somehow that there is something better, there is some other version of yourself that if you could only figure out how to be it, you wouldn’t be having the same problems or experiences that you are. And that unless and until you magically figure out how to be better, you will be stuck repeating the same old patterns over, and over, and over, and over again. And that your life will be terrible until you do. Remember the question that we read through together at the beginning of the podcast? This poor guy is like, “Until I figure out how to feel better about myself, I can never have another relationship. I can never get over my ex. I have to love myself first.” And it’s like, that is just this… I’m thinking of an unhelpful term that I’ll have to bleep out. But it’s this circular reasoning that you can’t fight your way through, and it keeps you stuck, and it keeps you dragged down. 

Now, in contrast, people with average to average high levels of self esteem have a much more realistic sense of themselves that, “Some people probably don’t like me. And a lot of people probably do like me. And generally speaking, I try to be a nice person. I am kind and considerate to others. I have not actually done anything horrible to another human that would be deserving of my being written out on a rail.” And this self-talk that is reassuring, that tells people they are basically good enough. They are not perfect. They have room to grow. And you know, what? Maybe that relationship ended in part because of things that you didn’t know at the time or your way of being. And that does not mean that you are a worm and an unlovable human. It means, maybe, that relationship did not bring out the best in you because it wasn’t really a healthy situation for you. And really putting the priority back on this realistic assessment of, “Who am I? I am fundamentally good enough. And I deserve to be able to have friendships, relationships, interactions, life circumstances that support my wellness.” 

Another thing you’ll often see in people with very low self esteem is that because they don’t feel good about themselves, they expect to be mistreated, or they don’t think they deserve to have nice things, or a good job, or a stable income. And so, they don’t go for that because they fundamentally don’t believe that they could have that or could deserve it. Whereas that middle-of-the-road self esteem has a basic expectation of being generally treated well, being treated kindly, and also, an understanding that they are not the end all be all. Some people might have weird reactions to them sometimes. And that’s okay. Sometimes, they could have handled things better. And sometimes, it’s just because it wasn’t a match. And so, really going back to that stable sense of self and a fundamental belief in basic okayness that is like a weeble wobble doll. You know, those punching dolls that you punch it in, it comes back up again. 

So even though they can stride through life experiences, and they get knocked down a little bit from side to side, they find their own center again, and learn, and grow in healthy ways from the inevitable mistakes we all make along the way. They use those as fodder for their own personal development as opposed to collapsing into a seething puddle of self-hatred. Mistakes, growth opportunities are a good thing to be embraced. 

Now, of course, if you go into the too far side of having extraordinarily high self esteem, you will assume that everyone loves you, and admires you, and will do anything for you. And that you deserve to have the nicest things. You deserve to be able to glide right into a fancy job, and not even have to try that hard because they can see how talented you are, and that special something you bring to the situation. And so, what you see is that people with too high of self esteem have overly optimistic opinions of their own skills and abilities, and people admire them to a degree, which makes them actually much less effective because they don’t try as hard as they should be trying to be kind and considerate. And if somebody doesn’t like them, it’s because of that other somebody has some major problem. And I think they might be crazy. So I’m just going to cut them out of my life, as opposed to trying to understand how I might be coming across and rubbing them the wrong way, which we can all understand. Again, not helpful. 

How a Breakup Affects Self Esteem

So those are the big, fundamental pillars of self esteem and how they show up in someone’s life. And I would also like to talk about a couple of things related to this. First of all, many people–and I saw this a lot on the blog when I was going through comments, is that their self esteem has taken a toll in the context of a breakup. And they have gotten involved with some traditional talk therapy type therapist who has led them to believe that the reason why they chose this partner who wound up being so mean to them is because of their fundamental lack of self esteem. And if they love themselves more, a.) this wouldn’t have happened, and b.) if they felt better about themselves, they would be able to get over this breakup more quickly, as opposed to pining away for their acts. This makes me so crazy because, climbing on my soapbox, but because of a couple of reasons. 

First of all, okay, we are all, as humans, biologically hardwired to maintain our attachment relationships. So when a primary attachment like with a spouse or a romantic partner or family member, when that is disrupted, you, being a biological creature, will experience very intense emotions that will lead you to seek reconnection with that person that will involve debasing yourself, feeling badly about yourself, idealizing the other person, apologizing for anything and everything, even if it wasn’t your fault, feeling extraordinarily guilty for everything. 

And when you look at it in the context of biology and evolutionary survival drives, I would like to remind you that we are not far away from being essentially living out in the wild, in little villages with a tribal band of 20 to 50 other people on whom our lives actually depended. And for any of us, humans, to get kicked out of that tribe meant death. It meant being eaten by a lion, freezing to death on a glacier, I don’t know. But it was always better for humans to stay connected to their people than be like, “I don’t have to take this. You guys are being mean to me.” And go stomping out into the tundra, right? No. Sudden, slow, painful death is in that direction. 

So instead, our biology puts us in a mental and emotional space where we’re like, “I’m so sorry. Yes, I was wrong. Please may have a turn-up and I’ll just sit here in the corner, and gnaw on my turnip, and not talk to anybody. So I can live.” That is actually evolutionarily adaptive. So when you have feelings of low self esteem in the context of a breakup or divorce, it’s because you’re a human. And knowing that is an adaptive biological response, that shouldn’t necessarily be listened to, is the best thing that you can do to move through that experience. 

And what usually happens is that when people in this state show up for therapy wanting sincerely to get help with this, the therapist who doesn’t perhaps have an evidence-based evolutionary biology perspective on these kinds of things is like, “Yeah. You do have really low self esteem. Why? Why do you have such low self esteem? Tell me, when did you start hating yourself?” And then we start talking about your parents’ divorce, and the time that your mom went to Hawaii for two weeks, and you went to live with your grandparents. And that was the reason that you now carry with you these fundamental feelings of rejection and it’s this naval-gazing of a probably well-intentioned therapist who wants to figure out why you feel so bad about yourself. And what happens is you start rehashing the past in unhelpful ways. 

And also, there is this core belief that many therapists have, which is not played out by research, that in most situations, the belief is that gaining insight into why you feel the way you do and telling these old stories again, and again, and having cathartic cries about your parents’ divorced when you were nine–that will fix it. That will solve the problem and make you feel differently. And that is not true. You could do that 97 times and still walk around feeling like a bug after a bad breakup. And so, if you are within the sound of my voice, and having a therapy experience that is focused on all of these rejecting life experiences that you’ve had, and why you came to loath on yourself because of them, and that’s just going around, and around, and around in that, and you’re feeling stuck, and it feels like it’s not helping, it is time for you to try a more active approach to actually feeling better that is not focused on these past life experiences that are actually probably making you feel worse. 

I talked to a lot of people who have been doing this for a long time. And this focus on all of the reasons why they’re broken, and flawed, and had all these terrible things happen to them makes them feel worse about themselves, that supports this core belief that, “Yes, I am uniquely broken and flawed because of the things that I lived through. And I will always be lesser than other humans because of these things that happened to me that I have no power to change.” Let’s just stop. And if you feel stuck in therapy, pay attention to that. If therapy makes you feel worse about yourself overall, instead of better pay attention to that. We know from research that effective therapy will help you feel differently in about 10 sessions. You will not be done, probably, in 10 sessions. But you will be experiencing a notable positive change over 10 sessions or the approach is not effective. 

Similarly, in therapy sessions, sometimes we do have to talk about crappy crap, okay. And people don’t always walk out of the room all tied up in a perfect bow feeling like, “Oh, thanks, please. I feel so much better now.” Sometimes, people are like mascara dripping down their face, “Oh, my God. I don’t know…” And that’s where we end. And that’s okay, they do feel worse instead of better. But over time, there’s an arc of progress. It’s not like every session, every week that they’re feeling worse, and worse, and worse about themselves, and more hopeless, and more helpless. There’s a general upward trend, even if we talk about hard things sometimes. So pay attention to that. 

And also, know that people who do have very low levels of self esteem are extremely vulnerable to getting into some therapy that reinforces their negative core beliefs about themselves. And they can be, I think, very vulnerable to therapists who are very happy to let you sit, and just vent, and talk, and “process” while they hold the space for you for years, and years, and years. Because they’re not invested in helping you connect with your strengths and actually do the work of feeling better because then you might be done with them in 10 to 15 sessions. And there are therapists who have had people on their caseload for 15 years routinely. And now, sometimes, that length of time can be warranted when there’s big deep traumatic kinds of things. But therapy is supposed to be effective. Just keep that in mind. 

Other Causes of Low Self Esteem

Now, while we are on this topic, we talked about one reason why you will have low feelings of self esteem in the context of a breakup or another significant loss like a divorce. Unexpected job loss can trigger the same feelings and not be connected to some fundamental lack of self esteem. Oftentimes, when people learn skills and strategies to self-correct this, and they make a plan, and they’re moving forward, and they’re feeling effective again, their feelings of low self esteem magically go away. So I just wanted to put that out there. 

Now, there are situations, including major depressive disorder, that can make you have feelings of very low self esteem. One of the symptoms of major depressive disorder is low self esteem. You are not depressed because you have low self esteem. Many times, you have low self esteem because of depression. So I know that is a little bit confusing. 

But, sometimes, people think, “Oh, I have low self esteem. I have all these things wrong with me.” And they do not know that they are in an active depressive episode. And if they have their depression treated, they will experience a reduction in all kinds of symptoms, including things like exhaustion, insomnia, irritability, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, and helplessness. All of those will be at least removed if not improved. And along with it will go this grinding sense of shame, self-loathing, and self-hatred that is part of depression. So, just know that. 

And again, getting involved in some therapy that makes it all about your low self esteem is not how to treat depression. That’s a different thing. What you want to do for depression is certainly, a type of therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy that helps you look at the thoughts that are contributing to depression, also, the behaviors that are contributing to depression. 

And in cases of moderate to severe depression, the gold standard is cognitive-behavioral therapy as well as something that manages the biological component of depression because depression is a biologically-based illness for many people. For some that can look like medication. For others, it can look like attending to those biological factors through lifestyle choices including exercise. We know now that 30 to 45 minutes of exercise that gets your heart rate up per day is about as effective many times as antidepressant medications because it also attends to that biological component of depression. But I just wanted to throw that out there, in case you are feeling really low self esteem right now. If you have depression, that’s why. So go treat depression, self esteem will follow. 

Lastly, another cause of low self esteem and this is a tough one, y’all. Okay, let me backup a little bit. People who have lived through extraordinarily difficult life experiences, particularly early in life, and who are trauma survivors, or who were abused or neglected by their parents, or survivors of sexual abuse as children, or who had parents who were addicted to substances, they will often struggle with feelings of very low self esteem as adults as a direct consequence of the things that they did live through. It is very trauma-based. And the reason for this, again, is very evolutionarily adaptive. Children need to stay connected to their parents in order to survive. 

And if you were a child who had to stay connected to an abusive or neglectful caregiver, the only way to do that, emotionally, is to idealize your parents and loathe yourself. Because the reason why, in the mind of a child, “The reason why this is happening to me is because I deserve it. And so, I could try harder. And whatever I do, I can’t hate my parents and say, ‘Stop doing that.’” Because that would risk rejection or more abuse or alienation. So it is a survival strategy for young children to blame themselves for whatever terrible thing is happening to them. And they grow up with that core mindset that is born of necessity and often carry that into adulthood. 

And that circumstance is difficult to unwind, not impossible to unwind, but in order to heal from that injury to self esteem, particularly if it was very early in childhood, preverbal trauma, before the age of three or so, it takes a long time. And it takes a lot of self-awareness. And it takes a lot of intentional effort. And it also requires working with a therapist who understands the legacy of trauma, and how it has impacted the way that you think and feel about yourself. And it’s a long road. 

And with the right kind of support and help, many people who have lived through that can become some of the strongest, most self-aware, most self-confident, and also the most compassionate, and empathic people that I have ever met. And it’s because they’ve really walked through this dark tunnel. And they know how bad it can feel. And they also have just so much compassion for other people who are living through that experience. I found those people to be so non-judgmental and unconditionally loving once they do their own work of healing. And those people are often the ones who will go back into the fire and get other people out once they understand the level of suffering that they have been in, and what it feels like to be on the other side of it. 

So I know we were talking about some dark things there. But I want you to take away the message of hope and healing because that is definitely possible. And I also want you to know that many, if not most people who struggle with really low self esteem, had perfectly nice lives and did not have anything majorly terrible happen to them. And they still feel really bad about themselves anyway. And there are all kinds of reasons why this might be true. And in these kinds of cases where there is no specific trauma that needs to be gone through and addressed, there is no major depressive disorder, it doesn’t really matter why you feel the way that you do. 

What matters is that you are provided with a toolset and a plan for helping yourself feel differently going forward. Connecting the dots, gaining insight, understanding why you are the way you are can be interesting. And yes, you can spend a number of therapy sessions talking about that, but it will not change the way you feel. And in this garden variety, low self esteem situation, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know what to do to change it.

The Action-Oriented Approach

So what this leads us to is the final recommendation. If you take my How Healthy Is Your self esteem questionnaire, and find that you are on the lower end that you would like to be, or as you’ve listened to me talk through all these different domains, and feel that you’re slipping out of that generally healthy place. Even if it’s just in some situations, you may find yourself maybe struggling a little bit more on the lines of lower self esteem, and you would like to resolve it. What I always advise people is–in the absence of major mental health stuff, so if you’re not in the midst of a major depressive disorder, and if you don’t have low self esteem that is really rooted in trauma–what is always more helpful than this naval-gazing, telling the same story 150 times and not feeling better, tends to be a very active, future-oriented and skills-based approach that is much more consistent with coaching. 

So in this approach, the work is really unearthing all of the core beliefs, and the internal dialogue, and the almost unconscious judgments, and biases that you are unintentionally indulging as you go about your day. So the first step is getting clear about all those things. And then the work involves using, oftentimes, cognitive and behavioral techniques, but in a coaching format in order to help you be actively replacing those unhelpful thoughts with different ways of thinking. Because when you change the way you think, you will change the way you feel. 

You don’t have a lot of control over the way that you feel. You can’t will your feelings be different. But if you are very intentionally cultivating, and practicing a different core narrative, and you have homework assignments, and an accountability partner on the part of a coach who’s like, “Okay, what did you do with us this week? Did you do XYZ? What did you say to yourself in this situation?” You will, over time, begin to reshape that core narrative, write a different story, and you will feel differently. 

But it is an action-oriented approach that will take you there. And this can look a little bit different in different contexts. So, for example, if you are coming out of a layoff, or a breakup, or another life circumstances, another life circumstance, rather, that impacted your self esteem, those things would need to be taken into consideration. And in those cases, that can be really helpful to work in a behavioral component to coaching where, in addition to working on that core narrative, you’re also getting help with making a plan, and having assignments, and things that you do that you experience yourself as being competent, and effective, and moving yourself forward. Because in addition to having a more compassionate, supportive internal narrative, the other piece of developing healthy self esteem is by doing difficult things, and perceiving yourself as being effective, and as being competent to manage hard things as they come up. 

The last idea I’ll leave you with, I think, was one misguided notion somewhere in the 80s or the 90s, which was that children would be given a participation trophy for just showing up. And being at the karate tournament, you get a trophy, whether or not you win. And so, this idea that you just have this positive feedback all the time that’s not linked to things that you can really sink your teeth into and trust does not actually boost your self esteem. 

But what will is a coach who can help you make a plan to actually climb a mountain, literal or figurative, small or large. But when you see yourself doing the work, doing something hard, and being masterful, and successful in it; you will step by step accumulate this body of this newfound sense of your inner power. Like, “Yes, I can do that. Yes, I was right. Yes, I listened to myself and I could trust myself. Yes, my feelings are valid. And yes, I can set boundaries or be appropriately assertive. And good things come from that. And if a bad thing happens, I can handle it.” 

So it’s really in that sense, the work involved in this action-oriented, behaviorally-based coaching is very experiential. You have to have these new experiences of yourself in order to reset that emotional thermostat. So, the thoughts change first; the behaviors can change. And then the last thing that changes is the way that you feel. And I just wanted to offer you that as a general plan for how to improve your self esteem. And it is not repaired by churning endlessly in the bad feelings, which is what is often the experience of a lot of ineffective therapy. 

So that is my suggestion for you. I feel like it was a bit of a public service announcement today, but I hope it was helpful. Again, if you would like to take the How Healthy Is Your self esteem assessment, text the word: esteem, e-s-t-e-e-m to the number 55444 or visit  growingself.com/signs-of-low-self esteem/. And there’s also a link to this quiz on the free resources section of a website along with the How Healthy Is Your Relationship quiz, 10-year plan, What’s Holding You Back self-assessment. We have all kinds of good stuff there for you. So growingself.com. And while you’re there, feel free to leave a comment or question on the blog that I will respond to eventually. And lastly, stay in touch with me on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby. And be sure to follow Growing Self on Instagram, too, @growing_self. Alright, you guys. I’ll see you next time with another episode of The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.

[Outro Song]


Episode Highlights

  • Defining self esteem
    • self esteem is a general sense of your worth and ability to trust yourself. 
    • Having high levels of self esteem can be harder for you, particularly in relationships.
    • What’s most helpful is to have a level of self esteem that’s middle or middle to high in a bell curve.
  • Tendency to Compare
    • Those with low self esteem tend to compare themselves unfavorably to others.
    • Meanwhile, those whose self esteem is too high tend to think that they’re better than others. 
    • Those who have middle-of-the-road self esteem compare themselves to others and see it as an opportunity for growth.
  • Not Trusting Yourself
    • People with low self esteem can be very dependent on external validation. 
    • They don’t trust themselves to make decisions, feel ineffective, and struggle to legitimize their feelings. 
    • People with healthier self esteem can communicate their feelings effectively to other people.
    • Meanwhile, those who are too confident tend to feel entitled and be inconsiderate of other people.
  • Self-Criticism or Complaint
    • People with low self esteem beat themselves up mercilessly. They have a self-critical inner dialogue that makes them feel bad about themselves.
    • Furthermore, constructive criticism from others feels catastrophic. They either freeze or become defensive. 
    • Those who have healthy self esteem are open and grateful for constructive feedback. They are eager to learn and grow. 
    • This characteristic is not exhibited for people whose self esteem is too high.
  • Tendency to Catastrophize
    • Those with low self esteem jump to conclusions. They tend to project their beliefs on other people, especially with regard to how people view them.
    • They are also convinced that there is a better version of themselves. They have to find this or else their lives will remain terrible.
    • People with healthy self esteem have a more realistic sense of the world. They know they’re good enough and expect to be treated well. 
    • On the other hand, those with high levels of self esteem assume that everyone loves them. 
    • If someone does dislike them, they feel like the other person has a problem instead.  
  • How a Breakup Affects self esteem
    • You may experience low self esteem after a breakup.
    • This is an adaptive biological response. We need human connection to survive.
    • If you feel stuck in therapy, pay attention to your overall feeling. 
    • Effective therapy makes you feel differently after 10 weeks. 
  • Other Causes of Low self esteem
    • When people learn skills and strategies to self-correct, low self esteem may go away.
    • Low self esteem is also a symptom of major depressive disorder. If you treat your depression, low self esteem will follow.
    • People who lived through trauma, particularly in their early lives, can have low self esteem.
    • However, people who don’t have depression or didn’t experience trauma can also have low self esteem. 
  • The Action-Oriented Approach
    • This approach uses cognitive and behavioral techniques to replace your unhelpful thoughts. 
    • You can’t control the way you feel but you can reshape your core narrative so you feel differently.
    • You can develop a healthy self esteem by doing difficult things and perceiving yourself as competent. 

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