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Friday, 15 February 2013

Low Self-Esteem and How to Change It

If you carry low-self esteem around with all your life it’s a bit like attempting to go on a long walking adventure and setting off with a 20 kg weight in your rucksack when most of your fellow walkers have packed light. The chances are you will not enjoy the trip as much as the others, you may lag behind and be more tired when you reach the top.  You are also likely to compare yourself negatively to others if you don’t get to the top.  But, you can choose to change your level of self-esteem which can either eliminate or massively reduce the load.

Do you believe that you really deserve good things in your life?  If not then that is one sign that you are probably suffering from low self-esteem.  It’s surprising how many people who outwardly look confident, successful or both are suffering from hidden low self-esteem. You may think, for instance, of all the well known and “successful” people or celebrities who have become addicts of one sort or another.  Most often, addiction to one thing or another (alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling, work, power, control) is a sign of low self-esteem, since it allows a hiding or avoiding place from dealing with feelings of self-dislike.

Some people suffer from chronic low-self esteem which can become an ever present problem in most things that they do.  Although many of these people may not indicate low self-esteem as their main issue, it is insidious – quite often people who come to counselling with one problem or another end up talking about or describing their low self-esteem at some stage.  In this way, low-self esteem can be like a shaky foundation to everything - a problematic base to other life issues and perhaps the cause of some of the other issues, too.  Furthermore, these other issues are normally not satisfactorily or permanently resolved until some work is done on the underlying self-esteem problem. Other people may find that their self-esteem can vary at different times as a result of the quality of the relationships and experiences they have: good ones can help build up self-esteem - a run of bad ones can signal the start of a self-esteem nose-dive.  

What Causes Low Self-Esteem?

“Self-esteem is the reputation we acquire with ourselves.” Nathaniel Branden
Some people hold false beliefs about themselves which they do not question. Even if other people question these beliefs, they think of them as facts and not as opinions.  To make matters worse, low self-esteem can become like a vicious circle where the more you believe you are not worthy, the more it feels true.  It can also be a strong catalyst for self-sabotage - more things will go wrong in your life partly because you are starting off by having no belief that you can do them. 

Low-self esteem often originates from early relationships with our parents or siblings.  Perhaps we were sent the message that we weren’t important, perhaps we were ignored, neglected or abused and internalised the message that it was our fault.  Many people develop low-self esteem after being bullied at school (even though statistics show that most people are bullied there at one time or another); others find that their first work or romantic relationships were hurtful, controlling or destructive in some way or other.  Sometimes a number of bad experiences can have a cumulative effect on how we think of ourselves; sometimes an incident from the past can trigger low self-esteem in the present.

How You can Change Things and What that May do for You

None of this means that it is easy change how you feel and think about yourself.  It is not a small thing to alter patterns of self-esteem and you cannot just flick a switch or go to one session of therapy and change it forever. What you can do though is begin, and it beginning that is the most important thing.  You can begin by being aware and accepting that you have a problem and by valuing yourself and your future happiness enough to want to change it. As the Buddha said: “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” 

To start to change things, try focusing on your positive strengths.  List a dozen achievements and dozen good qualities that you have – if you find this difficult that may in itself be a sign of low self-esteem - ask a trusted friend and you may be surprised by the results.  It is important to note that I am not suggesting that you swing heavily the other way and become all puffed up, egotistical and even narcissistic (as my previous blogs indicated, narcissists have deep down low self-esteem, in any case).  Having good and deep self-belief is none of those things.  You might also try looking at your negative beliefs, asking yourself if they are useful and where they come from.  You might ask what you would rather focus on instead.

People with high self-esteem have better self-love and it is certainly true that if you can love yourself you can love others better.  As Ayn Rand said, “The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.”  Those with better self-esteem will not only find that others start to treat them better, but also, and sometimes more importantly to their overall happiness, they will find that they treat others better, too.  As one example, to give love confidently can be amongst the greatest joys of life.  

Counselling and Some Books to Help

Counselling can help you change your patterns of low self-esteem.  Indeed, just deciding to go in the first place is a personal statement that you value yourself and would like to improve things for the better. A good therapist can help you to highlight what your negative patterns are when it comes to your self-concept.  You might find it useful to discuss and work through past experiences – even if they are painful, you can perhaps lay some old ghosts and forgive yourself and others and move on.  The past cannot be changed but how you think about it and how you approach the future can be.

As often in life, acceptance is a most vital thing.  When we love someone unconditionally, we accept that they have weaknesses and will occasionally mess up or even hurt us, but we still love them.  Start to believe that about yourself, because you are worthy of it! You may feel that you have room for improvement – and indeed you might, but then again, who doesn’t?  As I often say to my clients, “saints are thin on the ground.”

Finally, there are many good books around about helping your self-esteem, but I have found these two to be particularly useful to my clients:

Ten Days to Great Self Esteem – Dr David Burns
Taming Your Gremlin – Rick Carson


David is a fully qualified and BACP registered Counsellor.  If you wish to book a session to help you with your self-esteem or another issue in your life, you can book a face to face, telephone, email or skype session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at  You can also follow him on Twitter as Contented Counsellor at:


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