How to increase your self-esteem
If you had to describe yourself in a few words to someone you had never met, what would you say? Would you use words like smart, funny and lovable? Or stupid, useless and pathetic? Sadly, if you have low self-esteem, you are far more likely to opt for the latter three – even if they bear no relation to your true self, or the words your friends would use to describe you.
At its simplest, self-esteem is the extent to which we respect and value ourselves. If the way you perceive yourself is critical or unkind, your self-esteem is likely to be low, causing a host of problems – from a lack of confidence and self-belief to depression, anxiety, underachievement, addiction, problems with anger and self-destructive behaviour.
Self-esteem – or the lack of it – is inextricably linked to our childhood and family dynamic. Along with keeping us clean, safe and fed, it’s our parents’ job to make us feel lovable and worthwhile. Especially when we are infants (because that’s when our sense of self, as a separate entity to our mother, is developing), they do this by giving us lots of physical affection, playing with and singing/reading to us.
As we grow they reinforce this by taking an interest in and praising us, both telling and showing us how much we are loved, wanted and important to them. If we are lucky enough to get this kind of parenting, we will emerge into adulthood with an strong set of interconnected beliefs that we are worthwhile and deserve all the good this world can offer us.
But you, like many other children, may not have been so lucky. Your parents might have been distant or emotionally unavailable. They might have criticised rather than praising you. They may have had mental health problems, been addicted to alcohol or drugs, or punished you overly harshly. If so, you would have been profoundly hurt and confused. Why were they treating you this way? It must have been, you concluded, because there was something fundamentally bad or wrong about you.
As you grew up, if that treatment persisted – and perhaps was echoed in the wider family or at school – your sense of self would have been affected. And as an adult, if you believe you are a bad person and deserve bad things to happen to you, it’s incredibly hard to be positive and outgoing; to forge loving relationships or find lasting success. You are likely to see the world through grey-tinted glasses, seeing only the bad in it and yourself. It’s hardly surprising that low self-esteem is at the root of many forms of mental distress.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. As low self-esteem is learned, so it can be unlearned. Cognitive therapy is an effective treatment for low self-esteem, because it helps you challenge and modify the negative, self-critical thoughts and beliefs that keep you feeling bad about yourself long after your cold or neglectful parents, nasty teachers and school bullies have faded out of your life.
I strongly recommend Overcoming Low Self-Esteem: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques, by Melanie Fennell. The books in the Overcoming… series are all excellent, but this is one of the best. If you have low self-esteem, it explains how this developed and how your adult thinking and behaviour stops you from shrugging off negative early experiences and embracing life. Most importantly, it gives you simple, effective techniques you can use every day to feel better about yourself, boost your mood and increase your self-confidence.