OVERCOMING LOW SELF-ESTEEM
1. What is Low Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem reflects our opinions and judgments of ourselves and the importance we place on ourselves as people. Low self-esteem means having an inadequate belief or judgment, held without actual proof and considering ourselves to be of little importance. Low self-confidence and lack of self-respect equate to low self-esteem.
The healthy alternative to low self-esteem is unconditional self-acceptance rather than high self-esteem. This is because by definition: ‘Self’ is every conceivable thing about you that can be ‘rated’ and ‘esteem’ is derived from ‘estimate’. However, it is not possible to give a ‘self’ a single global rating as it is too complex and constantly changing; we can rate aspects of ourselves.
At the centre of low self-esteem are negative beliefs (e.g. ‘I am bad’ ‘I am worthless’). These have a substantial impact on the person and many areas of their life. The role of low self-esteem can be a feature of present problems, a result of other problems or a susceptibility factor for other difficulties.
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Assertiveness Training, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Building Confidence I, Building Confidence II, Building Confidence III and Building Confidence IV.
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2. The Development of Low Self-Esteem
Keep in mind that your negative beliefs are not things known to have happened or be true or to exist – they are opinions. They are the opinions reached as a result of your experiences, usually earliest observations of facts or events. The existence of negatives and the lack of positives can add to them.
Once established these negative beliefs are reinforced by biased thinking. Consistent experiences are acknowledged while those that are contradictory are disregarded. Negative beliefs lead to the development of rules for living that enable you to function in the world despite your negative beliefs. These rules protect you against your negative beliefs but in the long run they keep low self-esteem going.
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3. What Maintains Low Self-Esteem?
Your negative beliefs at the centre of low self-esteem are activated in circumstances where it seems your rules for living may become unusable. Once set in action a vicious circle maintaining low self-esteem is triggered.
Lack of certainty leads to negative predictions – fears about what might occur. You expect the worst and assume yourself helpless to stop it. Negative predictions cause anxiety – the normal response of the body to threat.
See Program 8: Overcoming Anxiety.
Anxious predictions also affect your behaviour – you might completely avoid the circumstances altogether; or adopt a whole range of precautions intended to make sure your worst fears are not realized; your performance might be genuinely disrupted by anxiety (e.g. stammering may ensue).
Even if you are successful your prejudice against yourself makes you disregard your successes. The final result is a sense that your negative beliefs have been made definite. This confirmation of your negative beliefs then causes self-critical thinking. Self-critical thoughts frequently result in low mood which may develop into depression or addiction.
See Program 4: Overcoming Addiction and Program 12: Overcoming Depression.
Low mood completes the circle by making sure that your negative beliefs remain activated.
Develop a good support system.
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Social Skills Training, Communication Training, Negotiation Training, Troublesome Emotions and Program 13: Overcoming Destructive Relationships.
Keep yourself healthy.
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Nutrition, Exercise, Managing Your Time and Sleep Management.
Avoid the distress of stress.
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Problem-Solving, Program 22: Overcoming Stress and Program 23: Overcoming Stress At Work.
If you are grieving:
See Program 15: Overcoming Grief And Bereavement.
For further coping strategies:
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Competitiveness and Perfectionism, Frustration, Procrastination and Persistence.
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4. Anxious Predictions
In circumstances where your rules for living may become unusable, your negative beliefs are set in action and cause anxious predictions. These predictions contain biases: overestimating that something bad will occur; overestimating how badly it will be if something bad does occur; underestimating personal and outside resources which could help you deal with the situation.
These biases make you feel at risk and you take unnecessary precautions to stop the predictions from being realized. The precautions prevent you from finding out if your predictions have any foundation.
To deal with anxious predictions make a record when you experience anxiety and note:
Date and time.
Your feelings and bodily sensations, rating the intensity 0-100%
Your anxious predictions, rating your belief/credibility 0-100%
The precautions you take to prevent your predictions from becoming true.
Question your predictions, exploring both supporting and contradictory evidence for them. Look for more realistic and helpful alternative perspectives. What evidence is there to support them? Consider the worst and best outcomes and what is realistically most likely to occur. What could you do about the worst if it should happen?
In your record note your alternative perspectives, rating the credibility of your new belief (0-100%). Rate the intensity (0-100%) of feelings and bodily sensations caused by the new belief. Your belief will increase as you test out your alternatives in practise by facing situations you usually avoid.
Record your experiments noting your prediction – what you fear might happen; what you did in place of your usual precautions and the results.
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Modifying Maladaptive Thinking.
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5. Increasing Self-Acceptance
In addition to dealing with anxious predictions and self-critical thoughts you need to concentrate on your strengths and the positives in your life in order to improve your self-esteem.
Build a positive body image.
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Improving Your Self-Image and Combating Self-Harm and Coping with the Need for Approval.
List your qualities, strengths, talents and skills to consolidate a more positive view of you. Bias makes you ignore these and maintains low self-esteem. Make the list concrete by focusing on examples of those qualities in action. Next, begin to record examples of your good qualities every day as they happen until you are automatically aware of the good things you do.
Use a daily activity diary to get a clear picture of how you pass your time and your pleasure and satisfaction derived from these activities. Note your activities and give each a pleasure rating (P0-10) and a mastery (how far each activity was an achievement) rating (M0-10) (e.g. P10 is most enjoyment and P0 is no enjoyment). This can identify changes you would like to make to how you spend your time. Review your diary every day to reflect on what you have done and what your record tells you.
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Planning an Activity Schedule.
From your diary note whether you are participating in pleasurable activities. Perhaps you feel you do not deserve time to relax. If you are doing enjoyable things but not enjoying them consider what thoughts get in the way and put them to one side and concentrate on your activity. Another reason for not getting any pleasure from anything is depression. If you feel this may be the case consult your doctor.
See Program 12: Overcoming Depression.
If you are not achieving anything you may need to participate in a wider range of activities. Alternatively, it may be that although you are engaging in a wide range of activities your self-critical thinking is gradually weakening your sense of achievement. Write down your self-critical thoughts and answer them with alternatives.
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Criticism, Countering Self-Criticism, Forgiveness and Program 6: Overcoming Anger.
Introduce changes by making a plan for the day and aiming for a balance between pleasure and mastery. Record what you actually do, with both pleasure and mastery ratings. Review your day to get a clearer idea of the changes you wish to make in the pattern of your day.
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6. Altering Unhelpful Rules
Some rules are intended to maintain self-esteem but actually gradually weaken it by demanding impossible things of us. If you have low self-esteem you will find that your rules for living stop you from achieving your life goals. We learn rules from experience and observation. They are determined by our culture and our families pass them on to us.
There are three levels of Beliefs/Rules for living: automatics thoughts, conditional beliefs or assumptions, and core beliefs.
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Distorted Thinking.
Identify your rules for living by finding general statements that have been influencing you for some time. Work on one rule at a time to find an alternative more realistic rule and test it out. What impact has the rule had on your life? How does it affect your life now? How do you know your rule is in operation? Write down your rule and the answers to these questions in a summary.
To help you change each rule ask yourself where the rule came from and in what ways is it reasonable? What are the advantages and disadvantages of obeying the rule? What is a more realistic and helpful alternative rule? What do you need to do to practise your new rule on a day-to-day basis? Try to act ‘As if’ your new rule is true and explore the results. Keep records of your experiments.
Complete your summary by writing what you have learned from working to alter your rule. Read it regularly until your new rule becomes second nature. Write your new rule on a flashcard and keep it close at hand as a reminder to read frequently and before difficult situations.
Combat the old rule by continuing to use what you have learned to deal with anxious predictions and self-critical thoughts. You will find that it will be slowly phased out. It could take many months to fully establish your new rule, so use the records of your experiments as a source of encouragement.
Deal with your distress in situations you fear by exposure – FEAR (face everything and recover).
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Controlled Breathing and Relaxation Techniques, Eye Movement Technique (EMT), Mood Induction Procedure, Rational Emotive Imagery (REI), Imago Graded Exposure and In Vivo Graded exposure.
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7. Gradually Weakening Negative Beliefs
You may have more than one negative belief and if so work on one at a time starting with the most important. Your negative belief is an opinion you have had about yourself for some time and in various circumstances.
Think about what is your negative belief then write a summary: ‘My negative belief is…’ Rate the credibility of your belief 0-100% when you feel your negative belief is most true and when it is least true. For both, write down your feelings (e.g. guilt, hope, relief) and rate the intensity 0-100%.
Rate both how much you believed your negative belief before starting this advice and the credibility of this belief when you finish this advice. Write down the intensity of your emotions in both cases. Consider the reasons for any changes you have noticed as this tells you how to continue improving your self-esteem.
Next, you need to form a more positive and realistic alternative belief and actively seek supportive information and experiences. Try asking yourself: ‘If I were not…(your negative belief), what would I like to be?’ (e.g. ‘If I were not inadequate, I would like to be capable’). Your new perspective would be ‘I am capable’. You could then start accumulating evidence to support this new belief.
Use all the work you have done so far to form a fairer perspective of yourself. Write down your new belief, rating its strength (0-100%) both when you feel it is most true and when it is least true. For both, write down the intensity of your emotions (0-100%).
Rate both how much you believed this belief before starting this advice and the credibility of this belief when you finish this advice. Write down the intensity of your feelings in both cases. Notice how your strength in your new belief alters as you concentrate on supportive evidence. Keep in mind that 100% is usually unattainable and you should therefore be trying to be ‘good enough’.
Try to remind yourself frequently that: ‘Every day in every way I am getting better and better’.
To gradually weaken your negative beliefs consider what ‘evidence’ supports them and how else this ‘evidence’ could be comprehended. When you have done this write down what you have learned and again rate the credibility of your old negative belief and that of your new more positive belief and the intensity of your feelings for both. What evidence supports your new belief and contradicts your old negative belief?
Experiment with acting ‘As if’ your new belief is true. Plan in detail how according to this new belief, you would act on a day-to-day basis. Note the thoughts that occur and deal with anxious predictions and self-critical thoughts as you have learned.
Record your experiments and assess their outcome. In your summary write briefly what you have found out by looking for evidence that makes your new belief valid. Then again rate the strength of your old negative belief and that of the new belief and note the intensity of your feelings for both.
As you continue with these ratings you will notice change over time.
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Strengthen Conviction in Alternative Functional Beliefs.
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To overcome low self-esteem, work on your appearance so you feel attractive. Focus on your strengths and take on tasks you can do successfully. You will feel good about yourself if you feel you are in control of your life and get affection, praise and respect from others. Material possessions and being associated with successful people can make you feel better. Living according to the standards and rules of social conduct will give more positive self-esteem as will optimism and a good social network.
Unless you continue to practise what you have learned you are likely to forget these new behaviours.
Formulate an action plan by asking yourself how your low self-esteem was established and what maintained it? What have you learned from this advice? What were your most prominent negative thoughts, rules and beliefs? What are your alternatives? How can you consolidate what you have learned? Can you think of any setback that might occur and how would you cope? Keep your action plan close at hand.
It could take some time for your new beliefs to become second nature but at that point you will have made the final step forward in overcoming your low self-esteem.
See Program 1: Coping Strategies Counselling Advice – Relapse Prevention.
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