Self-Esteem: When You Are Your Own Worst Enemy

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Reader’s Question

I have no self-esteem at all. I am such a burden to everyone around me because I’ve been struggling for so long with my divorce and low self-esteem issues. My sister finally told me that I am “heavy” with all my problems. I understand that in order to feel better I have to get out of the house and still see people, but when I was told that I am a burden, how can I even want to surround myself with people? So then I stay alone, I try not to talk about my stuff to make sure I don’t bother people, then I go home and feel like a failure because I can’t even be myself, because my true self is “heavy” for people. These negative thoughts about me turned out to be real and not just something I make up because of my low self-esteem. I am truly a burden. It’s not in my head. I don’t see how I can love myself one day knowing that the most important people to me don’t even enjoy my company.

Psychologist’s Reply

Problems with self-esteem have been said to have reached epidemic proportions. In my work as a psychologist, I have seen low self-esteem permeate just about every problem my clients can present with. It has its hands in depression, anxiety, relationships, and even career issues. Psychologists often look at self-esteem problems from a cognitive perspective, that is looking at those negative and core beliefs we hold about ourselves and how they impact how we feel and act. However, it is more than just this. Self-esteem is about the relationship you have with yourself. Often my clients talk about the relationship problems they have with their partners, co-workers, family and peers, but opening themselves up to talking about how one relates to the self is a door few walk through. I talk often with my clients about the therapeutic relationship we have, but it’s just as important to talk about the relationship with the self.

The relationship we have with ourselves is often dictated by events early in life or other longstanding and recurring events that happen to us along the way. One of the important things to know here is that self-esteem is created and constructed by these events. I think sometimes we actively and/or passively participate in that process. Bottom line is this -– you are not born with self-esteem. We are born, for the most part, tabula rasa (a blank slate). Self-esteem is something you learn along the way. We are taught by others, events, and eventually ourselves how to see ourselves. These early, core beliefs we develop later dictate what we are willing or unwilling to notice and see about ourselves. Right, wrong, accurate or inaccurate, we are taught to see simply what we are taught to see.

Now things get tricky from there on out. Here is something I have come to understand about the people we call humans. People prefer to be right rather than happy. We need and seek confirmation of our self-concept, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. Then we seek relationships and events that confirm or support what we believe, even if what we believe is that we suck. This is why some of us can’t take a compliment. It never makes it past our negative self-concept that we were taught to believe in. To make matters even worse, we tend to remember those negative events or things people say more because they confirm what we already believe about ourselves. We construct ourselves out of rotten wood and timber and build monuments of self-esteem that could never remain upright when the wind blows. This is why when working with a client that I have genuine good feelings towards they might out of the blue say something like “You hate me don’t you?”

It’s very easy to convince yourself you are a burden to others, that you don’t deserve to be loved, that you are not worthy, stupid, and don’t deserve to be treated well. These are all very threatening thoughts that bring on emotions we hate to feel, so we try to protect ourselves from that by trying to be perfect, never allowing ourselves to make mistakes, always having to do the right thing, and believing that we have to win love in order to be loved, sacrifice ourselves in order to gain approval etc.

A lot of this comes down to a very simple idea. Just because you were taught to see yourself a certain way does not make it truth. I’ll say that again, because some of you may have just only bolstered your defenses and gone “But you don’t know me!” or “I know it’s true, because I feel it so strongly!” Just because you were taught to see yourself a certain way does not make it truth. In the end, only one person gets to decide how you will see yourself. You. You just have to make that choice, actively putting down previous lessons that have only skewed how you see yourself. When you make that choice, you are ready for the next step: change.

For anyone struggling with self-esteem, I would say recognize, and be mindful, of the negative (and even positive) bias you have about yourself. Think about the way you were taught to see yourself. Then decide if it is a way you want to keep. Don’t ask if it’s accurate or not. Ask yourself if it has served you well or made you feel like crap. Then just stay mindful of this as you go through the next few days. See where it pops up, when it is triggered, when it impacts your mood and behavior. Make a conscious effort after a while to react differently. Make a choice about how you want to think and feel, and act on it. Often, writing it down can help you keep track of it all and help identify patterns to your thinking you never knew were there.

Put yourself around others who support these better ideas about yourself. You have a choice most of the time who you let into your life. Make a conscious effort to let in those who tend to make you feel better about yourself and begin to spend less time with those who don’t. Changing your social environment can really help change self-esteem.

Let go of the previous, old, biased self-concept and begin to develop a current one. Allow yourself to start clean and fresh by purposely going out of your way to do something that you know will make your see yourself in a new and better light. Start to do things today that will make you feel better about yourself next week, next year, next decade. Rebuild your foundation with more solid wood.

Learn to accept and forgive. Rebuilding our self-image brings us in view of some things that we are not proud of, and that we may not actually like about ourselves. Nobody is all good or all bad. Just don’t allow only those things to define how you choose to see yourself. Recognize there is more. Recognize that your future will provide you with more opportunities to positively define yourself.

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