This week I received an email from Cathy (not her real name) who said she felt she wasn’t “good enough” and that her anxiety was making her feel physically sick.
As we exchanged emails, a story started to emerge.
As a result of feeling “not good enough” she put up with a boss who bullied and belittled her, but she didn’t feel confident enough in herself to change jobs.
In her personal life, she found that she often agreed to things she didn’t want to do because she feared the reactions of her friends and family if she said no.
The thoughts and the worry about her daily interactions with family, friends and work went round and around her head. They left her feeling so anxious that she often had moments during the day when she thought she might actually throw up.
It got me thinking. What is self-esteem? How can you tell if low self-esteem is making you anxious? What are the signs of low self-esteem? And what can we do about it?
Self-esteem is about how you feel about yourself overall; how positively or otherwise you feel about yourself. Another way of thinking about it is how much self-love you have. Self-esteems comes from past experiences and situations that have shaped how you think about yourself today.
Self-esteem is about how positively or otherwise you feel about yourself
Is low self-esteem making me anxious?
Below are 4 signs that you may have low self-esteem.
1. You have a fear of rejection
This is a powerful fear that often has a far-reaching impact on our lives. Most people experience some nerves when placing themselves in situations that could lead to rejection, but for some of us, the fear becomes crippling. An untreated fear of rejection tends to worsen over time, and can take over the sufferer’s life.
If you have a fear of rejection, you…
- Find it hard to share your opinion for the fear of being judged and rejected
- Fear standing out and being different, so you try to blend in
- Find it hard to say “no” and can be unassertive
- Are a people-pleaser and gain your self-worth from being socially likeable
- Are extremely self-conscious and aware of what people think of you
- Don’t feel equal to others
- Have a weak sense of self or personal identity
- Want to be like someone else rather than being yourself
- Say and do things to be accepted, even if you disagree with them
- Struggle to open up to others for fear of being judged
- Keep a lot to yourself and feel socially isolated
- Frequently have critical thoughts about yourself
How many of these do you see in yourself?
2. You are scared to take chances
When my anxiety was at is peak, I found it a real struggle to go to a new place or meet new people. I remember going for a walk with Rosie in her pram and looking for a place to stop for lunch. It was a hot day, we were both hungry and we came to a cafe which would have been perfect.
But I couldn’t do it. The fear of going into a new place gripped me and I walked on to another, familiar cafe 20 minutes away.
You could be scared to take chances if you…
- Struggle to make important decisions in your life.
- Spend a lot of time daydreaming about what you’d like to do but you struggle to take action.
- Make impulsive decisions because thinking about your options is just too anxiety provoking.
- Think you could be doing more adventurous and exciting things in life but fear holds you back.
- Sometimes let other people make decisions for you so you don’t have to make them.
- Are reluctant to take on new interests, friendships or work opportunities.
- Base decisions on your level of fear. If you’re a little afraid, you might do it. But, if you feel really afraid, you don’t go ahead.
- Think outcomes are mostly dependent on luck.
Low self-esteem usually means you are afraid to take risks and do novel activities that would likely increase your positive sense of self. This means you miss out on fun and excitement and even achievement, but you stay safe in your comfort zone.
Over time the prospect of expanding your comfort zone makes you more and more anxious and even panicky. Anxiety can stop you from taking risks and doing the exact things that are going to help you to believe in yourself.
3. You are a perfectionist
As a society we often think of being a perfectionist as a positive trait. A perfectionist as someone who strives to do their very best: being motivated and ambitious. But perfectionism can cause serious problems and high numbers of people with anxiety are also perfectionists.
You could be a perfectionist if you…
- Are unable to accept failure in yourself. In your mind, small mistakes that you make become huge issues. Rather than taking the opportunity to learn, you find yourself going over the guilt of past mistakes.
- Feel like nothing you do is good enough. When you have achieved something, you’re unable to enjoy it. Instead, you focus almost exclusively on might have gone wrong and the next thing on the list.
- Find it hard to accept compliments
- Are anxious and stressed at the thought of your hopes and dreams. The fear of not succeeding is terrifying.
- Spend your time correcting little mistakes rather than looking at the bigger picture. Often you spend so long on a particular activity that you want done well, that you end up with less time and energy to focus on more important tasks.
- Find it hard to leave things unfinished
- Feel compelled to wait for the “perfect moment” to do something. And often end up not doing anything at all.
4. You often have negative thoughts
We all experience negative thoughts when life gets tough and we feel overwhelmed. But the thoughts that do the most damage aren’t necessarily the ones from big situations. It’s the constant stream of negative thoughts that you might be having on a daily basis which could be the more damaging. Negative thinking can be so ingrained we don’t even notice we are doing it. Negative thinking leads to negative emotions, which leads to negative life choices and anxiety and depression.
You may be having negative thoughts if you find yourself…
- Putting yourself down (I look awful, I’m fat, I’m too slow, I’m not as smart as others, I’ll never win, I’m no good)
- Comparing yourself to others (I’ll never be as good as her)
- Blaming yourself when something that isn’t your fault happens. For example “If only I had thought to put in an alarm system we wouldn’t have been burgled”. You might think of this as a type of logic but it’s another way of saying to yourself you are not good enough and you should have done better. Would you say this to a friend? No? Then don’t say it to yourself.
- Anticipating the worst outcome. I will usually assume that I won’t get through to something I’ve applied for or that a presentation will go badly. I do this so I don’t get my hopes up and get disappointed. But, by doing this I am training my brain with the underlying thought – which is “I never do well”.
- Giving yourself mental “pep talks”. Saying things to yourself such as “Be a winner not a failure!”. You might think you are trying to boost your confidence by this type of talk but could it be perfectionism rearing its head in a negative thought?
- Doubting others. Doubting other people is often a way of projecting our own worries and feelings about ourselves onto them. You may find yourself thinking things such as “they are probably only being nice to my face”, or “I can’t really trust them to be there for me”. What you’re really wondering is: do I like myself, can I trust myself?
Negative thinking can be so ingrained that we don’t even realise we are doing it
What can we do to improve our self-esteem?
So how can we improve our self-esteem? This is no easy task. It takes time and consistent effort. But the good news is that building self-esteem is something you can control and there are steps you can take to reduce negative thinking and increase the positive thoughts.
Let’s start with these 5 steps:
1. Notice negative thoughts and replace them with more compassionate ones
Unfortunately, when our self-esteem is low, we are likely to damage it even further by negative thinking about ourselves. When you notice a critical thought about yourself surface in your mind, note that it is there and see if you can turn it into a positive thought about yourself.
To help with this, ask yourself what you would say to a friend if they were in your situation (you’ll find that we are far more likely to be compassionate towards a friend than to ourselves). Then direct those comments to yourself. Instead of damaging your self-esteem with critical thoughts, you will help to build it up instead.
2. Work out what you are good at and develop those skills
Self-esteem and self-confidence (how you feel about your abilities in a particular situation) are interlinked.
Self-esteem can be built by focusing on the areas you have self-confidence in. For example, if you’re a good cook, throw more dinner parties. If you’re good at cycling, sign up for races and train for them. Make a list of your strengths or the things other people say you are good at and find opportunities to accentuate them.
3. Learn to accept compliments and celebrate successes
People with low self-esteem typically find accepting compliments and celebrating successes hard. This is because they contradict their own feelings of self-worth.
The next time someone pays you a compliment, start by learning to let the compliment stand, even if they make you feel uncomfortable (and they will).
Resist the urge to bat the compliment away or deny it. The best way to avoid the almost automatic reaction of rejecting a compliment is to have a set response and train yourself to use it automatically. A simple “Thank you” or “That’s very kind” is good enough. In time, you will find yourself less inclined to deny the compliment, which will also be an indication your self-esteem getting stronger.
4. Stop comparing yourself to others
There will always be someone who appears better than you or more capable than you (especially now we spend so much time on social media). That’s true for everyone. So comparing yourself to others and using that as the standard for your self esteem means that you won’t feel good about yourself. You can only use you as the yardstick for your life. No one else has walked in your shoes and you haven’t walked in theirs. Comparison is not helpful.
5. Practice self care
Do the things you enjoy. Eat well, nourishing yourself with good food that makes your body feel its best. Exercise daily (walking is one of the best things you can do). Listen to your body, rest when you need to, be active when you need to. The more you show yourself that you value your body and your health, the more you develop the capacity to love other parts of yourself.
Remember that these things take time and practice. Be kind to yourself and show yourself love and patience.