One of the richest ironies in life is our aptitude to criticise ourselves when all we need is self-empathy.
So instead of thinking “My self-esteem is low – but why do I think that?” or “I’ve got low self-esteem – but who says so, and does it matter if it’s true?” we tend to a.) blindly accept the label, and b.) beat ourselves up about it.
Without even questioning the premise of self-esteem, we leapfrog straight into judgement: “My self-esteem is bad and I need to sort it”. Which naturally – and somewhat hilariously, if you can think of it in that way – only makes everything worse.
Reality or myth?
In order to move forward from this confusing catch-22, we could do well to roll back to basics and examine what we even mean by “low self-esteem” to begin with.
As clinical psychologist Joe Oliver explains in a new piece in Psychology Today, we tend to confuse this rather loose term with other abstract concepts such as “not feeling very confident”, “not knowing who we are” or “agreeing to please others.”
To make a murky definition even muddier, low self-esteem is not always a label that we give ourselves, but instead is gifted by those around us (kind of them, eh?).
“For as long as I can remember, people have questioned whether I’m assertive enough,” says Alisa Morgan, a health worker from Nottingham. “Often, they’re really well-meaning people, like teachers or line managers or even my mum.
“But the message that I get is that I’m not ‘enough’ somehow. I’m doing something wrong compared to other, perhaps louder, people. It’s made me feel self-conscious about my confidence in a way that I doubt I’d be aware of otherwise: it’s certainly a pressure I could live without.”
Chloe*, a digital project manager from London, agrees.
“I’ve been told I have low self-esteem since I was a teenager, and I’ve done all sorts to try and help me overcome it,” she says. “This includes an ill-advised stint of singing lessons, therapy and 1-2-1 coaching. I always think I’m quietly confident despite what others think; but if they think you have low self-esteem then that becomes your ‘thing’. It’s frustrating.”
A struggle with self-acceptance
However unwelcome the sticker of “low self-esteem” – and, whether it’s self-imposed or applied by others – it’s clearly something of a misnomer.
Psychotherapist and couples counsellor Hilda Burke, author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, believes self-esteem (low or otherwise) only really becomes a problem when we read it as such.
“Many of my clients come to me with a presenting issue of low self-esteem,” she tells Stylist. “However, when we work together what often transpires is actually more a struggle with self-acceptance.
“I always share with them a belief expressed by the founder of modern humanistic psychology, Carl Rogers: ‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.’
“I’ve seen evidence for this time and time again,” Burke adds. “When we get bogged down with what we think is wrong with us, blaming ourselves, comparing ourselves, wishing to be different, ironically the less we are able to change it.”
This chimes with Oliver’s assessment in Psychology Today. “It turns out that the solution to the self-esteem problem is somewhat counter-intuitive and unexpected,” he writes. “[…] Rather than working to strive to be someone fundamentally different from who we are, it’s working on accepting deep down who we are.”
Reclaiming “low” self-esteem
The idea that low self-esteem is an issue of acceptance makes a lot of sense to Stylist digital writer Hollie Richardson.
“I had selective mutism when I was a child: I literally didn’t speak to anyone except my immediate family for a year,” she says. “Although I had therapy that helped, it’s always meant that I’m shy. I’m quite reserved in big groups at work and in social situations, and come off as quite un-confident.
“I admit that it has held me back quite a bit over the years,” Hollie continues, “But that’s mostly because I feel tormented with this pressure to ‘speak up’ and be loud. In recent years I’ve learned and accepted that, actually, yes I only really speak when I truly think I have something I want to share; I’ve come to see that as a strength.”
For Alisa, this journey has meant gently but firmly pushing back at those who urge her to speak up or express herself more.
“As I’ve got older, I’ve found ways to say some version of, ‘thanks but I’m happy the way I am’ when people question my esteem levels,” she says. “It’s not been easy, but by saying that to others, I remind myself that nothing’s wrong either; which, after all, is always what I thought.”
For Burke, working within therapy, this process begins by challenging the belief system that we create around our own esteem levels.
“Much of my work with clients lies in helping them to befriend all aspects of themselves; no matter whether they brand these elements as ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’” she says. “Interestingly, the less judgement is brought to bear, the greater the capacity to change; and for self-esteem to grow as a by-product.”
Low self-esteem as a superpower
For psychologist Oliver, the low/bad self-esteem thought train comes full circle when we are able to appreciate that our “vulnerabilities” can be qualities: not least in the way that we connect to others.
While inflated self-esteem is linked to “unhelpful” traits such as narcissism, low self-esteem can actually enable powerful cooperation and compassion skills.
“Ask yourself, what kind of person are you most drawn to?” he writes. “Is it someone who only ever lets you see how perfect they are? Or someone who is willing to be more vulnerable and let you see the whole of them? As you answer this question, you might ask yourself how you may choose to hold yourself and your vulnerabilities? Is it possible to hold them with tenderness and care as you recognise the superpower that is wrapped in them?”
Chloe, for example, sees her apparent low self-esteem as an advantage, especially at work.
“While I don’t shout about my achievements and ‘big myself up’ in meetings, I am always striving to prove myself – and this has made me an incredibly conscientious worker,” she says. “I also think my lack of ego has made me a better manager and team player: I always make a point of celebrating everyone’s achievements (rather than singling out my own).”
So the next time your inner critic is about to let loose on your “low” self-esteem, try taking a step back instead. Pause for a moment to think, “is this really true?” and also, “is this even a bad thing?” – the answers may surprise you.
Images: Getty, Unsplash
* Not her real name