We hear the phrase “self-esteem” used so much nowadays in the media, the workplace and in schools. But what does it really mean? And why is it so important? Here’s one dictionary definition:
“respect for or a favourable opinion of oneself”
If someone asked you “Do you like yourself?” or “Do you live up to your own expectations?” What would your answer be? It’s amazing how often we set impossibly high standards for ourselves, which we wouldn’t dream of setting for others.
When we’re going through difficult times in our lives, such as relationship breakdown, work stress, or bereavement, we can start to lose our self-respect, to the point where we neglect our own well-being and put our health at risk. Self-blame and guilt are often part of the process, which lead to low self esteem and in some cases self-harm. The most obvious examples of self-harm are alcohol and drug addiction However, there are other much more subtle ways in which we “punish” ourselves. Here are some examples:
- working impossibly long hours
- poor diet i.e. not eating regular meals or eating too much
- cutting ourselves off from friends/family
- always putting others first
- allowing others to bully us
- taking unnecessary risks i.e. always driving too fast.
- ignoring symptoms of ill-health
Low self-esteem can cause huge problems in our lives and not only lead to mental health issues, but also physical illness. Sometimes the root causes go back a long way, such as external messages from parents, siblings or teachers. So, if a child is constantly told that they are ungrateful, lazy, or not very clever, they will unconsciously take on the role and will over time come to believe that it is true. It can also come from lack of parental care or nurture. Children whose mothers give them up at a young age and who are are brought up in care, are at a distinct disadvantage, compared with those who are brought up in a close and loving family.
Many clients who come for counselling feel that they have low self-esteem. However, when we delve a little deeper, they often discover that actually there is nearly always something in their life which they either are, or have been proud of, whether it’s academic achievement, the job they do, the relationship they are in, or their children. Yet, for some reason they don’t necessarily associate these things with their own self-esteem.
I do think that there is also a strong cultural element. Traditionally, British people are modest, self-effacing and we don’t tend to like people who”blow their own trumpet”. We only have to look across the Pond to the USA, to see the difference in attitude.
I’ll be exploring what we can do about low self-esteem in my next blog.