TL;DR – Self-esteem is a sneaky little shit that you’re not usually aware of unless it’s so low you have to dig for it. It also takes a lot of work to repair, which we’re going to take a crack at in this post. Bottom line: you need to give yourself a break.
My self-esteem is notoriously low. Like rock bottom low. Like World Limbo Champion low. I will often remind you here that I am NOT a mental health professional and that I am in no way qualified to give medical advice, but if there was a degree in low self-esteem there would be buildings at Harvard named after me.
“Hey dude,” you might say, “did you forget you were supposed to be talking about how to be okay? Rough start.”
No, I didn’t forget. This blog is as much for me as it is for you – writing these posts forces me to think through these issues and think about how to cope, even in a small way, with all the challenges that are just inherent to being a person. Self-esteem is one of those pesky little human traits that we probably don’t think about every day unless there’s something wrong with it. Think about it – you don’t think about breathing unless you can’t catch your breath and you probably don’t think about your self-esteem unless it’s low.
This is what makes self-esteem such an insidious little bastard – it hides from your conscious mind until it’s broken. There’s no “check engine” light warning you that there might be a problem, no blood test that your doctor can use to say, “hey, your self-esteem levels look like they’re dipping – make sure you pay attention to that.”
So how do you know if you have low self-esteem? Well, if you got here by Googling low self-esteem then there’s a good chance that you already know you do. If you just happened upon this post and now you’re wondering, here are a couple of indicators:
- You are highly self-critical – You come down hard on yourself for simple mistakes or find yourself constantly dissecting your actions, criticizing the results even in the presence of positive or neutral outcomes.
- Perfectionism – Nothing but the best, right? Not a bad trait to have in moderation, but are you coming down on yourself for never being able to meet those standards? Do you find yourself backing away from challenges or tasks because you know it can’t be perfect?
- Intense Vulnerability – Vulnerability is not a bad thing, but are you so vulnerable that anything less than your desired outcome causes you to retreat into yourself? Do you find yourself with intrusive thoughts like “I don’t deserve this [insert good thing here]” or “Why does this person love me?”
- Perceive temporary situations as permanent setbacks – This is a big one. Do you find yourself saying things like, “Oh man, I messed this up now they’ll never trust me with anything again.”?
That is nowhere near an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. All those things have a common thread – “I’m not good enough.” This is the central issue in low self-esteem. It’s an inability to evaluate your own worth.
Here’s the thing though – any evaluation of your self-worth is going to be subjective…always, no matter how hard you try to be objective. My brain doesn’t do well with subjective concepts. I’m a facts guy – my brain works on observations about the world around me and I will always always always apply logic first. I was like that when I was a kid and then the line of work I found myself in not only cemented that tendency but gave me a whole new arsenal of different skills to do it with.
An over-reliance on objectivity is where I get myself into trouble with self-esteem – I don’t consider the subjective input into my personal self-esteem equation. I don’t consider how I or people around me feel, I don’t consider personal perspectives or opinions, and I don’t consider how people are responding to me (which is a HUGE clue).
So we should rely on subjectivity when thinking about our self-esteem, right? No, that’s not what I’m saying and this is what’s really hard – we have to strike a balance between an objective and subjective evaluation of our self-worth or we will find ourselves not just with an incomplete picture of our self-worth but a skewed perspective to boot.
So how do we do this? How do we work on our own self-esteem without digging ourselves into an even deeper hole?
I think the first step is to actively ask questions about ourselves that will force us to balance both objective and subjective evaluations of our self-worth. Focus on those things that you worry about the most, whether it’s your level of success, love, body image, whatever.
Here are couple of examples to help us get started:
- Issue – “I feel like a failure”
- Objective questions – What failures have you experienced in the last six months? By whose standards did you fail, your’s or someone else’s? What were the tangible consequences of your failure (i.e., lost an account, lost money, etc.)?
- Subjective questions – How did those failures make me feel? Did I make the choices which led to the failure in good faith (in other words, did you honestly take what you felt to be the right course of action)? How did people around me react when they learned of the failure?
- Issue – “I feel unlovable”
- Objective questions – Who are the people in your life who have genuinely displayed care for you? How many of those people are you still in contact with or can you reconnect with? What are the precise characteristics of your personality that make you unlovable?
- Subjective questions – What does love mean to me? Am I putting out more love than I feel I’m getting back? How are people behaving toward me that are contributing to this feeling?
You get the idea. Some of those questions seem really harsh and hard to ask yourself, but that’s because they are. No one said this was going to be easy, but it WILL be worth it.
If you find yourself leaning more toward the subjective side of an evaluation of your self-worth, you will probably find that the objective questions will help put things in perspective. You’ve probably heard people say things like, “they always talk about the planes that crash, but never the thousands of planes that land safely every day” – this is the same idea. There’s a really good chance that you don’t fail as much as you think you do, but you are focusing on your personal plane crashes instead of your safe landings.
By the same token, if you’re like me and you find yourself leaning toward objectivity, you will probably find the subjective questions useful in gaining a little bit of perspective. You probably already know how many times you’ve failed, how many bad dates you’ve had, etc. but I bet you haven’t taken the time to ask yourself the big question: WHY? It’s really easy for naturally objective people to see themselves as the common denominator in all their issues, but life is not math and you’re not a computer. There are all kinds of external factors that can contribute to “bad things” happening and most of them are out of your control. It’s hard to accept, but sometimes you can do everything right and still fail. That doesn’t have anything to do with you as a person, it just is.
Here is the hardest part, but you have to do this every single day regardless of how you see the world, what you think of yourself, or what you’re going through:
CUT YOURSELF SOME SLACK
You’re not perfect and neither is anyone else. You are GOING to make mistakes. You are GOING to hurt people’s feelings. You are GOING to fail. It’s totally ok and it doesn’t make you worthless. I bet you already know that, but knowing it and living it are two different things. It can be especially hard today when most of what we know about the people comes from social media or the workplace. Just remember, public personas (especially on social media) are carefully curated to only show you the awesome things.
You, living in your head as you do, are privy to every intrusive thought, every imaginary scenario you create, and every failure (perceived or otherwise). It can be very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’re the only one struggling, which can cause your self-esteem to nose dive. You owe it to yourself to remember, and to remind your loved ones, that perception does NOT equal reality. Every person on this planet struggles – all of them, no matter what they may lead you to believe.
Do yourself a favor and spend some time working on your self-esteem, even if you’re convinced you’re worthless. I’ve never, in four decades on this planet, met a truly worthless person and I’m willing to bet you won’t be the first.