By Marta Aizenman Ph.D.The Princeton Packet
Low self-esteem can steal happiness from people´s lives
People with low self-esteem are often their own worst enemy. "My presentation was lousy," they say. "I am dumb." "I am ugly." "1 am a bad parent." In the process, they not only make themselves feel terrible. they may discourage themselves from taking the risks necessary to achieve their goals or from reaching out and fanning close connections with others, in short, from living a rich and fulfilling life. So how can someone pull out of this downward spiral?
Marta Aizenman, Ph.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology. She is the director of the Cook College Counseling Center at Rutgers. The State University of New Jersey has a private practice in Princeton and is a board member of the Mercer County Psychological Association.
To understand the answer, it helps first to understand that self-esteem is not related to intelligence. A person can be extremely capable and smart and yet have a very low sense of self-worth. This feeling is pervasive and persistent. The person does not merely consider that some of his actions are wrong, or that he lacks talent in a particular area. He believes that his entire self lacks value. This conviction is continually reinforced by a negative voice in his head and is not easily shaken by evidence to the contrary.
For instance, if such a person succeeds at a given task or receives a compliment, he will tell himself that the accomplishment was actually not so impressive or that the person giving the compliment was mistaken and is bound to realize this sooner or later.
The consequences of low self-esteem can be severe. In contrast to people with high self esteem - who are comfortable acknowledging their mistakes, giving and receiving compliments, taking calculated risks, and opening themselves to new ideas and relationships - people with low self-esteem are shackled by dread that others will discover their perceived worthlessness.
Convinced that they are bound to fail, they may hesitate to put themselves on the line by taking on challenging projects. Preoccupied with gaining the approval of others, they may have difficulty thinking independently. Afraid of punishment or rejection, they may find it hard to own up to their errors, thereby making it hard for them to learn from their errors and move on. Determined to conceal their secret feelings of inadequacy, they may close themselves off from others.
In sum, feeling worthless robs a person of his power- for living and removes him from reality.
The source of a person's low self-esteem is usually the messages he received during his formative years. In some cases these messages may have been explicit, as when a parent criticizes a child with statements such as, “You can never do anything right." As an adult, the person may no longer remember these specific instances of criticism. But the negative self image they created in him persists.
The messages that contribute to a person's low self-esteem may also be implicit. For instance, parents may withhold praise in an effort to prevent a child from becoming conceited. In the process, the child fails to develop a sense of basic self worth. Similarly, when scolding a child for specific misdeeds, parents may use labels that are overly broad. Not completing a chore is termed "being selfish”, hitting a sibling is "being bad”.
Sometimes parents give conflicting signals - alternately praising and criticizing a child for the same behaviors-. In these cases, it is the negative impression that tends to predominate.
Children may also develop feelings of inferiority if parents fail to empathize with their feelings. When a child's happiness or sorrow is dismissed or greeted with indifference, the conclusion the child draws is that his needs - and by extension, his self are unimportant and of little value. A similar result occurs when a child watches others, particularly parents and other family members, being criticized.
According to some psycho1ogists, parents also often transmit their own self-image to their children. Children use parents as role models. A child whose parent frequently puts himself down may internalize this practice.
Another strong factor contributing to low self-esteem may be the comments of teachers and peers.
Since low self-esteem is a learned behavior. it can be modified. This is not an easy task, however. People with low self-esteem are dogged by their critical voice, causing them to dwell on negative thoughts and to reject positive ones. Indeed. a person with low self-esteem is often also suffering from depression. They tend to exaggerate their mistakes and perceive them as proof of general rather than specific failure. They constantly make unfavorable comparisons between themselves and others. They direct anger they may feel towards others at themselves. They also blame themselves for everything bad that happens to them. Breaking out of these patterns is difficult and may require the help of a therapist.
If you have low self-esteem, a good place to begin is to try to disarm your critical voice by figuring out its source. As you review the messages that helped create your negative self-image, you can refute them. You can also begin to understand the price you are paying for your critical thoughts - the ways your low self-esteem have impacted your work, your relationships, your overall sense of wellbeing. In so doing, you can ask yourself whether this price is worth paying.
As you work to counteract your self-criticism, you will be permitting other, positive voices to emerge. In particular, it is important to understand that your self worth lies in who you are, not in what you do. After all, we love babies before they have started to do anything.
Try to focus on such positive thoughts and filter out the old negative ones. Find your strengths and talents and congratulate yourself for them. But also keep in mind that the' essence of strong self-esteem is forgiving yourself for your failings. Understanding and accepting yourself will free you to make mistakes. This, in turn will permit you to grow and learn, and ultimately to enjoy the richness that life has to offer.