How do you deal with low self-esteem?

Can you be happy and peaceful even when you don’t feel good about yourself?

And what to do when you have low self-esteem attacks?

Self-esteem is not improved in the same way as confidence.

When you want to improve your confidence in public speaking, what would you do? You go and join a Toastmaster or sign up for a course and learn from the experts. The more you do, the better you get.

When it comes to raising your self-esteem, it’s a little different. Self-esteem is a perception and belief about oneself. Perception and beliefs are either favorable or unfavorable. You are either worthy or not worthy. Hardly will you find someone who believes they are both worthy and unworthy.

You may feel happy about yourself when you achieve something great in your career. But if interacting with others makes you feel not good enough, then deeply ingrained inside your brain, you still believe and feel that you are unworthy. You still have low self-esteem. This is what I called condition-based self-esteem.

Low self-esteem is a perception problem. 

You don’t build it like you build confidence. So how do enhance or overcome your low self-esteem? What do we do about our negative self-beliefs?

There is actually a third option when it comes to perception. It’s being neutral. In the marketing or entertainment world, being neutral about something is being indifferent. But when it comes to spirituality, being neutral is being at peace. It’s not about being indifferent towards yourself. More on this at the end of the post.

Here’s how to deal with low self-esteem.

1. Be mindful of your low self-esteem attacks.

Are you aware of your low self-esteem attacks?

The first step of coping with your low self-esteem is to notice the attacks. When I was teaching my students, I noticed that some of them have the habit of scolding themselves whenever they make a mistake. They would use phrases like “I’m stupid”, “I’m an idiot” and “I’m so dumb”. I even have one student who spout vulgarity on himself.

Even though those remarks are casual and not meant to be taken seriously, I’m not sure if they realize that it has become a habit. Once a habit is formed, it’s not that easy to get rid of.

You don’t have to stop your low self-esteem attacks just yet. Notice what happens first. 

When you observe your low self-esteem attacks, you gather a lot of information about them. For example:

  • The intensity of the attacks,
  • Their triggers,
  • Your immediate actions after the attacks, and
  • Your body sensations.

With this information, you can then develop a strategy to manage your low self-esteem and have it under control. Jotting down the above information for future reference will help too.

2. Determine the common triggers for your low self-esteem attacks.

What happens right before you beat yourself up? Did you make a mistake? Did someone criticize you? Did you feel left out?

After you start noticing your low self-esteem attacks, you will see a pattern. You will see that some events frequently trigger your negative self-talk. These are the events you have to take note of.

Take me for example. I realize that I’m fine most of the times. I usually don’t feel unworthy until when I am in groups. That’s where the low self-esteem attacks begin. Being in group makes me feel that I don’t belong. It always triggers a feeling of defectiveness in me.

Look into your past experiences to understand your triggers. 

When I sat down to reflect, I realized that I was socially rejected by my peers when I was in secondary school. That was traumatic for me and it manifested itself throughout my life when I was interacting with others. Even when I’m with a group of supportive friends, somehow I would still feel disconnected and doubt if they want me to be there.

Understand your triggers gives you new insights of yourself. It gives you a chance to heal your emotional pain from past. It also reduces the intensity of your attacks because you know it’s coming before the triggering events occur. It’s like knowing where the scary parts of a horror movie are.

3. Understand your current coping strategies.

How do you cope with low self-esteem currently? Do you try to avoid, fix or conquer it?

Recently, I read a book called Reinventing Your Life by Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko. In the book, they talk about the three common coping strategies which most of us have:

  • Surrender,
  • Escape, and
  • Counterattack.

Many of our problems are a result of us coping with low self-esteem.

On my previous post, I talk about the various problems which low self-esteem brings. Most of them are actually a result of our coping strategies, but we might not be aware of that.

Take overworking as an example. If you are frequently staying late at work, could it be that you are using an Escape strategy? Instead of spending time building relationship with others, you rather bury yourself with work. Working becomes an excuse to avoid risking rejection from others since that will trigger a feeling of unworthiness in you.

Or do you surrender to your self-esteem problems? You feel unmotivated at work because deep down inside, you believe that no matter what you do, it won’t be good enough. You constantly find evidence to prove that you are unworthy and you don’t do anything to correct or change your perception because you believe nothing would change.

Or perhaps you tried to battle and combat your low self-esteem by proving that you are worthy enough. You stay back late at work and strive for endless achievement because you need that to feel good about yourself.

Understand your coping strategies allows you to change inappropriate strategies which are causing you problems in other areas of your life. It also let you be more mindful of your actions and behaviors, rather than have them run automatically by your mind.

4. Develop a strategy to break your mental patterns.

Once you know the triggers and your coping strategies, identify your beliefs. Observe what your mind tells you whenever the low self-esteem attacks are triggered. Ask yourself:

“Does this belief still apply to me now?”

For example, if your mind tells you, “You are stupid. You never get anything right”, challenge it. Find evidence to counter it. Doubt it. Ask yourself, “Is it true that I never get anything right in my life? It might be true that I made a lot of mistakes from the past, especially when I was a child. But now, I’m much older and wiser now. I’ve learned from my mistakes…”

There are several ways to break your mental patterns. One way as mentioned above is to work on your beliefs system. This isn’t positive thinking. It’s about questioning your outdated beliefs and checking if they still apply to you today.

Another strategy is to prevent yourself from getting low self-esteem attacks. You can do this by setting up boundaries and putting yourself in a right environment. So instead of dealing with rude people who make you feel bad about yourself, remove yourself from these situation. Even though you can’t avoid everyone, but this will significantly reduce the triggers for low self-esteem attacks.

Whatever your strategy is, you must understand that your mind sticks to its habits. So to solve your low self-esteem issues, you have to find a way to break or disrupt its habits and replace them with new, positive habits.

5. Allow yourself to make mistakes.

Changing habits is not easy. It’s inevitable that you will make mistakes along the way.  When you make mistakes, don’t beat yourself up. This will just trigger more low self-esteem attacks.

Understand what you are trying to do here is to have more control over your mind. It’s not about treating or curing yourself from low self-esteem.

There’s nothing defective about having low self-esteem.

It just feel that way. Everyone makes mistakes. Even after I have overcome my depression, there are still days when my mood wasn’t very good. But that’s alright. It’s not about getting a 100% perfect score. It’s about being more aware of your own emotions so that you can take care of them before they get out of hand.

There will be times where you fail to notice your triggers. Even if you notice them, you might still have negative thoughts and feelings towards yourself. The way to handle these low self-esteem attacks is to feel and accept the discomfort. Observe the sensation in your body, instead of paying attention to your thoughts. It’s not about fighting or resisting these attacks, it’s about welcoming them.

When you welcome these negative emotions and your mistakes, you will notice that their impact on you are not that great. Yes, they are some discomfort to your body but they are actually not life-threatening. It’s something you can deal with and handle.

6. Stop playing the self-esteem game.

Perhaps the best way to get over your low self-esteem issues is to stop playing the self-esteem game. Instead of always focusing on yourself and how unworthy you are, focus on helping others and other areas of your life.

But do be caution when you shift your focus to other things or people. Make sure you are not helping others just so you can feel good about yourself. This defeats the purpose. You are just avoiding and escaping from your low self-esteem issues.

This self-esteem game is created by our mind.

Quitting the self-esteem game means not judging ourselves based on a self-image our mind has created for us. Our mind has this image of perfection and it wants us to strive towards it. We are trapped by this ideal self-image in two ways:

  • either we can’t stop ourselves from striving and achieving more, or
  • we feel defective when we do not achieve the self-image required by our mind.

One thing we have to realize is this perfect self-image created by our mind is not achievable. Even when we do achieve it, our mind will raise the bar and create a more ideal image for us to achieve.

There’s nothing wrong with growing and improving ourselves, but we can’t stay with this ideal self-image forever. If your self-esteem is derived from your beauty and physical strength, what happens to you when one day you grow old and you lose both your beauty and physical strength? Will you still be worthy then?

So be in touch with your authentic self instead of building the self-image your mind wants you to build. Remember you are the master, not your mind.

(Read Kristen Neff’s Self-Compassion, on opting out the self-esteem game.)


Question: How are you coping with low self-esteem? What strategies do you use to deal with low self-esteem attacks? Let me know in the comment section below.

Featured Photo Credit: Sad / Loren Kerns

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