One of the joys of the festive season is choosing carefully curated gifts for those we love. However, people-pleasing sufferers of low self esteem can go to extremes of generosity and care. Those who don’t value themselves look for ‘other esteem’ by meeting the needs of others and disregarding their own.
If you find yourself wrapping piles of presents and feeling a bit sorry for yourself, take a moment to give your feelings the gift of attention. If you feel neglected or unappreciated, be kinder to yourself and find something heartwarming to do for your own benefit in the midst of a busy day making sure everyone else is happy.
None of us have intact self esteem. It’s chipped away during our early developing years when we form opinions about ourselves which become core beliefs about our identity.
Once these beliefs have been neurologically embedded, we look for proof of them in our experiences and the way others react to us. Many of us have a powerful inner critic constantly reminding us of our inadequacies. And, no matter how much reassurance we’re given, that inner critic continues to defy proof or logic.
The therapeutic cliche that you’ve got to love yourself in order to be loved is an irritating limitation, undermining relationships, personal development and professional achievements. Anyone who feels too ugly to love, too stupid to achieve anything worthwhile or undeserving of happiness risks fulfilling their own prophesies.
Why do we damage our self esteem?
As a nation of negative thinkers, we’re prone to be harsher on ourselves than others. Our inner voice is a cruel taskmaster. Without realising it, the subconscious mind directs behaviour toward what we’re focused on. Thus, someone who thinks they’ll never earn much money won’t ask for a pay rise or look for a better paid job. And those who think nobody fancies them will turn down dates with someone they really like or put them off asking them out.
These self sabotaging strategies are sometimes described as ego defence mechanisms, preventing us from being hurt when others notice our shortcomings. Too much self esteem can certainly lead to ridicule and humiliation when falling short of what you think you are capable of. Maintaining healthy self esteem is a life-long balancing act.
It’s also a difficult challenge which isn’t easily solved. Self help books and talking therapies focussed on positive thinking are missing the point. Low self esteem and the beliefs associated with it are powered by deeply neurologically embedded emotions. And tapping into the power of positive feelings is tricky when they contradict core beliefs formed through a lifetime of negative conditioning.
In therapy, hypnotic or mindful techniques can help ease the self loathing by dissociating the sufferer from its original cause, desensitising them to the triggers that reinforce their trauma and deconstructing the behaviours which maintain critical beliefs. It’s complicated.
The unconscious mind is governed by emotions and is a bit like the machine code of a computer programme, though far more powerful than any technology yet invented. The conscious is the end user and has little influence over the patterns of the unconscious operating system.
Telling someone they’re an amazing person in every way when they’re tortured by doubt and insecurity simply makes them feel more misunderstood and alone. Even if they can accept compliments and approval rationally and logically, the unconscious emotional brain rejects all that contradicts it. That can make them feel guilty and even more inadequate. This is why many people with low self esteem feel more comfortable with those who treat them badly and confirm their expectations of rejection, disapproval or abuse.
A whole publishing industry has grown around the theory that affirmations save these unhappy people from their self sabotaging self hatred. But repeatedly stating positive affirmations won’t make them feel loveable unless they accept that as the truth. If you asked an atheist to repeatedly state ‘I believe in god’, it’s not going to change their point of view. At best, under pressure, they might pretend they believe in a god whilst holding onto their authentic belief that there is no such thing. Equally, low self esteem cannot be challenged with affirmations.
Our identity is formed from the personality we were born with and the circumstances of our life. Because low self esteem informs our core beliefs, attempts to improve it can challenge who we think we are and what we expect from life. By definition, people who don’t think they’re up to much limit their hopes and dreams accordingly.
If you recognise any of these patterns in your own life, here are some tips to help shift your perception of yourself:
- Think about memories of times when you felt ashamed or humiliated in ways that confirmed your critical beliefs about yourself and then swipe them out of your mind like you’d swipe something off the screen of your phone. Keep doing this and they’ll fade in significance.
- Take yourself to a happy place or time in your life and focus on the feelings of security and wellbeing you experienced then. When those feelings of shame or fear come into your mind, observe them from your happy place, as if they’re outside of you.
- Mentally rehearse what you would have done or said if you’d been confident and had healthy self esteem so that memory is edited to being a more positive experience.
- Imagine returning to those experiences of worthlessness as the wiser, older person you are now and defending your younger self.
Obviously, you can’t change the past but you can change the way it affects you in the present and the future. These simple exercises aren’t a fix-all because improving self esteem takes commitment and motivation to change. A big ask for those who doubt their abilities.
Building healthy self esteem requires rebuilding the person who lacks it. Shaky foundations made fragile during early developing years can be underpinned with the wisdom of maturity and a desire to care enough to take care of your own needs.
Christmas is when childhood memories come to the fore and can be a good time to make bitter things from the past sweeter. If you want the people you love to show you how much they care, ask them for a gift that has meaning for you. That makes you feel so much more loved than a trinket. Treat yourself with the gift of healthier self esteem and everything in life gets better. Happy Christmas to your esteemed self.