Self-esteem is the value or worth that one places in oneself. When we feel more worthy we pick ourselves back up more readily after setbacks; we have greater confidence in our ability to accomplish our goals; and we can tolerate criticism and rejection. In contrast, when self-esteem is low we are likely to miss opportunities in order to avoid risk. We also may perform poorly because we are overly focused on ourselves and poor outcomes rather than the task at hand. We are also likely to be overly accommodating to avoid criticism and rejection. Low self-esteem can also contribute to feeling depressed or anxious.
The level of one’s self-esteem is a consequence of the positive and negative messages that one hears both from others and internally. Spending a lot of time in any environment where the external messages are predominately negative will have downward impact on one’s feelings of worth and competence. The other impact is that one may become more negative internally, which is even more significant in keeping self-esteem low. Frequently, people’s internal messages are overly focused on the most negative interpretation of their behaviour. This is like having someone tagging around behind you telling you everything you do is wrong and continually reminding you of the worst aspects of yourself. Imagine how discouraging it would be if someone actually did that. This is particularly likely to happen if one grows up with negativity at home or lives with an abusive partner. However, negative environments can also happen at school, work and with friends. Often, it can be bullying, but sometimes, it can appear to be friendly, yet really be critical and negative.
Self-criticism and negativity are hard to resist because they seem realistic. In fact, they are not realistic as they paint an overly negative picture of reality and minimize the positives in one’s life. Challenging the criticism and negativity is important in reversing their effects on one’s self-esteem. Narrative therapy is particularly good at this as it provides a framework to discover the positive values, beliefs, intentions and actions in a person’s life. Frequently, criticism and negativity have obscured these and bringing them to light and emphasizing them can gradually develop a more positive and importantly realistic view that will contribute to healthy self-esteem.