Low self-esteem was my companion for most of my life. I hated doing self-evaluation questionnaires. Then there was always that dreaded question in an interview: what are your strengths? I honestly could never think of any. If something positive did come to mind, I would put the thought out of my head immediately, fearing it would be perceived as vain or inadequate.
Every time I did an assessment of sorts, a lack of self-esteem always came up. As a result, I owned the label. I saw it as a weakness I had to live with and never considered that perhaps I could overcome it.
What is self-esteem?
Def: Self-esteem is the value a person gives to their worth, competence, and significance. It is based on our self-evaluation and subsequent beliefs about ourselves. Self-image on the other hand is how we describe ourselves.
Self-esteem can be used interchangeably and in connection with other words such as self-love, self-respect, self-image, and self-concept. More recently it has been replaced by the word self-acceptance, which is thought more appropriate. I tend to agree with this concept as self-esteem typically has a negative connotation.
How our Self-Image is Formed
The basis for how we perceive ourselves is primarily formed in the early childhood development years. This is why the child-parent/carer relationship is so crucial. We need to feel worthy and accepted, especially by those closest to us. Children need love and affirmation above all else. Unfortunately, even hard-working, well-meaning parents can get it wrong, never mind the dysfunctional parent-child relationships. As a result, we sit with millions of people the world over who have a negative perception of their self-worth.
If our needs for love and affection have not been met, we risk growing into teenagers and adults with poor self-image and low self-esteem. When I first started counseling, I was amazed by how many of the issues I dealt with, originated in childhood.
We are not born with a poor self-image, it is a belief we learn. Some children may be quiet and considered introverted but this is not the same as low self-esteem. Later on in life, people who lack confidence may be quiet and introverted, but this does not mean that all introverts have low self-esteem. It is important to know the difference and differentiate where you fit in.
People may not do anything about their negative beliefs because they think they were born that way and can’t do anything about it. It is what they have known for most of their lives so it becomes their norm. Thoughts become beliefs that influence behavior and that in turn can validate our beliefs. The good news is that whatever we learn can be ‘unlearned’. I’m not sure if that is a word, but you know what I mean ; )
An abnormally negative opinion of ourselves results in what is considered low self-esteem.
Signs and symptoms
- The person frequently puts themselves down
- They are unable to take criticism
- Avoid doing things because they believe they will fail or disappoint
- They believe other people don’t want them around
- Compare themselves to others all the time
- Critical of others
- Unable to accept compliments and love
- Poor losers
- Complain often, argumentative, intolerant, hypersensitive, and unforgiving
It is no wonder then, that people with low self-esteem are often very unhappy and stressed out.
Causes of low self-esteem
- Lack of affirmation
- Rejection-real or perceived
- Underachievement relative to peers.
In a connected world of high expectations, materialism, and image, it is becoming ever more common to compare ourselves to others and believe we are lacking. When you consider the consequences, it is possibly one of the biggest threats facing our world today.
False Beliefs Causing Low Self-esteem
- The need to meet other people’s expectations to be loved and accepted.
- Believing that they deserve to be shamed and punished if they don’t achieve goals and expectations.
- A belief to always be in control of the world and those around them
- Poor body image: ugly/overweight/too thin
- They are not good enough
- There are many others as well
Consequences and effects of low self-esteem
- Lack of inner peace
- Lack of confidence
- Social withdrawal
- Domineering personality in a bid to gain power and have control
- Broken relationships or avoidance of relationships
- Work pressure. People with low self-esteem are more likely to throw themselves into work to be successful, thinking that will give them recognition, influence, and confidence. Low self-esteem doesn’t necessarily directly affect work stress, although it could be if you are in the wrong job and not coping.
- Crime and murder
- Self-hatred and criticism
- Fear to take on a challenge
- The abused becomes the abuser
Robert Schuller says “The need for self-esteem is the greatest need facing the human race today”. I wouldn’t agree with these words, but I think that poor self-esteem is probably the greatest threat to achieving our God-given potential. For me, the saddest consequence is that people with low self-esteem, fail to follow their dreams and the plan God has for them, thereby failing to reach their true potential.
Pride and Low Self-esteem
Having a positive self-image and healthy self-esteem is the opposite of low self-esteem. However, this can also have a negative meaning as it is often perceived as vanity, pride, and arrogance. Ironically, these character traits are more often consequences of a poor self-image than a healthy one. What does pride look like?
- An unhealthy need to seek others’ approval.
- An arrogant opinion of ourselves compared to others
- Disregard of other people’s opinions and feelings.
- Attention seeking.
A Biblical Perspective of Self-esteem
The Bible is without a doubt the safest place to turn to when we want to seek our true identity because it is not affected by human perspective and opinion. The first step on the road to self-acceptance is knowing who you are in Christ. We are created in God’s image and our value should be firmly planted in God, the one from whom we get true love and affirmation.
Self-esteem can be a difficult subject for Christians because we are told to humble ourselves. For many, this means self-sacrifice and putting themselves down. However, this is not what the Bible means.
When the Religious leaders asked Jesus what the greatest commandment in the law was, He said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 23:37-39) We have to love ourselves first otherwise, how can we love others?
God is relational and He commands us to have fellowship with one another. This is difficult if we feel unworthy, insecure, and lacking in confidence, and if we feel that way, it is going to be difficult to fulfill our purpose which is very important to God.
A biblical view of self-love is the basis for self-acceptance. We can accept that we are weak and imperfect without it depreciating our self-esteem. We need a realistic balance between accepting our sins, failures, and imperfections while acknowledging our gifts, abilities, and achievements too.
It seems that to have harmony in our lives, we need to aim for healthy self-acceptance through knowing who we are, warts and all. It may be a lengthy road, but one well worth embarking on. We have to accept we are not perfect, but we do not have to believe we are less worthy than anybody else.
- Understanding our personality type is a good place to start. We all think and behave differently and that is ok. God made us unique.
- Recognize your self-worth. Know the value you bring to other people and situations because we all have something to contribute.
- Don’t feel that every insecurity is a failure. A certain amount of inadequacy is not a bad thing, it may kick us into action at times.
- Self-esteem issues may be specific to certain areas of your life only, such as work or relationships. Identify the causes and find solutions to overcome them.
- Try to understand why you think and believe as you do. Once you understand that, you can work at reconditioning your thinking.
Benefits of self-acceptance
- You can show love towards others when you know you deserve love.
- Understand that being humble is not a sign of weakness, it is a show of self-confidence, healthy self-esteem, and genuine God courage.
- Being at peace with yourself means less frustration and less stress. I would hesitate to say whether it will guarantee happiness but it is a contributing factor.
- There appears to be a correlation between good self-esteem and success. I’m not sure what comes first, but when you feel confident, you are more likely to take on bigger roles and new challenges because you believe in your ability.
- Become less reliant on the opinion and approval of others.
It is important to recognize poor self-esteem in other people too. People with low self-esteem are often difficult to get along with and yet they are the ones who could do with support and encouragement the most, especially in work situations. We don’t always need to pull others down so we can lift ourselves.
After living with low self-esteem for so long, it took a revelation from God for me to change my perception of my self-worth. You can read a summary of my story in “The Unconditional Love of God“
Taking a realistic look at ourselves is the first step on the way to self-acceptance. We deal with this further in another topic. For now, you can start by making 2 lists: (1) 10 of my Strengths and (2) 10 of my Weaknesses.
Bruce Narramore, You are someone special (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zonder-van, 1978), 29.
Gary R. Collins, Christian counseling: A comprehensive guide (USA, W Publishing Group, 1988), 313