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What does low self-esteem look like and how can counselling help?

85% of people worldwide struggle with low self-esteem affecting the way they feel about themselves, their values, and abilities.

Low self-esteem can have a big impact on our mental health. People may feel unworthy, experience self-doubt, or struggle with body image. A study shows that a staggering 62% of 15- to 16-year-olds reported they felt under increased pressure to conform to ‘unreachable beauty standards’ because of social media.

“When we have healthy self-esteem, we tend to feel positive about ourselves and life in general but when our self-esteem is low, we tend to see ourselves and our life in a more negative and critical light. We also feel less able to take on the challenges life throws at us.” Says The NHS.

People with low self-esteem will often have negative beliefs and opinions about themselves – and may not feel they deserve love, happiness, or success.

What can people with low self-esteem experience?

Low self-esteem can be different for different people. These may include:

  • Experiencing feelings of anxiety, depression, and irritability.
  • Being highly self-critical of themselves and others
  • Comparing themselves to others and feeling that they are not worthy
  • Downplaying their positive qualities and avoiding taking credit for their achievements.
  • Having negative self-talk
  • Blaming themselves when things go wrong rather than considering other factors that are out of their control
  • Difficulty in making or maintaining relationships
  • Concern over the impact you have on others
  • Fear and avoidance of difficult or challenging situations

The NHS states that “low self-esteem can lead us to stop trying new things and make us afraid of challenges, as well as leading us to develop unhelpful habits, such as drinking or smoking too much, as a way of coping. Other signs can be physical such as headaches or fatigue.

A lack of belief can affect how people make decisions and live their lives. For example, it could hold someone back and stop them from reaching their full potential by not putting themselves forward for work opportunities.

In the short term, avoiding challenging situations makes you feel a lot safer. In the longer term, this can backfire because it reinforces your underlying doubts and fears. It teaches you the unhelpful rule that the only way to cope is by avoiding things.”

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Why do people experience low self-esteem?

Nobody is born with negative beliefs – they can develop from life experiences.

Stress and difficult life events, such as serious illness or bereavement, can negatively affect self-esteem. Children who experience punishment, abuse, or neglect often believe they deserve what happened to them.

Perhaps you found it difficult to meet your parents’ standards or your own expectations.

You might not remember anything happening. It is possible to develop low self-esteem without specific negative experiences, but simply through not enough positive ones. Without enough warmth, affection, praise, love, or encouragement, children can believe that they are not good enough.

improve low self esteem

How can counselling help?

Counselling can help you to understand where your core beliefs come from and how to challenge them, as well as ways to practice self-compassion and set goals to support your wellbeing. It can take time to overcome deep-rooted thought processes and learn new things. Developing more awareness and how this impacts who you are today can be eye-opening.

Breathes Psychotherapeutic counsellor Katie pledge explains: “Counselling gives a person the opportunity to be listened to by a professional in a safe, confidential environment. Taking through their experiences and exploring the way they feel at their own pace. This helps to identify negativities and we can begin to work on reducing negative thoughts whilst building confidence in a way that suits them. This could be through setting goals or working on motivation.

Challenging negative thoughts

Sometimes unhelpful thoughts can be so powerful they are difficult to ignore and control. They may feel so overwhelming and distressing they can affect how we behave and even how we feel physically, having a further negative impact on our mood. Some people may not even notice their negative self-talk as it is subtle but as patterns repeat then they can influence choices in life.

Learning to recognise your patterns helps you to take a step back from these criticisms and replace them with kinder, more self-compassionate self-talk.

Practice self-compassion

People with low self-esteem may say things to themselves that they would never say to another person. When your self-talk is negative, for example ‘I can’t do X’, try challenging that thought. Ask it ‘why not?’. Imagine what you would say to a friend who said this to themselves and try to treat yourself as you would a friend.

You can learn how to show kindness towards yourself by recognising that no human is perfect and forgiving your mistakes.

It is helpful to build awareness of emotions. Be mindful of difficult thoughts and feelings without letting them overwhelm you.

Setting goals

With the help of a counsellor, you can determine your values and priorities in life and then set realistic goals that are meaningful and important to you.

People may also use their goal-seeking skills to improve self-compassion and mindfulness. Improving self-esteem can itself be a goal.

Many people struggling with low self-esteem have developed unhelpful habits, which may have been reinforced for years. A person can learn to break these habits and replace them with positive behaviors.

Challenging negative thoughts or behaviours and learning new things give us more opportunities, growth, healing, and feeling good about ourselves.