Can Low Self-Esteem Be Improved?

July 7, 2012 9:07 pm

In today’s society we seem to place a great deal of importance on individuals appearing confident and with high levels of self-esteem.  Just look around at our most successful role models, from politicians to actors to athletes.  All frequently appear in the public eye and seem to ooze self-confidence during interviews and public appearances.

In the ‘real world’, it seems self-esteem plays just as important a role when it comes to forging a career.  In 2010, Forbes Magazine quoted Dr Timothy Judge from the University of Florida as finding that individuals who reported themselves as having high self-esteem ended up with more job satisfaction, better job performance and higher incomes than their less confident counterparts.

But what is self-esteem…and is it possible to change your own levels from low to high once they have been identified?

Self-esteem is a personality construct that defines the way that we see ourselves.  Levels of self-esteem and self-worth dictate whether or not the overall opinion we hold of ourselves -and therefore that which we project to others-  is a positive one or a negative one.  Emotions reflected as a result of low self-esteem include feelings of inadequacy, low self-value and anxiety.

The Canadian psychologist Nathaniel Branden was one of the first academics to include feelings of confidence and self-worth under the umbrella of self-esteem.  Branden, sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of Self-Esteem’, defined self-esteem as the ability to cope with life’s everyday challenges whilst allowing oneself to be happy. He argued that should the self-esteem needs of a child go unmet, in adulthood the individual could display varying degrees of defensiveness, anxiety and even depression.

Mental health website Overcoming.co.uk supports the notion that low self-esteem stems from negative childhood experiences such as systematic punishment, neglect or abuse of any description.  Given then that it takes a child some time to learn behaviours associated with low self-esteem, is it realistic to assume that an adult individual can shrug off his or her low self-esteem issues over a short space of time?

Whilst there is a wealth of self-help books professing to be able to ‘Improve your self-esteem today’, most experts agree that whilst self-esteem issues can successfully be tackled and resolved, there is no quick-fix to cure long term problems surrounding it.  Unfortunately, this is compounded by a problem: the tried and tested routes of positive affirmations and positive thinking sadly don’t often tend to carry much weight for individuals who are reluctant to take on board any positive messages around themselves.

Instead, self-esteem issues appear to be resolved over a long period of time. Gaining a higher self-esteem involves a gradual change of mind-set, vocabulary and self-perception which eventually spills over into self-projection, once the individual’s core thought processes have started to alter completely.

In their article Six Ways to Boost Your Self Esteem, Cognitive Therapist Marci Fox and Leslie Sokol list a number of starting points for getting the process moving:

  • Welcome and embrace your positive qualities:  Make a list of all your positive assets and qualities.  Include compliments that others give you and even compliments you have given yourself to show how far you have come.  Make a pact to remind yourself every day of all the positive things about being exactly who you are.
  • Trust in yourself:  Dedicate time every day to remind yourself of all the problems and difficulties you have successfully overcome.  Believe that you there is always a way to overcome life’s difficulties and focus on your accomplishments regardless of how big or small.  Know that you are intelligent enough to know when to ask the appropriate people for help and regularly give yourself a pat on the back for your dedication and perseverance when it comes to making things work.
  • Believe in your value as an individual and make yourself a priority over others from time to time to acknowledge and nurture feelings of self-worth.  Think of something you have always wanted to do and just do it.  Give yourself permission to say no to something you don’t want to do and allow yourself to disappoint others if it means that you are prioritising yourself, even for just a short while.

Whilst they may seem incredibly simple, it is worth reminding yourself that these are the kind of tasks you need to perform every day to ensure that the information sinks in properly.   According to research from the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Centre at UCL, it takes on average 66 days to form a new habit.  Conversely, the same study found that it is much harder to break an old habit than to introduce a new one.  Despite the fact that a new habit will not automatically replace and eradicate an old one, it is possible to build a habit that prioritises a positive response before negative self-talk, thus eventually quietening and silencing messages that reinforce low self-esteem.

It is generally agreed that whilst it is no easy task to build up low self-esteem, it is nevertheless not just possible but also essential if we are to be happy, secure individuals who can raise our children and future generations to be happy, confident individuals who are secure in themselves and who will be successful in whichever career path they choose to follow.

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