What is low self-esteem?
Self-esteem is the opinion we have of ourselves. When you have a healthy self-esteem, you tend to feel positive about yourself and about life in general, and you can handle challenges better. But when you have low self-esteem (LSE), you tend to see yourself and your life in a more critical and negative light.
There’s an epidemic of LSE, says Elizabeth Venzin, Founder and CEO of Mind Shift, a self-esteem institute in Australia. Venzin explains that our self-esteem “affects almost every aspect of our lives, from how we think about ourselves, to the way we think or react to life situations.”
LSE affects people all over the world and from different walks of life. Venzin comments that when negative influences and thoughts are widespread – generated from either within ourselves or through others – it adversely affects not only the way we feel about ourselves, but also impacts on our life experiences.
Low self-esteem is described by clinical psychologist and founder of the Self-Esteem Institute Dr Marilyn Sorensen, as a “thinking disorder in which an individual views himself as inadequate, unacceptable, unworthy, unlovable, and/or incompetent.”
Dr Sorensen explains that low self-esteem forms in childhood when the individual is developing an initial view of how he or she, as a person, fits into the world.
If you have low self-esteem, you’ll typically:
- Be extremely self-critical
- Downplay or ignore your positive qualities
- Judge yourself inferior to your peers
- Use negative words to describe yourself, e.g. ugly, fat, stupid, unlovable
- Use unconstructive self-talk that involves blaming, criticism and negativity
- Not take credit for your achievements, assuming that luck plays a large role in them
- Blame yourself when things go wrong, instead of taking into account external factors like economic forces or actions of others over which you have no control
- Feel uncomfortable or disbelieving when someone compliments you
Why low self-esteem is a problem
People with low self-esteem are unhappy or unsatisfied with themselves most of the time and this can lead to problems such as anxiety and depression.
If you have low self-esteem or low confidence, you may “hide yourself away from social situations, stop trying new things and avoid things you find challenging,” explains Professor Chris Williams of the Psychosocial Psychiatry Department at the University of Glasgow, in the United Kingdom.
He remarks that, in the short term, avoiding challenging and difficult situations makes people feel a lot safer. However, in the longer term, such avoidance can actually backfire because it reinforces their underlying doubts and fears, teaching the “unhelpful rule that the only way to cope is by avoiding things.”
There are many causes of low self-esteem, comments clinical psychologist Dr Lars Madsen. They are often traced to abusive or dysfunctional early years and can persist well into adulthood. Causes may include ongoing stressful life events like relationship breakdowns or financial trouble, poor treatment from a partner, parent or carer, abusive relationships and bullying by peers or siblings.
Venzin says one must also not underestimate the role that advertising and various forms of media like reality TV shows and social media play in influencing body image, which forms part of our self-esteem.
How self-esteem affects fitness
When it comes to fitness and exercise, Venzin believes that low self-esteem, not a lack of self-discipline, is the biggest issue hampering an person’s ability to reach fitness or weight loss goals.
“When you have LSE, it can be very difficult to get started, persevere with exercise challenges and not simply give up on a training programme. This is especially true if you haven't exercised for some time, are overweight or are very unfit, because you may think you’ll never get there.
“The most damaging element of LSE is that little voice in your head, the one that says 'I can’t do that', 'I’ll never be able to look like that'. This constant negative self-talk may just be thoughts in your head that you never actually verbalise, but it sabotages our success in everything, including exercise,” she says.
Venzin believes the first step in tackling LSE is to become aware of your negative thoughts and limiting self-beliefs. “Once you get over this first hurdle, you can start re-educating yourself and learning to consciously reframe thoughts into more positive affirmations. When you start seeing a difference in your weight or fitness levels, things will improve and it will become easier to be motivated and more disciplined about exercise.”Overcoming exercise embarrassment
When you have low self-esteem, the idea of exercising in a gym can be an extremely daunting prospect. Mark Sisson, a former elite endurance athlete who has made health and fitness research and communication his life’s work, says starting an exercise programme is hard, but such feelings are completely normal.
Mark knows that many people are intimidated by the thought of a gym with its mirrors, gleaming muscled bodies and hordes of gym goers exercising as if their lives depended on it. The reality, he says, is that people in the gym aren't focused on you. Like you, they’re also just trying to lose some weight, build muscle or boost their fitness.
Here’s how to overcome your fitness fears:
- Consider a personal trainer. A trainer will show you how to train properly and use gym equipment with confidence for your fitness level. This will help reduce worries that you think you may look odd (even though you don’t and nobody cares anyway).
- Follow a specific exercise plan or programme – it’s far better than simply walking in and starting to work on random equipment.
- Work out during off-peak hours. Many gyms offer reduced rates at these times so it’s a double bonus – lower cost and you can avoid the sweaty crowds as you work out in relative solitude.
- Consider other exercise options. Not everyone wants to work out in a gym; there are many other ways to get fit. Go for walks or hikes, swim in the sea or a pool or set up your own home gym by investing in some weights, kettle bells and a punching bag. Alternatively, put on an exercise DVD or do 30 minutes of energetic dancing to your favourite music several times a week.
- Find out about various outdoor group exercises or fitness classes in your area. Group fitness classes enhance camaraderie and the feeling that “you’re all in this together”, says psychologist Dr Patricia Farrell.
- Remember to check with your doctor before starting a new exercise programme or if you have chronic health problems.
How to improve LSE
Forget about simply "raising" your low self-esteem and transforming it into healthy self-esteem, says self-esteem recovery specialist Dr Sorensen. You have to learn to change your basic view of self and transform your thinking and attitudes.
While this isn't a simple process and it will take effort and vigilance to replace unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, she recommends practising these tips every day and giving yourself time to establish healthier habits:
- Make step-by-step goals for exercise. For example, start with a walk round the block once a day, enrol at a local gym class or go for a swim.
- Challenge negative “self-talk” – every time you criticise yourself, stop and look for objective evidence that the criticism is true. You’ll realise that most of your negative self-talk is unfounded.
- Don’t compare yourself to others; recognise that everyone is different. Make an effort to accept yourself, warts and all.
- Acknowledge the positive e.g. don’t brush off compliments, dismiss your achievements as “dumb luck” or ignore your positive traits.
- Appreciate your special qualities by reminding yourself of your good points every day. Write a list and refer to it often. (If you feel you can’t think of anything good about yourself, ask a trusted friend to help you with this.)
- Forget the past – concentrate on living in the here-and-now rather than reliving old hurts and disappointments.
- Give yourself a daily positive message – buy a set of “inspirational cards” and start each morning reading out a new card and carrying this message with you all day.