How to deal with the crippling effects of low self-esteem

Everyone has bad days, and everyone goes through rough patches – times when you feel uncertain about yourself, and your abilities, when you lack confidence in yourself, your relationships and your career.

That's life!

There are also times when nothing seems to go according to plan, everything you do seems to go wrong, and you feel useless and worthless.

That’s normal, that’s life, and it happens to everyone!

But for a growing number of people, this feeling of worthlessness never seems to go away and has a constant negative effect on their life.  

Megan Hosking, psychiatric intake clinician at Akeso Specialised Psychiatric Clinics, explains that low self-esteem is on the rise, and that it can have major destructive repercussions for those caught in the cycle.

What is low self-esteem?

The Oxford Dictionary defines “self-esteem” as “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities”. Low self-esteem, therefore, is a lack of confidence in your own worth and/or abilities.

The Centre for Clinical Interventions takes the description a little further, describing those with low self-esteem as having “deep-seated, basic, negative beliefs about themselves and the kind of person they are”.

Read: Beauty product ads hurt self-esteem

This, for Hosking, is what defines true low self-esteem, when negative self-belief becomes a "fact" in the patient’s mind, when a negative self-image becomes part of a person's identity.  


  • “I had a bad hair day” versus “I have bad hair”.
  • “I played terribly” versus “I play terribly”.
  • “I handled that situation badly” versus “I handle situations badly”.

It’s a little simplistic, and people with really low self-esteem will tend to use stronger words, like “ugly”, “useless”, and “stupid” when describing themselves, but this subtle difference in how people perceive their world can have a huge impact on their lives.

“Of course, low self-esteem will impact different people in different ways, ranging from struggling to make friends and entering into personal relationships as a result of shyness to avoiding challenges and under-achieving due to an innate belief of incapability. But it can also result in bigger issues like anxiety, depression, dependency, abuse, to name but a few,” says Hosking.

Low self-esteem on the rise

Hosking believes that low self-esteem is a growing problem in our modern world, although figures are difficult to come by and most of what can be found relates specifically to appearance. That said, professionals do agree that children and adolescents specifically girls – are more prone to suffering from low self-esteem, which is then transferred through to adulthood if not addressed.

For example, a recent study reveals that a massive 70% of girls feel that they are not meeting expectations and do not feel “good enough”.

By 17, 78% of girls are unhappy with their bodies, and more than 90% admit to feeling pressure to look a certain way or would change something about how they look if they could. 

The reasons are not hard to find:

Read: Facebook not good for those with low self-esteem

“There is an increased focus on appearance, success and the pressure to look, act and feel a certain way,” says Hosking. It comes from friends, family, work and society in general, including the ever-prevalent media.

“Of course, the rise of social media has also played a role, because our access to what is perceived as ‘perfection’ is always right there in front of us, and the opportunities to compare our looks and lives with those of others, are too many to count.”

According to Hosking, one of the biggest concerns around the rise of low-self-esteem is how unaware society remains of this condition.

“We do not realise how negative and critical we are being of ourselves, and as a result we continue to cement negative ideas in our minds, and so the cycle continues,” she says.

Breaking the cycle

On a positive note, however, Hosking does add that the rise of social media has brought about an increased awareness of low self-esteem and a strong movement to address it and encourage people – especially women – to love themselves.

There are a number of things that can be done to help improve self-esteem, she says.

“One of the most important things is to accept yourself for who you are, with strengths and weaknesses, as a beautiful individual. Focusing on the abilities you do have, and working to develop more/different abilities or improve them, is better than focusing on what you think you are not able to do.

"It is important to recognise those aspects of yourself that you are proud of and that you like, and to remind yourself of these. It is also important to move beyond just appearance-based acceptance to other aspects of life, such as work success, good relationships, and setting other achievable goals for yourself.”

In addition, she believes that psychotherapy can be extremely beneficial, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which assists patients to change the way in which they think and act.

Read: Is social media bad for your mental health?

She adds that the choice of therapist is as important as the choice of programme:

“The relationship with the therapist is of extreme importance, especially due to the very personal nature of self-esteem issues. Finding a therapist that you can trust, open up to, and that challenges you within a safe environment is crucial.”

In closing, Hosking comments that the most important key to preventing low self-esteem is to be kind to yourself:

“Each and every person has worth, and is important, and learning to love yourself and the good things about you is one of the greatest things you can do.”

You may suffer from low self-esteem if:

  • You experience constant feelings of not being “good enough”.
  • You have a lack of confidence in yourself and your abilities.
  • You are highly sensitive to comments others make about you, your appearance, your behaviour etc.
  • You engage in continuous comparisons of yourself with others.
  • You have constant feelings of fear, anxiety and depression.

It is important to note that some of these symptoms may also be representative of other disorders and/or dependent on particular circumstances. If you experience any of these, or other feelings impacting how you feel about yourself, how you behave, or how you view your life, it is best to seek professional assistance.

What is negative self-talk? 

Negative self-talk is anything you say about yourself, either to yourself or others, that is not positive. This can include running yourself down, negative judgements about yourself (including your appearance and abilities), comparisons to others, and negative thoughts. Common examples could be “I’m not good enough”, “I wish I looked…”, “why am I not…”, or “I can’t…”

Identifying negative self-talk is an excellent first step in combatting low self-esteem. Opening up to someone close to you about what you are feeling can help as they can also encourage you. Try to replace negative thoughts with more positive ones, and try to prevent labelling yourself – rather acknowledge the feeling, and try to think about what may have contributed to it and how you can move forward from it. Positive notes and reminders can also be helpful.

Also, minimising the negative thoughts and comments you may have about others can also assist in making your self-talk more positive. In a comparison situation, someone always ends up “losing” so try to avoid comparing yourself and/or others.

Read more:

The stigma of mental illness

10 things to do when you're down

6 tactics used to control women


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