[Article updated December 2016]
Low self-esteem can be deeply rooted, with origins in traumatic childhood experiences such as prolonged separation from parent figures, neglect, or emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In later life, self-esteem can be undermined by ill health, negative life events such as losing a job or getting divorced, deficient or frustrating relationships, and a general sense of lack of control. This sense of lack of control may be especially marked in victims of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or victims of discrimination on the grounds of religion, culture, race, sex, or sexual orientation.
The relationship between low self-esteem and mental disorder and mental distress is very complex. Low self-esteem predisposes to mental disorder, which in turn knocks self-esteem. In some cases, low self-esteem is in itself a cardinal feature of mental disorder, as, for example, in depression or borderline personality disorder.
People with low self-esteem tend to see the world as a hostile place and themselves as its victim. As a result, they are reluctant to express and assert themselves, miss out on experiences and opportunities, and feel powerless to change things. All this lowers their self-esteem still further, sucking them into a downward spiral.
If you feel that you suffer from poor self-esteem, there are a number of simple things that you can do to boost yourself and, hopefully, break out of the downward spiral. You may already be doing some of these things, and you certainly don’t need to be doing them all. Just do those that you feel most comfortable with.
1. Make two lists: one of your strengths and one of your achievements. Try to get a supportive friend or relative to help you with these lists, as people with depression are not usually in the most objective frame of mind. Keep the lists in a safe place and read through them every morning.
2. Think positively about yourself. Remind yourself that, despite your problems, you are a unique, special, and valuable person, and that you deserve to feel good about yourself. You are, after all, a miracle of consciousness, the consciousness of the universe. Identify and challenge any negative thoughts about yourself such as ‘I am loser’, ‘I never do anything right’, or ‘No one really likes me’.
3. Pay special attention to your personal hygiene: take a shower, brush your hair, trim your nails, and so on.
4. Wear clean clothes that make you feel good about yourself. All things being equal, wear an ironed shirt rather than a crumpled T-shirt, you get the idea.
6. Exercise regularly. Go for a brisk walk every day, even if it is cold or rainy, and take more vigorous exercise (exercise that makes you sweat) three times a week.
8. Reduce your stress levels. If possible, agree with a friend or relative that you will take turns to massage each other on a regular basis. For other suggestions, see my article Managing Stress.
9. Make your living space clean, comfortable, and attractive. Whenever I clean my windows or just water my plants I seem to feel much better. Display items that remind you of your achievements and the special times and people in your life.
10. Do more of the things that you enjoy. Go ahead and spoil yourself. Do at least one thing that you enjoy every day.
11. Perform some art. Activities like painting, music, poetry, and dance enable you to express yourself, interact positively with others, and reduce your stress levels. You might even impress yourself! Find a class through your local adult education service or community centre.
12. Set yourself a challenge that you can realistically complete. For example, take up yoga, learn to sing, or throw a small dinner party for some friends. Just go for it!
13. Do some of the things that you have been putting off, such as filing the paperwork, repainting the kitchen, or clearing out the garden.
14. Be nice to people, and do nice things for them. For instance, strike up a conversation with the postman or shopkeeper, invite a neighbor round for tea, visit a friend who is sick, or get involved with a local charity. Putting a smile on someone’s face is bound to put a smile on yours.
15. Get others on board. Tell your friends and relatives what you are going through and ask for their advice and support. Perhaps they too have similar problems, in which case you might be able to band together and form a support group. Don’t be overly shy or reserved: most people do want to help!
16. Spend more time with those you hold near and dear. At the same time, try to enlarge your social circle by making an effort to meet and befriend people.
17. Avoid people and places that treat you badly or make you feel bad about yourself. This could mean being more assertive. If assertiveness is a problem for you, ask a health professional about assertiveness training.
Neel Burton is author of Growing from Depression, The Meaning of Madness, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, and other books.