Self-Esteem, Part Three: Common Signs of Low Self-Esteem

Hopefully, you’ve read What Self-Esteem Means and Why Yours Matters and Challenges to Self-Esteem as You Grow Through Life.  You have an idea of what self-esteem really means, why it’s important, and what challenges along your life path may have led you astray in terms of your own sense of self. 

Now it’s time to see if you really do have some self-esteem issues and if so, how they express themselves in your relationships, personal choices, and your approach to life in general.  The points below are each signs of low self-esteem.  Any that feel familiar are worthy of your attention, because all detract from quality of life and inner peace.  The more that are true for you, the more important it is for you to get to work creating the happier, more centered self you were always meant to be.  There are surely more signs of low self-esteem than you will see below, but this list will give you a solid start in your self-assessment.

Relationship Patterns

♦ You rarely say no to others, even to things you really don’t want to do.  You’re afraid it would hurt someone’s feelings, or that you will be seen as someone who is unkind or selfish.  People know they can count on you to help out, so they ask quite often.  In fact, you’re so reliable that you’re usually the first person who gets asked, so the work seldom gets shared among many others.  You see this and are probably a bit resentful, but you keep saying yes anyway.  

♦ You often overdo for others, even to the point of personal detriment.  You may not have the time, the energy, the money, or even the interest, but you usually give more than you can really afford to anyway.  As a result, your own life suffers and you know it, but it is more important to you to be nice to others than to have a manageable personal life. 

♦ You may make the above choices because deep down, you don’t believe you are worthy of acceptance or kindness, though you think most everyone else is.  You may feel that you have to “earn” your way into relationships through good deeds and extra generosity.

♦ You have loose emotional boundaries with others, meaning you allow them into your emotional space even when you know they won’t treat that space with respect.  They may be intrusive, controlling, critical, exploitive, or simply disrespectful; all of this is painful or at least frustrating, but you just can’t stop letting them in.  This may be true of family members, coworkers, casual acquaintances, or even some people you have chosen as  friends.  You rationalize this one-sidedness in your relationships and soldier on, perhaps feeling a bit of martyrdom in the process.

♦ These dynamics may result in you being in a number of relationships that feel highly conditional, in which you are punished or rejected if you don’t measure up to the expectations of others.  This reinforces your belief that you have to earn your way in.  You never get to feel fully, safely loved and accepted, though you’ll get temporary glimpses of it when you manage to “keep them happy” for a little while.

♦ You may act as the emotional shock-absorber (peacemaker) in your family system, so that there will be less conflict and a more pleasant environment for everyone.  You absorb problems, conflicts, pathologies, and disconnects rather than allowing the family to be unbalanced by them, which would otherwise open the way for change (which might be painful up front) and growth (which would greatly reduce painful episodes in the future).  The system fails to mature as it needs to, while you become increasingly exhausted and devalued. 

To be sure, some amount of shock-absorbing is necessary and healthy in human relationships, because we all really need the grace of others sometimes.  The point is that the work of stabilizing the system should be shared, rather than shouldered primarily by one member.  Shock-absorbing is often necessarily undertaken for the protection of self and/or children in an abusive environment; until you can get yourself and your kids into a safer circumstance, you may have little choice.  Otherwise, you may unwittingly enable the others in your family to simply become lazy, irresponsible or insensitive in their relational skills while you exhaust yourself trying to make it work for everyone anyway. 

Personal Life Management Style

♦ You usually don’t take much care of yourself in terms of nutrition, exercise, and rest.  You don’t plan for self-care in the first place, and don’t make a consistent effort at it when you do plan for it.  You easily give it up in favor of doing for others or meeting other obligations.  You think of self-care as something you “should” be doing rather than wanting it because of the better life it would give you.  You feel vaguely guilty about not doing it, rather than frustrated that you are depriving yourself of its rewards.

♦ You have few personal interests, maybe none.  What interests you do have are probably sedentary.  You spend little, if any, time in pursuits that allow you to just be you, in your own skin, having your own satisfying experience.  Your time is spent primarily in reference to others: You are someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mom, someone’s employee.  Because you live with such a narrow, other-oriented focus, you fear you have little to add to conversations and tend to shy away from situations in which you fear you’ll be revealed as boring or uninformed.

♦ Your self-confidence is low, so you avoid experiences that would challenge you.  Such experiences would broaden your sense of self and allow you to discover that you can learn and conquer new things, but you are kept immobilized by your fear of failure.  Perhaps you do have occasional glimpses of growth and success, but predictably retreat back to the lower life-quality that fits your true sense of self.  This frustrates you terribly, but you find yourself repeating the cycle over and over again.  Your personal potential is left largely untapped because of this baffling pattern.

Thoughts, Feelings and Beliefs

♦ You are your own worst critic.  You say things to yourself (without even noticing it a lot of the time) that you would never dream of saying to another human being under any circumstances.  You not only say these awful things to yourself, you do it many, many times per day.  I recently polled a dozen bright, capable, attractive, kind, impressive women about their self-talk.  What follows is a sampling of their actual, daily thoughts:

“I'm not as good as other people.”
“No one wants to hear what I have to say.”
“I look like a blob.”
“People won't like me unless I'm extra nice.”
“I'm boring and dull.”
“Everyone will find out I'm a loser.”
“Nobody has ever truly loved me.”
“Why would anyone want to be with me?”
“I'm not smart enough to be with him (her).”
“I’m just crazy.” 
“I procrastinate about everything.” 
“I don’t have a right to how I feel.”
“I’m a mutant.”
“I’m a loser.”
“I’ve aged badly.”
“I never finish anything.”
“I’m a fraud.”
“Everyone else belongs except me.”
“Everyone knows something that I don’t.”
“I have no self discipline.”
“I wonder if anybody else notices how stupid I sound right now.”
“I am mediocre at many different things but I am good at none of them.”
“I can’t do it.”
“I might as well not try because I will not succeed.”
“I hate myself.”
“I don’t like me, so why would others?”
“Why can’t I do anything right?”
“It’s all my fault.”
“There is something wrong with me.”
“Nothing gets better.”
“I look awful.”
“I can’t keep up.”

You would never say such hateful things to others (i.e., “You’re not as good as other people.  No one wants to hear what you have to say.  You look like a blob.”) because you believe no one deserves to be spoken to with such cruelty.  You maintain a double standard in which you treat yourself with a far lower level of regard than you would practice with anyone else.  You assume your toxic self-talk is all true because it feels true to you.  You seldom stop and really evaluate its accuracy.

♦ You depend on accolades from others to know that you’re acceptable and that you’ve done something worthwhile.  If the feedback is positive, you feel okay.  If there is no feedback or the feedback is negative, you are devastated.  Your sense of self changes based on how you believe others see you. 

♦ You don’t take compliments well.  They make you uncomfortable and you tend to either pretend you didn’t hear them, or explain to the other person why a compliment is not, in fact, called for. 

♦ You have a distorted sense of how you compare to others.  You look at the public façade of others and are sure they have good lives, know how to be happy, are successful, and deserve every great thing you assume they have.  You, on the other hand, were not present the day the How to Do Life manuals were handed out, and are just stumbling along screwing up while everybody else has it made.  The reality is that others aren’t as extraordinarily gifted as you think, and you have more strengths than you give yourself credit for.  While the truth is that everyone is a mix of successes and failures, you don’t usually look at the world this way.

♦ You take hurtful actions from others very personally and do your best to make things better with them in any way that you can.  You often assume that relational problems are somehow your fault.  You apologize a lot.  You question yourself much more than you question the behavior of others, no matter how troubling their behavior may be.

♦ You feel uniquely damaged, in that if you can see that other people have problems too, you assume that there is hope for most everyone but you.  Your particular history or issues are beyond help, or if you see shared issues, yours are somehow more intractable.

♦ You have a deeply held belief, perhaps not quite conscious, that this is all you’re really supposed to have, that a higher quality life does not fit in the picture of you.  If you hold this as your personal truth, acknowledged or not, you will reject or undermine higher quality whenever it may try to enter your life, because it doesn’t fit.  You may vehemently deny having such a sad personal truth, but look at the life you have created so far – does it suggest your expectations for yourself may be lower than you like to think?

♦ You fear being alone.  This is not dislike of being alone, but real fear.  This fear leads you to accept relationships and situations that you’d never want to see for a friend, just because staying keeps you from being alone.

There are undoubtedly more signs of low self-esteem than you see listed here, but this article should give you a fairly good picture of the problem.  Low self-esteem is the wall you keep running into when you know how to make your life better, and you just don’t. 

The good news is that, while it takes sustained effort, it is possible to improve damaged self-esteem.  It requires repeatedly challenging your beliefs until they begin to shift, and it requires choosing to bring good things into your life even before you feel quite ready to accept them.  For ideas on how to start, see Building Stronger Self-Esteem.

Copyright © 2011, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.


 Related articles:  

Self-Esteem, Part One: What Self-Esteem Means and Why Yours Matters

Self-Esteem, Part Two: Challenges to Self-Esteem as You Grow Through Life

Self-Esteem, Part Four: Building Stronger Self-Esteem



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