Joanne Gilhooly - Psychotherapist & Counsellor - Dublin City
Counselling and Psychotherapy for Low Self-Esteem...
What counsellors and psychotherapists generally mean when they talk about self-esteem is the level of self-acceptance or self-compassion a person allows themselves. It is our sense of being ‘good enough’ as a person, or the ability to accept ourselves as we are.
When our self-esteem is low, we may become highly self-critical, berating ourselves for mistakes, or holding ourselves to unattainably high standards - perfectionism. Our sense of being ok as a person may hinge on whether or not we meet these standards, how we perform in a given task, how we look, who is attracted to us, how strong we are, what our job is, what kind of car we drive, etc. When we do not meet these standards we become vulnerable to feeling low about ourselves and feeling ‘less than’ others, who may appear to us to have it all together. We may avoid tasks that we are not instantly good at, to avoid self-criticism and yet another blow to our fragile sense of being good enough. ‘Negative’ feedback, or feedback about mistakes we have made, can feel devastating, instead of constructive. When self-esteem is low, we are unable to accept that we are human, that mistakes are inevitable, especially when we are learning, and that they are not at all reflections of our worth or value as people.
Low self-esteem may be related to difficulties such as eating disorders and depression, and can strongly impact a person’s quality of life and their relationships. It may be related to our sense of security in ourselves and the world (our attachment style), and can be related to painful experiences such as being subjected to heavy criticism, and being bullied, rejected, or excluded.
Conversely, we may tend to think that high self-esteem as what we are aiming for, but in reality, what we sometimes call 'high self-esteem' can often be a defence against low self-esteem or feeling vulnerable. The person who defends themselves in this way may need to believe that they are ‘better’ than others in order to bolster a fragile sense of their self. This kind of self-esteem may be easily damaged and actually very tenuous. It may result in the frequent severing of relationships, the avoidance of genuine connection with others, and the loss of intimacy that can only be found in the shared acknowledgement of, and respect for, one another’s vulnerabilities. Thinking we are better than others is no more realistic than thinking we are less than others.
Instead what counselling and psychotherapy aim to help a person to do, is to gain a more realistic sense of themselves, as both flawed human beings and as people of intrinsic value with strengths to celebrate. Rather than shying away from taking an honest look at ourselves, we aim to do just that. To see both the areas we need to work on as well as our strengths. We aim for a real and grounded sense of self in which we can appreciate ourselves as a whole person, seeing more than our mistakes, and appreciating our humanity. This, rather than simply defending against feeling bad about ourselves, allows us the opportunity to develop a healthier and more solid sense of self-esteem, one in which we are not less than, or better, than others, but of equal value, and worthy of the same respect.