The spectrum of self-esteem
Self-esteem is something we feel, think, see and hear about in everyday life. This could be in relation to ourselves, friends, family members, our communities or in the media.

For example, there are frequent reports looking into how self-esteem currently stands amongst groups in our communities. A Guardian headline at the end of last year read, Revealed: how pressures of online life undermine teenage girls’ self-esteem.

This article looks at a survey into the current self-esteem of teenage girls. It considers the causes, particularly the impact of online communication, of feelings of low self-worth. It also contemplates the effects of low self-esteem by reflecting on potential links to attitudes towards food amongst teenage girls.

How is your personal self-esteem?

Self-esteem is something we all have and yet it can be one of the most fragile parts of the self. It is no wonder then that self-esteem is a term often brought to counselling. In counselling, we look to understand what it is, how it is for an individual, and largely, how it can be improved.

So, what do we mean by self-esteem?

Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves. This can include:
  • Our beliefs, opinions and values
  • Our personal qualities
  • Our abilities
  • Our appearance
  • How we are in relationship with others
Our self-esteem is played out in and affects our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

As with many of the parts of us that we have in common as people, it can be helpful to view self-esteem as a spectrum or scale. With all spectrums the first thing to consider is whether realistically the scale would ever begin at 0. Taking the viewpoint that all of us have self-esteem, then however low it could be it would surely not start at 0, as there is nevertheless still some existence of esteem. Therefore our scale could perhaps be 1 being low self-esteem and 10 being a good sense of self-esteem.

We all move up and down this spectrum throughout our lives, sometimes even throughout a day. We might feel confident and at an 8 on the spectrum, or lack a feeling of self-worth, around a 3, at different times.

As individuals, our self-esteem spectrum will be unique and we might find that we tend to generally lean towards a certain area on the scale.

What affects where we are on the self-esteem spectrum?

As you would expect, how our self-esteem is formed and affected is a long and complex process that is exclusive to the life journey of each individual. It is a process that occurs based on external factors e.g. a teacher in childhood consistently giving negative and unconstructive feedback, and internal processes e.g. taking in the teacher’s critical voice as fact and hearing that as an adult each time we approach a piece of written work.

Our life experiences and the messages we take from them are key to our self-esteem. Some of the factors that contribute to our self-esteem, with examples of what might lead to low self-esteem, are:
  • Childhood experiences e.g. bullying and early messages from parents, siblings, school life, our wider communities and even the media e.g. “Why can't you be clever like your sister?” or “You must be thin to be beautiful”
  • Difficult and painful life experiences like bereavement or the end of a relationship e.g. Going through a divorce and taking from the experience the message that you are a failure or unloveable
  • Trauma and/or abuse - this can often leave survivors with horrendous feelings of self-blame, guilt and low self-worth, amongst other complex feelings
  • Feeling like you ‘don’t fit in’ with a social group, your family or community, especially if you experience discrimination or stigma for any inexcusable reason
  • Stress – it is hard to believe in yourself or your life when you are stressed, particularly if you are finding it hard to cope
  • The quality of and presence of relationships e.g. if you have a controlling and critical partner, the way in which you value yourself and your sense of self-worth can be affected. As it can if you find you struggle to make and maintain relationships and/or are experiencing loneliness

What happens if you find yourself stuck on the lower end of the self-esteem spectrum?

When people experience extended periods of low self-esteem, it could mean you:
  • Feel persistently negative about yourself
  • Turn to drugs, alcohol or other addictive behaviours such as gambling to try and improve feelings of self-worth and/or rid of negative thinking. Any effect of increased self-esteem through such behaviours is only temporary and will eventually lead to an increase in negative feelings about the self amongst other difficulties
  • Find it difficult to have relationships or have relationships that are unhealthy
  • Struggle with choices or decisions
  • Find it hard to cope with life in general, perhaps experiencing suicidal thoughts
  • Develop negative thinking patterns that are difficult to break and keep you trapped in a place of low-self esteem
  • Experience mental health problems e.g. depression and anxiety – mental health problems can also cause low self-esteem e.g. eating problems can also include negative thoughts about yourself, therefore the relationship between mental health and self-esteem can be a painful and intertwined cycle

What would having healthy self-esteem and being on the upper end of the spectrum be like?

As having a low self-esteem can feel and mean something different to each person, so can having a healthy sense of self-esteem. However, some of the signs of good self-esteem are:
  • Liking yourself and feeling that you are good enough
  • Accepting and valuing yourself
  • Knowing that you have a right to have opinions and being able to share these with respect for others
  • Feeling that your opinions, thoughts and emotions are valuable and respected
  • Trusting yourself, and others when they are deserving of your trust
  • Accepting yourself physically
  • Being able to correct negative thoughts about yourself that might pop into your head
  • Being able to hear the criticism or opinions of others but not feeling like you have change because of it
You might not experience all of these factors at any one time but the existence of some or any of these could affect your position on the self-esteem spectrum.

How do we achieve these factors to maintain a healthy level of self-esteem? How can we bring our self-esteem into the upper half of the spectrum and maintain it?

We have seen how complex self-esteem is, and as unique individuals this could never be something that is resolved in a one-size fits all bullet point list!

However, some of the techniques that you might find helpful are:
  • Looking after your physical health – exercise, sleep, diet
  • Doing things you enjoy – hobbies, making time for you
  • Noticing and reminding yourself of your abilities and good qualities, and trying not to compare yourself to other people
  • Spending time with people who respect, value and support you
  • Developing helpful skills like breathing techniques, mindfulness and/or how to challenge your negative beliefs
  • Being assertive – ensuring that your opinions, thoughts and beliefs are heard and respected

As you will notice, many points on this list crossover with ways to look after your mental health (see blog). Again pointing out the interlinked relationship between our mental health and self-esteem.

How can counselling help with self-esteem?

Counselling is an effective way of developing and maintaining a healthy sense of self-esteem because it can meet your individual self-esteem needs and it can help you to:
  • Understand the experiences you have been through and release difficult feelings
  • Unpick and discard unhelpful messages you have taken in
  • Break negative thinking patterns
  • Help you explore how relationships past and present relate to your self-esteem
  • Understand more fully your thoughts, feelings and opinions
  • Look at how you can be more assertive
  • Learn to trust and value the wonderful person that you are

Therefore, as counselling is about understanding yourself and being ok with all that this means, it can take you on a journey that leads to improved self-esteem and provide you with the tools to keep yourself at the top end of the self-esteem spectrum.

Some links you might find helpful are:
Wishing you healthy self-esteem and good mental health,