‘I feel like a failure. Everyone else’s needs are more important than mine. I need to please the people around me. I reject and need to isolate myself from the people around me. I am ‘less than’. I am anxious about everything that I do, that I might screw it up. I hate being the centre of attention. I love being the centre of attention. I feel like an imposter and will be found out. I’m lethargic, I don’t care, I feel like there is no point.’
Every client that sits in the chair across from me experiences a feeling that can be loosely represented by one of the above statements, they may not even be aware of it initially but will probably recognise their own related behaviours once they come under scrutiny. We generally assume it was ever thus and often never think to challenge it. The reason we have these feelings is not a coincidence but a natural part of our development. It’s the presence of Low Self Esteem, a term interchangeable with ‘low confidence’, ‘poor self image’ or low self worth’, and the seed that sometimes grows into the shady tree of depression.
In this series of articles I’ll lay out some basics to help understand what is happening to us and why, what the impact of this is and how to start to address it.
Unless you are a psychopath or have a relevant personality disorder you will have your own version of it. We’re not born with it but learn it in our formative years almost unavoidably. It is a deep and scary feeling of vulnerability, insecurity and worthlessness. The thing that makes us feel weak at our core. It impacts almost every decision we make.
It is also the most painful thing we can feel because at the heart of it is the sense that we don’t deserve to exist, that we are pointless. Which is why at the bottom of the trough of depression lies suicide. To be so convinced of your lack of worth, to feel so despised that your ongoing existence seems pointless. Existentialism has a lot to say about it from this perspective, but instead tries to get you to accept that you are pointless and stop worrying about it. If it were as simple as accepting an ideological construct, many of us would probably do just that, but it’s an ingrained belief so a bit trickier than that.
Thankfully most of us don’t end up there for long enough to take our own lives and many of us perform a merry dance trying to avoid it. It’s why we behave irrationally and illogically so much. But however rational we might try to be, it is a belief about ourselves and my belief and the feelings that emanate from it far outweigh my own logic. It’s also the core of the human condition(ing) and to a large extent what makes us interesting individuals.
If humanistic schools of therapy had an agenda, it would be to help clients unlearn this belief about themselves and effect a shift in personality. The more cognitive approaches tend more towards being more aware of it and learning to live with it. The Humanistic approach does this too but there’s also the possibility of changing the fundamental feelings. Working on the cause as well as managing the symptoms.
Next up… 2. How do we learn Low Self Esteem?