Low self-esteem is one of the most common issues that underlie the majority of emotional and mental health problems, and it is one of the most common reasons why people seek therapy. It is a foundation from which many mental health disorders arise, including anxiety, depression, addictions, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and relationship problems. Low self- esteem has robbed countless individuals of feeling true joy, negatively affecting virtually all aspects of life. Low self-esteem can rob us of our confidence in ourselves and our ability to feel good about who we are. It not only permeates our feelings about our- selves, but it handicaps our ability to relate to the world around us and it negatively impacts our relationships, work, attitudes, choices, physical health, and even life span.
You can think of low self-esteem as the common cold of emotional disturbance. Low self-esteem and self-dislike lie at the source of most mental health disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy founder Aaron Beck (1972) found a strong link between self-criticism and depression, with up to 80 percent of depressed individuals reporting low self-evaluation. He cited a solid correlation between the sense of “self-deficiency” and the degree of depression. Low self-esteem is also strongly correlated with anxiety, eating disorders, ADHD, addictions, and other various difficulties.
Despite the far reach of low self-esteem in our lives, unlike depression and anxiety and other common mental health problems, there is no pill to treat it and it is not an official mental health diagnosis. The degree of self-esteem we have is dependent on a combination of our genetic predisposition and our environment. Maybe your parents, albeit unintentionally, communicated that your bad behavior meant that you were a bad person. Maybe you had trouble being accepted by peers and might even have been bullied or rejected. Maybe you were the victim of emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Maybe you simply never received unconditional support and validation because the people around you, even if they meant well, were not healthy enough to give it to you. Or maybe you were just hard-wired to be exquisitely sensitive and anxious, leading you to feeling out of sync with the rest of the world and causing you to doubt yourself and your worth.
Improving self-esteem requires the delicate balance of acknowledging the pain of the past while refusing to give the past more power than the present. We need to see clearly, not affected by the cataract surgery that we've exerienced. The focus shifts from reliving and revisiting the past to learning, healing, and growing from it. Acknowledging past hurts rather than suppressing them is crucial to being free from them, whereas reliving them gets us stuck there. It’s a tough balancing act to open your wounds in order to heal, much like a cut needs to be cleaned and treated, without picking too much at the scab and making things worse.