Overcoming Low Self-Esteem

How we view ourselves can have a positive or hindering affect on our relationships and achievements. Counselling Psychotherapist, Ann Bracken, explores the reasons, costs and effects of low self-esteem and how to overcome it.


It is normal to occasionally experience instances of self-doubt coupled with self-criticism in significant areas of our lives e.g. in relationships, work, academic studies, or around the goals we have set out to achieve. Where this self-doubt becomes a dominant factor, negatively influencing our ongoing relationship with ourselves or others, or when it sabotages our chances of success, could indicate Low Self-Esteem. Essentially low self-esteem means having a negative perception of ourselves and our abilities.

Our view of ourselves is often based on evaluations that we process, correct or incorrect, from our thoughts and also those thoughts we believe others may be having about us. In addition, early life experiences and social situations help shape the understanding we have of ourselves – we are not born with low self-esteem, we integrate a set of beliefs about ourselves primarily interpreted by the acceptance or lack of acceptance that we experience early in life. The kind of messages we received either verbally or emotionally in our surroundings contribute to the establishment of our overall opinion of ourselves.

Added to this, we tend to incorporate a self-image based on our social experience e.g. being Irish and from a particular part of Ireland with a particular set of religious or cultural values or being African and from a part of Africa with a particular set of religious or cultural values. Where this experience is appreciated and valued within the society and outside of that society, the individual can value their sense of self, their qualities, skills, assets and strengths. Low self-esteem can develop where this cultural experience is met with prejudice and bias.

Self-confidence can also be influenced by a range of other variables including our professional roles in life or how well we feel we achieve. In general, this is also reinforced by the perceived status of such success or role, e.g. the Doctor knows everything or the Psychotherapist can read my mind and in doing so decide how well or unwell I am!

Consequences of Low Esteem

Once a certain set of negative core beliefs are established about ourselves, these form the essence of our low self-esteem. They form the basis for our negative beliefs and thoughts about ourselves. These, in turn, shape how we perceive our ability and potential and therefore how we approach people and situations, e.g. if a child is neglected or abused, emotionally or physically, they may establish a core belief that they are unloveable and therefore deserve to be punished. Later in life, they may enter into relationships with a sense of ‘low self-esteem’ and where this belief is reflected in a form of emotional or physical rejection this would continue to reinforce their core belief that they are unloveable. This may lead to avoidance of relationships or over-compensation e.g. buying endless gifts for a partner or friend to avoid the belief that if others know them, they will reject them. This generally leads to an imbalance in the relationship as the person with low self-esteem ignores their own needs in an effort to win approval, tending to only cater for the needs of others. In the long term this leads to resentment and a feeling that the world is an unfair place.


In social situations, people with low self-esteem may become withdrawn believing that their contribution to a group or situation is negligible. However, though they are withdrawn from the social situation, they are acutely aware of their feelings of inadequacy which they usually believe is the subject of focus for others at the event. By overcoming and changing the incorrect core beliefs and establishing a more supportive cognitive and behavioural outlook, more balanced and positive relationship experiences are more likely.


Where low self-worth relates to outcomes in work or academic study, avoidance may become the precaution that is taken to avoid any challenges. Alternatively, a person with low self-esteem may check work excessively to prevent disapproval and over compensate for their low confidence by being a perfectionist to avoid their belief that other’s will discover their perceived inability or weakness.


People with low self-esteem tend to have an internal critic relentlessly ‘bullying’ them about their inability or poor performance. It is this internal negative self-dialogue that ensures that low self-esteem is perpetuated, e.g. why go for that job, you know you won’t get it – thus not applying for the job and therefore fulfilling their negative self-beliefs.


Enhancing Self-Esteem with CBT

Integrating an acceptance of our strengths and weaknesses combined with more supportive thoughts and a change in unhelpful behaviours will help in overcoming feelings of inferiority. When you find yourself labelling, self-criticising or ‘self-downing’ e.g. saying (even in humour), I’m so stupid, I’m useless, I’m pathetic, I’m unlovable, try asking yourself the following questions:


  • Am I personalising? … blaming myself for something which is not my fault?
  • Am I focusing on the negative and ignoring my strengths?
  • Am I giving myself rigid rules to live by e.g. I must do that, I should do this perfectly etc. – if so, try replacing them with less demanding self requests e.g. I’d prefer to have achieved that, I’d like to get that job.
  • Am I mind-reading and jumping to conclusions about what others are thinking?
  • Is there evidence to support my negative self thought/belief? Is there evidence against this negative self thought/belief?
  • What can I do to change my situation? Am I overlooking the solution with a belief that I can’t do it?
  • How does thinking the way I do about myself help or hinder the situation?
  • Does it help or hinder me to have a rigid self-rating system?
  • Take personal responsibility for behaviour that you are unhappy with and ask yourself what steps you can do to change that behaviour in a positive way – rather than deciding that you are a ‘worthless’ or a ‘bad’ person because of your behaviour. Your behaviour is part of you but not all of you. It can also be changed to support your own happiness and potential.
  • Set yourself reasonable goals and work up to them, rather than setting yourself ongoing high targets to achieve or excel in, in every area of your life.
  • Ask yourself – when I compare myself to others, do I compare myself to the average person or am I picking the top achiever (true or not!) or the most beautiful person (again, true or not!) in the room to compare myself down to? Boosting self esteem is about removing such self-rating and developing self-acceptance.
  • Give yourself permission not to be perfect – do you know of anyone who is perfect in everything?

Try saying to yourself – I am good enough and good enough is good enough!


Remember that we are all human and therefore we will do well in some areas of our life and sometimes make mistakes or do less well in other areas. ‘Failing’ at something does not make us a failure. We are constantly developing and part of our future success is based on learning from our past experiences which at the time we may have deemed ‘failure’. Try developing a more flexible attitude to yourself as you adapt and develop through life. In adverse situations begin to recognise where you can make changes and where you can’t. In so doing you will value your positive points whilst learning to accept that we cannot be successful at everything we do and where is it written that you must?


Understanding and expressing your needs and having a positive self-dialogue will also contribute to self-confidence. Consider your rights and improve the way you speak to and about yourself:


  • Remember you have the right to express your own feelings and opinions even if they differ from the other individual or group.
  • You have the right to say ‘No’ without feeling guilty.
  • You have the right to make mistakes and it’s ok to feel disappointment – It will pass.
  • You have the right to change behaviour you are unhappy with. Feeling ‘useless’ and being shameful will not help you in overcoming unhelpful behaviour.
  • Resist self-bullying labels such as calling yourself a ‘loser,’ ‘idiot,’ ‘stupid,’ or ‘unloveable’. Instead ask yourself what particular situation or behaviour you would like to change and break this task down into specific steps. Write down practical solutions to overcoming obstacles along the way.
  • Ask yourself if your best friend was looking at this situation or your behaviour what supportive words could they give you? … or, is there there another way to view this situation?



When we have low self-esteem, it is common to make ‘awfulising’ predictions about our future or future events, e.g. it will never work, it never does. This absolute type of thinking leads to an avoidance of events and people as the person with low self-esteem believes that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. In addition, it is common when feeling in such a low mood to look for cues that prove the negative predicition about the self or situation is right. However, in so doing, we miss the positive cues about our abilities or other possible interpretations of the situation.


By considering what the alternative views of the situation could be and by keeping an open mind relating to your abilities and the outcome; the potential to find a solution or confident ability is enhanced. Also, when we focus on the task at hand rather than an internal negative self-dialogue, positive feelings about ourselves are more likely to emerge. We begin to realise our own resources and the potential for support outside of ourselves even in difficult situations is also manifested. When you begin to become conscious of anxious predictions and the unecessary precuations you are taking – check out the validity of these predictions by looking at the evidence for and against them. Also, ask yourself if you were viewing this situation five years from now, how would you have approached it or how important would it be? This should help towards achieving a more balanced view of what is most likely to happen and what resources you have to rethink the situation even in your worst case scenario!  e.g. you don’t get a particular job but in realising your own potential find a more suitable one. And remember, if in doubt, ‘fake it till you make it!’ – or from an alternative Buddhist perspective, “Right action, makes right mind”.


Ann Bracken is a Psychotherapist with the Mind-Body Health & Wellbeing Centre, Wicklow town. For more information on Counselling, Hypnotherapy and Psychotherapy. For an appointment, ring: M. 085 7414866. For more information log onto:www.mindbodyhealthcentre.com

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