Self-Esteem: The Story We Tell Ourselves


I’ve been thinking a lot about self-esteem, how it drives our behavior, affects our relationships, business success, and ultimately our happiness and sense of ease.  Another way to think about self-esteem is how we value ourselves.  How we think about ourselves can be global (all encompassing) or situational (I feel good about my work life and how I’m viewed, but I struggle with relationships).

Without positive self-esteem it is difficult to navigate life’s challenges with a sense of self-efficacy, and it is difficult to be happy if you don’t respect yourself or believe you deserve to be happy.  Don’t get me wrong, positive self-esteem isn’t a panacea.  If you have positive self-esteem, it doesn’t mean that you won’t face disappointment, feel sad, or experience failure.  

If you have positive self-esteem, when life presents a challenge and you stumble and fall, it is easier to get back up, dust yourself off and begin again.  Positive self-esteem contributes to our ability to be resilient.

Healthy self-esteem is not arrogance.  It is believing in yourself and your capabilities and the ability to evaluate yourself and your achievements realistically.  It is the belief that you are worthy of love and respect from others because you love and respect yourself (even with your faults and weaknesses).

This isn’t the latest information for most people, so why am I thinking and writing about it? Because low self-esteem is so insidious. It is the underground set of beliefs that drives our actions in what would appear to be positive behaviors. And I’m seeing more and more clients struggle with low self-image.

Perfectionism is a symptom of low self-esteem, so is procrastination. Low self-image can be a motivator to drive someone to achieve outward success, part of their need to prove they are ‘worthy.’ A workaholic is most likely trying to prove him/herself to a highly critical parent or another significant adult.

My educational achievements were in reaction to my father’s repeated dismissal that his children weren’t smart enough to be successful. (That and being asked “what makes you think you can teach at a university level?” by a faculty member early in my career.) Each stumble in my career sent shocks of fear through my system that my father might be right.

Operating from low self-image can be initially a motivator for accomplishment.  However, it takes a heavy toll.  If you are motivated by fear of failure, feelings of being ‘less than’ or unworthy of love and respect, your repetitive negative thoughts are like a form of water torture.

Each time you become concerned about “being enough” your body and brain release stress chemicals into your system.  Yes, adrenaline can be helpful at times to give you that boost of energy when you deliver a presentation or a sales proposal. 

However, people with low self-esteem worry a lot about how they are being viewed by others.  Rumination (constantly reviewing conversations, actions, missed opportunities, mistakes, etc.) means the brain is on high alert.  So? What’s the big deal? 

Constant stress (due to our thoughts and reactions) means that the brain becomes flooded with cortisol (adrenaline) that never gets disbursed and removed.  The prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area above your eyes and behind your forehead, is the executive center of the brain.  It is responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, works with the hippocampus to determine the assignment of short-term memory into long term storage.  It regulates emotions and can calm the amygdala when it signals alarm. 

The PFC is also involved in learning.  Whether the learning activity is a physical or mental task (e.g. learning to ride a bike, learning grammar), the PFC is highly engaged.  As you develop skill, the control for this activity is moved to a deeper and older part of the brain.

When the PFC is awash in cortisol it’s ability to function is slowed significantly.  It is more difficult to think, make decisions, and ultimately to learn.  We begin to rely on patterns and operate more unconsciously.  Our emotions get triggered and without the PFC, we don’t analyze or evaluate them.

The amygdala operates much faster than the PFC, which is a survival mechanism and can keep signaling ALARM with each negative thought.  Soon it becomes a reinforcing loop.

(As I’m writing and thinking about this process, my body is beginning to tense and I can feel my jaw begin to tighten.  Excuse me a moment while I stretch, yawn, and take a few deep breaths to shift my physiology.)

So, how does one address low self-esteem?  First, recognize that low self-esteem is your self-assessment.  You can change your view.  And it is never too late to change your assessment of yourself.  It takes examining your past, re-writing the stories you’ve told yourself, connecting to your deepest values, and becoming conscious of your thoughts and emotions. 

It takes concentrating on and consciously operating from your values rather than your fears. It requires you to slow down and ask yourself, “How is this thought contributing to my sense of self or my emotion? What would be a more positive and realistic thought? How can I operate from that new thought?”

This sounds easy doesn’t it? Like most things that we learn, it takes desire, practice, repetition, and support. It takes effort to shift your unconscious behaviors and to bring your negative thoughts into your awareness, so you can change them.

Most of all, it takes trust that you can learn and change. That eventually you’ll be able to say, “I am enough.”

See you next week.