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Therapists explain common causes of self esteem problems

by Sarah Graham
Wednesday 14 January 2015
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Self esteem is the way you perceive and feel about yourself, be it positive or negative. Self esteem problems arise when your beliefs and feelings about yourself are consistently negative, and may leave you feeling pessimistic about your future. Low self esteem may mean you are self-critical about aspects of yourself, or prone to blaming yourself for life's difficulties. We asked RSCPP therapists to explain the common causes of self esteem problems.

Childhood feelings of inadequacy

According to our therapists, childhood experiences play a big part in developing self esteem problems in adult life. As Accredited Counsellor Stathi Anthopoulos explains, "As children we all had a need to feel liked and appreciated. If this need was adequately met, you probably grew to like and regard yourself as a worthwhile individual. But, if you did not get enough loving attention, or if you received a lot of negative attention such as physical or emotional abuse or neglect, you may have grown up feeling inadequate."

He adds: "No matter what you achieve in life, you may always feel as if you are not good enough. You may develop a tendency to constantly seek affirmation from others in order to feel that you are a worthwhile person. And, even if you do get other people's admiration, any good feeling usually lasts only for a little while. This is because you have been alienated from what you yourself value and, instead, seek to fulfil other people's expectations."


Needs not being met during childhood

Registered Counsellor Caroline Brown looks to psychologist Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to explain why this lack of childhood validation can lead to self esteem problems later in life. According to Maslow, positive self esteem is one of our essential requirements as human beings: "After the primary needs of food and shelter have been achieved, a human being has a strong need for love, belonging and a sense of acceptance," Caroline explains.

"During infancy and childhood we depend on our family, not only for our survival, but for a strong positive sense of who we are, which we later take into the world as adults," she adds. "When one or both parents shows warmth and affection, we learn that we are lovable and, through this, our self esteem develops in a healthy way. However, for many reasons - such as depression, ill-health, over-work, or poor quality of attachment with their own caregivers - even the most caring parents may be unable to provide enough positive affirmation, and your self esteem may have been damaged as a result."


Childhood experiences of bullying

Likewise, Registered Counsellor Thomas Sherry agrees that, "in my experience, low self esteem is usually caused by early childhood trauma, such as bullying by a peer or an overly critical parent." If you were bullied as a child, he explains, you may have grown up believing "there was something unacceptable or likeable about you. You may have been ignored, or picked last for the sports team, or ridiculed about how you looked, talked or behaved. This is very undermining for a child and is internalised, so a part of you may believe that they were right, and this can leave you angry, confused and anxious. One part of you may want to believe in yourself, while another believes you are worthless; this creates an internal battle."


Being a victim of crime

Although childhood experiences are the most common causes of self esteem problems, issues may also arise during adulthood and have a harmful impact on the way you view yourself. As Chartered Psychologist Lori Bisbey explains, "People who experience traumatic events can develop problems with self-esteem as a result of their experiences. If you have been a victim of crime you may well feel that you are to blame in some way for becoming a victim. For example, victims of street crime can feel that they were vulnerable because of what they were carrying, or the area in which they were walking. Rape victims frequently feel that it was something personal (such as style of dress) that led to them being raped."

She adds: "As a result of feeling to blame for the traumatic event, your self esteem can decrease. The larger the number of factors that you identify as contributing to your victimisation, the larger your decrease in self esteem is likely to be. As part of therapy, you will be helped to correctly attribute blame for the crime, and this can help to improve your self-esteem."


Being in an unhealthy relationship 

Feeling trapped in a toxic or unhealthy relationship, where you don't feel loved and supported, can also contribute to problems with your self esteem. Registered Counsellor Laura Rutlidge says: "If your partner constantly criticises you, undermines your decisions or laughs at you, rather than with you, when you make a mistake, this can result in the lowering of your self esteem. Sometimes your partner may not be aware of the effect of their actions; at other times this behaviour can be used by a partner as a means of control, and may be classed as emotional abuse," she explains.

"If this is happening to you, it is important to seek help or support from family and friends. Counselling may also help you deal with these issues. You and your counsellor would work together to help rebuid your self esteem and provide support to help you make any changes you feel are needed in your life."

Even if your partner's behaviour is not abusive, or they are unaware of the impact their words are having on you, feeling teased and picked on can have a harmful effect in the long-term. "If your spouse or partner often criticises you or puts you down, not surprisingly, over time this will chip away at your self esteem," Registered Counsellor Barbara Kelly explains.


Bullying at work

Just as bullying during childhood can negatively impact on your self esteem, similar difficulties can also affect adults in the workplace. "Self esteem can often be diminished by bullying and harassment in the workplace," says Registered Psychotherapist Sue Crofton. "Employees may be victimised by another worker (or, in the worst case scenarios, their manager), and management may not take the issue seriously. This can lead to extended periods off work, a fear of returning or finding another job, and can be emotionally debilitating to the sufferer, sometimes leading to other health issues."

Sue adds: "Too often, a sufferer believes it is their fault, and it can take a long time to change this perspective. Even if you recognise the behaviour as bullying, it can have a long lasting impact on how you see yourself and destroy what confidence you might have had previously.


Changes in work situation, such as unemployment or retirement

"One of the causes of low self esteem in later life can stem from the feeling of not being useful or important any more," Registered Counsellor Brenda Silverman explains. "For some people this can often occur when they retire from a high level position in their working life. You are suddenly faced with being in a different sphere, whereas before you may have felt defined by your job and your achievements in your workplace. You may have had a team of people who reported to you, or been part of a large group. Maybe your work involved travel and social activities too."

She adds: "After your retirement, not only might you miss the comradeship and buzz of your busy work life, but also you now may be left with little else to occupy yourself. Money may be less available, and you also may then begin to wonder whether you can do anything again that will make you feel important. Your self esteem may begin to plummet as time goes on, making it harder for you to move forward to do something new or different." Likewise, Accredited Counsellor Maureen Cahill says, "unemployment can lead to feelings of powerlessness and isolation, contributing to low self esteem."


Negative thinking and feelings of isolation

Problems with self esteem may also stem from your personality, such as if you tend to think particularly negatively or self-critically, or from feeling isolated and alone - regardless of whether there are other people around you or not. "Negative thinking can affect your perception of life and other people, particularly when you get stuck in a negative thought pattern," says Accredited Counsellor Maureen Cahill. "At any age, and for several reasons, you may begin to feel isolated and lonely, with increased negative or anxious thoughts contributing to your low sense of self worth."


Finding support

You can find out more about symptoms and causes of Self Esteem, including how to find a therapist. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

Find a Therapist working with Self Esteem

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Updated 14 January 2015