December 2010 Interview on AssociatedContent.com
Q. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am a psychologist with a practice in South Lake Tahoe, California. I’ve been doing this work for over twenty-five years, and I still love it. I enjoy working with people, and it is very satisfying to be able to help people improve the quality of their lives, in whatever way. When I’m not working, my passions are horses and skiing.
Q. What impact can low self-esteem have on a person’s life?
A. low level of self-esteem can hold a person back. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, you are likely to set the bar of expectations for yourself too low. Interestingly, for some in the younger generation, the bar of expectation has been set too high. They’ve been given lavish praise when it wasn’t necessarily called for, and told they could accomplish anything. This leads to frustration and disappointment when they aren’t generously rewarded for the smallest effort.
But we’re talking about low self esteem, where a person underestimates their value or their ability. Interestingly, there is a phenomenon called the “imposter phenomenon”, where in spite of a person’s high achievements and recognition, they still feel unworthy, and like a “fake”. They may fear being “found out” as being not good enough, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Some very prominent and successful people struggle with this.
Perfectionism is one of the things that can lead to low self-esteem. This is because we obviously cannot attain perfection. So no matter how good your performance, something about it could be better. So instead of enjoying the fruits of our labors, we focus on the thing about our work that was not perfect, and find ourselves wanting.
Low self-esteem can cause a person to doubt and second-guess themselves. There is a tendency among many with low self-esteem to pay a lot of attention to their mistakes or failures, and not give themselves enough credit for their successes. If they play a poor game of tennis, they tell themselves “I’m not very good at this.” If they play well, they tell themselves, “I had a good day today, or I was lucky today”. What’s happening here is that when they do something poorly, they attribute it to a personal quality - a trait. When they do something well, they minimize it, by saying it wasn’t that big a deal, or attributing it to luck. When we keep noticing our mistakes or failures and minimizing our successes, we feed the cycle of low self-esteem. When you feed something, it grows!
Q. What can be done to improve self-esteem?
A. So, this leads us to your next question, what can be done? Start paying more attention to the things you do well - small and large. Start giving yourself credit for them. Sometimes, when we do something well, we just think - oh, anybody could do that. But think again. Maybe you can hold a tune - I sure can’t! Instead of going over and over again what you said in a conversation that maybe sounded dumb, forgive yourself for not being perfect and move on. Begin to notice things you do well. When you accomplish something you feel good about, savor the memory, remember the moment. This doesn’t mean you have to become a braggart or become overly proud (if you have low self-esteem, this isn’t likely anyway!). It’s a re-balancing of the time you spend thinking about your flaws vs. the time you send thinking about your good qualities. Equal time, at least!
Q. What kinds of professional help are available to improve self-esteem?
A. If low self-esteem is having a negative impact on the quality of your life, a good therapist can help. For one thing, if you have low self-esteem, you may not be a totally good judge of yourself. A trained professional can help you see yourself more clearly - strengths as well as weaknesses. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you see where your thinking may be faulty and show you how to make it more realistic. This does not mean we over-estimate our abilities, it just means we are able to make a fair assessment. We give ourselves credit where credit is due, and where we could stand to improve, we develop some helpful tools to be able to do that. This is much more effective than just beating ourselves up!
Healthy self-esteem is based on reality. We are all intrinsically worthy. Beyond that, a healthy self-esteem is neither over inflated (know any narcissists?) nor overly harsh.