Western society seems to be promoting self-confidence as the ultimate response to any challenge a person might experience throughout his or her lifetime. Starting with games for children in which no one loses (to prevent disappointment) and ending up with motivational messages of commercials appealing to consumers’ desires for success and prestige, everything seems to be aimed at developing, boosting, and then exploiting people’s self-confidence. Being a person with low self-esteem or a person not confident enough in his or her own capabilities, talents, desires, or motives is nowadays somewhat equal to being ostracized; the range of reactions to such a person (if the lack of self-esteem is evident to others) may vary from friendly advice, to a hostile and/or disparaging attitude. This can be easily noticed in American society, where it is rarely acceptable to openly admit or complain about one’s own flaws and/or hardships. This teaches people to learn how to deal with their problems on their own, which is a useful skill; on the other hand, there may be situations when a person finds it hard to overcome the difficulties he or she has to face; in this case, this person may feel inferior to other people who “are okay” (at least claim to be). In other words, a person’s self-esteem may drop.
In fact, this is not the only reason why people develop low self-esteem. Moreover, it is important to remember that the decreased feeling of self-worth is not innate; it is acquirable, and can occur as a result of traumatic events, a bad attitude, dysfunctional relationships, or a number of other factors. Let us take a closer look at some of them.
One of the most common reasons for a decreased feeling of self-worth as an adult is bullying that occurred in a person’s past. It may not be the bullying alone, but a combination of emotionally distant and/or unresponsive parents that may be the issue. When being subject to bullying, a child may experience a wide range of negative physical and emotional influences; a child may be beaten, verbally insulted, mocked, and so on, on a regular basis. For a young mind, this is often a harsh situation—even adults often face difficulties when interacting with hostile environments. Anyways, for a bullied child, it is extremely important to feel love, support, and understanding from his or her parents. In a safe, aware, and responsive family, a child has a chance to recover, share his or her difficulties with loving parents, and through this, preserve his or her self-esteem. In such families, a child may learn to perceive bullying as an external circumstance of his or her life, which has little to do with his or her personality. However, for those children whose parents are not aware of bullying, or whose parents do not care, or do not want to know, recovering from regular humiliation and preserving self-esteem can be challenging; rather often, a bullied child lacking support from his or her family feels abandoned, lonely, damaged, and owing anyone who treats him or her better than bullies. This can be damaging for such a child’s future relationships, and can significantly erode the quality of such a child’s life in the future (Psychology Today).
Even if we take the former out of the equation of “bullying plus negligent parents equals low self-esteem,” we will still deduce a credible reason for so many people not feeling good about themselves. Psychologists know that often it is not just about what we think of ourselves, but what people around us (first and foremost, those significant to us) think about us as well, how they treat us, and what emotions they display and direct towards us. For any child, his or her parents or guardians are the most important and influential figures, and this situation does not change for a long time. A child fortunate to have been raised in an atmosphere of love and support has no problems with self-esteem in the majority of cases; on the contrary, for those whose parents suffered from mental illnesses, substance abuse, were cold and negligent, or did not provide them with comfort and warmth due to other reasons, life can feel rather difficult, as they often “inherit” the attitude of their parents towards themselves (Good Choices Good Life). In other words, if parents did not bother to feed their child on time, dress him or her up properly, did not care about the child’s hygiene, education, and other needs, this child will most likely grow up as a person who does not care for himself or herself either. This mechanism does not necessarily work like a mirror, but the connection between parents’ attitude towards a child and this child’s attitude to himself or herself in the future manifests itself in behavioral tendencies, which are sometimes so clear that it is difficult to deny this influence.
As surprising as it may sound, self-esteem can drop not only because of previous traumas, problematic relationships, or abuse, but also from conventionally positive and inspiring parts of life. In particular, goal-setting and the ambitious pursuit of something a person holds dear can cause a severe decrease in self-esteem (Mindvalley Blog). This can work two ways. Most often, a person sets up a goal so unrealistic (either in terms of its scale, or the term in which it must be accomplished) that it is almost doomed to failure from the start. In this case, if no corrections to the initial plans are made, such a failure may cause a person’s self-esteem to decrease temporarily; many people revise their goals and make necessary adjustments to them. However, there may also be a scenario when a person subconsciously “sabotages” his or her own self-esteem, setting deliberately unrealistic goals, standards, or requirements, and then failing to reach them. Although these two situations look alike and have similar outcomes, they have different underlying backgrounds: the former situation is a result of miscalculation, when a person overestimates his or her abilities, underestimates or neglects life circumstances, and so on; the latter, in its turn, may be a result of subconscious processes set in motion at a young age, and aimed at sustaining an individual’s low self-esteem.
The list of reasons above is not comprehensive; it just highlights two of the most common factors leading to low self-esteem (relationships with unsupportive and emotionally-cold parents or caregivers, as well as being subject to bullying and peer pressure, without the possibility to share difficult life situations with parents), and points out one less obvious, but nevertheless important factor: unrealistic and premature goal-setting. The latter, in its turn, may be either an outcome of insufficient experience, or the influence of subconscious processes aimed at sustaining a person’s self-esteem.
Lachmann, Suzanne. “10 Sources of Low Self-Esteem.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 24 Dec. 2013, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/me-we/201312/10-sources-low-self-esteem.
“8 Common Causes of Low Self-Esteem.” Good Choices Good Life, www.goodchoicesgoodlife.org/choices-for-young-people/boosting-self-esteem/.
“5 Causes Of Low Self-Esteem And How To Fight Them.” Mindvalley Blog, 17 Jan. 2018, blog.mindvalley.com/causes-of-low-self-esteem/.