Since some behaviors are simply learned, and may have little to do with one’s level of self-esteem, it’s best to look at the overall picture rather than focusing on just one piece of information. With that in mind… Here are some signs that, taken as part of a larger pattern, may be an indication of low self-esteem.
Please note that this is not a comprehensive list.
1. Thinking, “Others treat me badly because I deserve it.”
Imagine the following scenarios:
• An acquaintance ends a conversation with you by walking away without saying goodbye.
• Someone who said they would call you, doesn’t.
• A coworker invites everyone in the office to a party, except you.
In each of these scenarios, the other person is being rude. If your tendency in these situations is to feel bad about yourself, that is a strong indicator of low self-esteem. Practice focusing on the other person’s behavior, and trying to evaluate it objectively. Are they being appropriate? Kind? Reasonable?
2. Disliking people in general Babies are born with a natural interest and trust in other people, and you were born that way, too. If you now feel like people are not your thing, it’s almost certainly because of painful experiences that taught you that other people can be mean and hurtful. Even if you’re no longer in touch with the pain of the past, even if you don’t even remember those experiences, your sense of self, and your sense of your own worth were undoubtedly shaped by the same experiences that created your dislike of people. Unfortunately, dislike and distrust of people make it hard to cultivate the very experiences that would prove people to be better than you expect, perpetuating a vicious circle. Pick someone in your life who feels safe enough, and try opening up a little more than you ordinarily would.
3. Over- or under-achievement
Over-achievement is an attempt to bolster low self-esteem with impressive deeds, when deep down inside you don’t feel like the person you are is “enough” to be acceptable to others. Only more accomplishments can give an over-achiever the feeling of being okay as a human being. At least, that is the hope. Overachievers can benefit from allowing themselves to “slack off,” and learning to tolerate the feelings that arise in the absence of productivity. On the other side of the coin, your self-esteem might be so injured that you don’t dare attempt to achieve anything; if you should fail, it will only prove what you secretly already suspect: that you are woefully inadequate to the tasks of normal living. It’s better not to try, and enjoy the thought of having “potential,” than to attempt to achieve something and fail in front of everyone. Underachievers can pay attention to feelings of fear of failure, and practice making small attempts at do-able activities, such as baby steps toward a larger goal.
4. Perfectionism It’s long been known that the perfectionist often suffers from low self-esteem. Only if the perfectionist can do something perfectly is it good enough to be acceptable to others. Ninety-nine percent success is the same as failure; only 100% is good enough (barely). The perfectionist might think their standards are their own – that is, they may believe they are trying to please only themselves– but too-high standards are always based on early perceptions of what others expect from us. Perfectionism is cured by doing things imperfectly on purpose. It may help to use a shame tactic: Imagine that everyone knows you’re insecure because of your perfectionism. It might help you to let go of it a little.
Feeling “different” somehow, and alienated from the rest of the human race, is one of the most discouraging experiences one can have, and perhaps surprisingly, it’s one of the most common reasons people seek therapy. This sense of alienation often results from emotional neglect when a person was young. Many of us who received the food, clothing and shelter we needed for survival did not receive as much accurate empathy as we needed in order to understand ourselves as people. Sometimes our caregivers were sick, depressed or even deceased, and we were left alone too often. Sometimes they were there with a vengeance, sowing fear and discord. We didn’t get the opportunities we needed to bond with other people. Bonding creates a sense of security and connection that everyone – kids, adolescents, adults, seniors – needs in order to thrive. If you feel like an alien, know that you are not alone, and that you are a normal human being reacting in a normal way to an abnormal situation (emotional isolation). Read and learn as much as you can about emotions, for these play an important role in the formation of relationships with both yourself and others. Practice self-acceptance; if you don’t, you will never feel accepted by others.
If you can, reach out to me. I can serve as a compassionate guide while you work on reintegrating yourself into the human race… where you very much belong.