Many of Ariella Cook-Shonkoff’s clients are convinced there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. They believe they’re broken or damaged. They believe they’re not good enough. They yearn to be like everyone else. They believe they deserve to suffer because of who they are.
Priscilla Rodriguez’s clients believe that because of their bad decisions or mistakes, they don’t deserve to be treated well, or to live a good life.
Do you believe this, too? Do you feel the same way?
Self-esteem issues don’t discriminate.
They’re “present across all demographics — culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomics,” said Cook-Shonkoff, a licensed marriage and family therapist and registered art therapist who specializes in treating low self-esteem in kids, teens, and adults in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif.
Low self-esteem can show up in subtle ways on a regular basis. Maybe you beat yourself up for something as small as forgetting to respond to a phone call, Cook-Shonkoff said.
Over time, the blaming, criticizing, and comparing can build up and lead to self-hatred, despair, guilt and shame, she explained.
And you start to see criticism where there isn’t any. For instance, you might misinterpret your boss’s constructive feedback, and assume you’re inferior or going to get fired or won’t go anywhere in life, Cook-Shonkoff said.
Your low self-esteem likely has deep roots.
Maybe it originates from several toxic relationships or experiences, which have taught you to think this way. For instance, maybe you were blamed for your sexual harassment, or a partner convinced you that his or her infidelity was completely your fault, said Priscilla Rodriguez, LMFT, a therapist who specializes in relationships, stress and anxiety at her private practice Modern Wellness Counseling in San Antonio, Texas.
Or maybe it goes further back than that.
A common thread among Cook-Shonkoff’s clients is that their low self-esteem stems from childhood when their self-worth was shattered or bruised. Since kids are especially vulnerable, they often internalize critical voices. Voices that might’ve been downright disparaging—What’s wrong with you?! You’re so stupid!—or shaming in subtle ways—Why didn’t you do that? You should’ve known better. I thought I could trust you, Cook-Shonkoff said.
“These voices can solidify into more concrete beliefs, gaining traction over time, gradually embedding themselves into a person’s core identity and psyche, and traveling with them through adulthood.”
When you don’t challenge these voices and beliefs, they become all-consuming and kick-start cycles of self-defeating scripts, she said.
Thankfully, you can challenge and change these deeply held beliefs, and you can do other things to feel better. Below, Rodriguez and Cook-Shonkoff shared some methods.
Notice when your inner-critic speaks. Cook-Shonkoff stressed the importance of labeling this voice, being curious, exploring where it comes from, and trying to detach from it. Because “it is not you.”
Create compassionate reframes. Reframing those critical, cruel comments chips away at the awful voices and beliefs, so they no longer feel so true and urgent and important. So they no longer carry so much weight, Cook-Shonkoff said.
She shared these examples:
- “I am pathetic. I can’t seem to do anything with my life” can become: “I have been through a lot in the last few years and it hasn’t been easy.”
- “There is something wrong with me” can become: “I can be hard on myself, but it is important to remember that I am a good person and there is nothing wrong with me.”
- “Our relationship is a mess and it is all my fault” can become: “I am willing to take responsibility for my part in this relationship, but it takes two in a relationship, and it is not just me.”
Cook-Shonkoff noted that another way to think about this practice is “challenging black-and-white thinking by developing the ‘gray’ space in between.”
Focus on what makes you feel good. “Identify what makes you feel good about yourself,” Cook-Shonkoff said. This might be certain qualities or hobbies. It might be hanging out with certain people. Cook-Shonkoff encouraged readers to create your own personalized list. For instance, that list might include everything from painting to practicing yoga.
Similarly, Rodriguez suggested doing your favorite activity with someone you trust, such as walking around the park, trying a new restaurant, or seeing a funny film.
Begin a gratitude journal. This helps you to refocus on what’s wonderful and meaningful in your life. And it’s “a mental training activity of getting away from thinking negatively,” said Rodriguez. If you need some inspiration, here’s how to practice gratitude when you’re feeling discouraged.
Create a visual reminder of who you are. Cook-Shonkoff invites her clients to create an identity collage or vision board to remind themselves daily of who they are, what they stand for, and what’s important to them. This “can help to boost your sense of self.”
Set small goals. Achieving small goals can help you to feel accomplished and capable, Rodriguez said. It also empowers you, and reminds you that you can create significant change. Because you are powerful, too. Your goals might be anything from meditating in the mornings to decluttering your closet to making a doctor’s appointment to writing a blog post.
Carry a meaningful token with you. “Carry around an object, photo, quotation, or letter, which reminds you of your self-worth in some way,” Cook-Shonkoff said. When you’re about to go into a tough or vulnerable situation, she suggested taking a moment with this object to bolster your confidence.
Find sincere support. “Remember that you are not alone,” Cook-Shonkoff said. Reach out to individuals who help you to feel heard, respected and understood, she said. This might mean talking to a loved one, a therapist or a community member. It might mean joining a support group with like-minded people.
When you feel awful about yourself, you think you’ll feel this way forever. Because it feels like the sadness is a permanent part of your skin. But it’s not, and you needn’t. By taking small steps to pinpoint your critical beliefs, embrace a compassionate perspective and adopt other helpful habits, you can absolutely feel better.
If these steps feel too hard or don’t seem to help, consider seeing a therapist.