Low self-esteem is learned — learned, inaccurate information that you’re in some way not enough, that you don’t matter, that your feelings are wrong, or that you don’t deserve respect.

These are false beliefs that many people grow up with. They may not have been told these things directly, but have inferred it from behavior and attitudes of family and friends and events. Often these beliefs get handed down for generations. Changing them isn’t easy and is difficult to do on your own, because it’s hard to see others, let alone yourself, through a lens that’s different than the one you grew up with.

You may not be conscious of these beliefs about yourself. The 19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, the father of hypnosis, wrote that if there were a conflict between the will and the unconscious, the unconscious would always prevail. This explains what drives your behavior and why you may often fail to carry out your best intentions or act upon what you know is right. Charcot had a great influence on Freud, who studied with him.

People have many fears and anxieties based upon false ideas about themselves and others. For example, many think that making a mistake is unacceptable and shameful. They become anxious about taking risks, trying something new, or expressing their opinion, because they’re afraid of failure or looking foolish. Most don’t realize that they unconsciously believe that they’re unlovable, unlikable, flawed or somehow inadequate. Even if they’re aware of these false beliefs, they’re convinced of their truth. As a result, they’re anxious about revealing who they are, and please, control, or impress others so that they’ll be loved and not rejected.

Still others withdraw from people, rather than risk abandonment. People judge themselves based upon their erroneous beliefs and imagine others are judging them, too. Sometimes, I witness one spouse claim the other is criticizing him or her, when that isn’t the case. In fact, amazingly, this can even happen when the so-called “critical” words are in fact complimentary!

The false belief about unworthiness undermines self-esteem and security and has serious consequences in your life. You lack confidence and self-trust, live in doubt, and continually second-guess yourself. Many people don’t feel worthy of being in a position of authority or having success, or even happiness. Those who are convinced that they’re bad can end up in relationships with people who are emotionally or physically abusive, which reinforces and worsens their low self-esteem. At a conscious level, they may be indignant and think that they deserve better, but still they stay and try to get the abuser to approve of them. Some stay because they believe the abuser “loves” them, which helps them overcome their belief that they’re unlovable or that no one else will.

Similarly, many people repeat relationships with men or women who are emotionally, or even physically, unavailable. They don’t feel that they deserve to be loved on a consistent basis. The unconscious belief is that “I have to win someone’s love for it to mean anything.” There may be opportunities for a relationship with someone loving and available, but they’re not interested. Instead, they’re excited about someone whose love they have to earn. They have to win it for it to count.

When you grow up with the message that you shouldn’t feel a certain way or that it’s unsafe to express certain feelings, you start to believe it. Examples include being told not to get too excited, being punished for anger, or having your distress or sadness ignored. Some shaming parents will tell their child not to cry, “or I’ll give you something to cry about.” As an adult, you judge and dishonor your feelings. You hide them – sometimes even from yourself. If you don’t believe that it’s all right, “Christian,” or “spiritual” to feel angry, you might behave passive-aggressively, become depressed, or have physical symptoms, unaware of how angry you are. This is destructive to relationships. Some people withhold sex or have affairs because they’re angry, instead of talking about the relationship problems.

With low self-esteem you also might believe that you don’t have rights or that your needs don’t matter, especially emotional needs, such as for appreciation, support, kindness, being understood, and being loved. You might put others’ needs ahead of your own and not say “no” because you’re afraid others will criticize or leave you, triggering your underlying belief in being inadequate and unlovable. You might give or do more in relationships or at work for this reason.

Self-sacrifice causes people to feel unappreciated and resentful. You might wonder why you’re unhappy, never thinking it’s because you’re not getting your needs met. Moreover, some people aren’t aware of their needs. If they do know, they can’t ask for what they want. It would feel humiliating. Instead, they don’t take steps to meet their needs and expect others to do so – without disclosing them! These hidden expectations contribute to conflict in relationships.

Changing beliefs starts with awareness. You can become aware of your beliefs by paying attention to the way you talk to yourself:

  • Write down all the negative things you say to yourself. Often I see clients who are at first unaware of their inner voice, which I call the inner Critic. After awhile, they discover it’s controlling their moods and actions. This is why I wrote a little ebook, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem: The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism.
  • Note the gap between your intentions and actions.
  • Journal about this discrepancy and your interactions with others.
  • Analyze the beliefs motivating your behavior. Ask yourself where your beliefs came from.

The most important belief is that that you can change. When I first began my healing journey, my self-esteem and hope were so low that I didn’t believe change was possible. This was reinforced by another myth. Growing up, I heard my mother repeat, “Show me a child of 7, and I’ll show you a man of 70.” I took this to mean that after 7 years old, I couldn’t change. Actually, new research confirms that personality can change, and many studies show a strong link between personality, well-being, and health. People in 12-step programs and therapy experience this all the time. Your mind is a powerful, creative gift. Learn to use it to work for you, not against you.