Having high self-esteem means being able to value ourselves, knowing we are worthy, respecting ourselves, having confidence in our opinions and abilities, knowing that we matter and being able to take a level of constructive criticism without it feeling like a personal attack. We can probably all agree that we have a good sense of self-esteem to some degree, and we can all recognise these qualities of high self-esteem are essential for us to live our lives with depth and with the courage to reach for our potential and pursue what we want for ourselves in life. These are the qualities we seek to have in the workplace, in relationships, with friends and to maintain our own self-worth.
We can therefore also agree that what holds us back from being in this more empowered state of high self-esteem is a low self-esteem, where we feel unworthy, doubt our abilities and lack the assertiveness to hold boundaries. Low self-esteem is propelled by shame and shame often appears as the small voice in the back of our mind which tells us we are unworthy, not slim enough, rich enough, smart enough, good looking enough, or simply “not enough”. Shame is what keeps our self-esteem low and stops us from daring to be more.
Throughout my work I find shame to be the crippling rhetoric which keeps our low self-esteem in check. Shame is a universal emotion which we are all aware of, and we have all felt the warm wash of shame although there are many ways to experience shame. A few examples are: embarrassment, feeling insecure, inadequate, self-doubt, self-criticism, and so on. Shame is what creates the opposite feeling of self-worth and self-esteem: it induces the feeling of worthlessness. Shame is not the same as guilt, as it is frequently misunderstood. In guilt we feel bad for something we have done. In shame we feel we are what is bad. Thus, shame crushes our self-esteem.
We all have our own unique stories around shame. It is often the case that we build our belief systems from our early life or key life experiences. Children can be shamed for being too loud, boisterous, when they are first learning about curiosity and play. If shame sets in early it affects them in later life where they might forgo these qualities which could otherwise develop into assertiveness, creativity and innovation. There is also a shame about not having the latest gadgets, which induces shame around poverty.
Shame also affects us differently based on gender, women are expected to look a certain way, as are men. Men are ambushed for being vulnerable which prevents them seeking mental health care despite them having high suicide rates, and women are shamed for being too emotional and hormonal. We are shamed around our sexuality as heterosexuals or as the LGBTQ community; we all have our own stigmas of shame attached to us. Each story of shame affects our self-worth and tells us we are not fine as we are.
When we start to translate the shame into our later lives, we see how we may start to avoid shame. We might try to numb our shame, sometimes with food and addictions, seeing as there is an obesity, addiction, debt and violence crisis currently in the U.K. (all issues which are psychologically related to shame). Alternatively, we try to perfect ourselves to meet the ideals we feel we need to so we can stay as far away from shame as possible. We might do this through “correcting” what shames us, going through procedures where we inject the fat from our butt into our cheeks and lips, or we get fake tans to cover cellulite and stretch marks. We might try to buy things we cannot afford, or show a face of confidence to the world to avoid the deep-seated discomfort we have with ourselves. These are just some of the ways we keep our low self-esteem at bay, by trying to manufacture what looks like high self-esteem but in turn fuels our shame.
At the centre of what is most affected by shame is our self-worth, because the world teaches us that if we are not a certain way then we are not good enough or deserving. When this feeling sets in we feel it pierce our self-worth and our self-perception. Yet if we leave shame unattended and continue to avoid it, it often sneaks its way into our lives unconsciously. We cannot selectively choose to not feel certain emotions; if we try to cut off from one we cut off from many, including the good feelings of joy, gratitude, purpose, belonging.
Therefore, when someone comes into therapy and they wish to address their self-esteem, whether they feel low confidence due to work, speaking out, asserting themselves, starting or ending a relationship, making friends or whatever else, I seek to help them attend the core issue of what prohibits them from feeling what they want. With low self-esteem we usually always end up working through shame, and working through all the distortions that shame tells us about ourselves. It is through shame and being able to separate that from our true identity that we can embrace our Self-worth. When we feel our self-esteem we know belonging, kindness, compassion, empathy, love. We are more open to people and opportunities that are good for us and are able to embrace them without fear and insecurity. Most importantly, we learn that we are enough.