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5 Myths About Low Self-Esteem You Need to Forget

Self-esteem and confidence aren't the same thing.


Art Credit: Hedda Selder

Positiveself-esteem can seem like such a fleeting thing. One moment, we’re feeling great about ourselves, and the next, a passing comment or unexpected outcome leaves us feeling totally discouraged. Are we just unstable messes, or is there something more at work here?

First it might help to define self-esteem. Self-esteem is the emotional judgment of your own worth. If you have healthy self-esteem, good and bad experiences change how you feel about yourself—but only to an extent. You are able to take bad days in stride and accept constructive criticism. But if you have poor self-esteem, these ups and downs hugely impact how you view your self-worth. You may feel anxious, emotional, and sad. Instead of accepting compliments, you focus on negatives or what you imagine other people think of you. You may hesitate to take on new challenges and lower your expectations in an effort to protect yourself from hurt.

This is different from feeling confident, which is how you feel about particular abilities and can vary from situation to situation. It’s actually easier to grow your confidence, because you can feel confident in one area but not in another. Take me, for example. I have a healthy sense of self-esteem; I feel pretty good about my life as a mother, a wife, an editor. But am I confident about my ability to ski? Not so much.

That said, if you’re a more confident person, you’re likely to have higher self-esteem. But not always. Some of the most powerful people in the world are totally confident in their career capabilities, while other areas of their life are riddled with anxiety and unhealthy relationships that stem from low self-esteem.

In our quest to find value in our own being, we can find a lot of unhelpful advice. Let's debunk some myths that can often hinder our progress.

01. Compliments will make you feel better.

A 1980s study in American schools found that bombarding students with positive messages like "You're wonderful/special/fantastic!" actually lowered students' self-esteem. Why? Because we can sense when compliments are superficial. Those with low self-esteem become upset by other's positive words when they can't tangibly affirm them by real life examples. You need to develop your self-esteem gradually through identifying "proof" in your day-to-day life that you are a worthwhile human being. Does your mom call you every day? Did your colleagues ask questions after a presentation you thought you bombed? Did your girlfriend ask for your advice? Channel these things as proof that you are valuable.

02. People with low self-esteem are unsure of themselves.

In fact, they're very "sure" of themselves—sure that they aren't good enough for whatever reason. And they use past experiences to affirm these convictions, making it difficult to argue with someone who has low self-esteem. Nothing you or anyone says can change how you feel. Instead, you have to make concrete changes in your life. Try something new—and don't worry about looking "silly" doing it. Practice a skill you've always wanted to learn, and allow yourself to make mistakes. Start small, work at it, and be fair to yourself as you challenge the conviction that you're not good enough.

03. Getting what you want will elevate your self-esteem.

You might think you'd have a higher sense of self-worth if you can only get a better job, a better relationship, better friends, a better body, or a better life in general. But in reality, your basic needs must be met in order to be psychologically and physically healthy. So focus on taking good care of your body, making and meeting meaningful goals, and fostering a sense of safety and security. Developing intimate connections with others and to something greater than yourself will also contribute to healthy self-esteem. Fulfill these basic needs first before looking to those other desires.

04. People with low self-esteem don't think of themselves enough.

If you have low self-esteem, you actually think about yourself too much. But it doesn't mean you're a narcissist! You may just be so preoccupied with pain and bad experiences that you deny the positive aspects of your self-identity. When you have a healthy level of self-esteem, you actually forget to think about yourself—the healthier your self-worth, the less you'll use the word "I" in your daily thoughts and conversations. Losing yourself in activities you enjoy can help you become less self-referential. The easiest place to start is by envisioning yourself looking healthy and happy while doing something you can be proud of. Whether it's confidently talking with colleagues or mastering a hobby you've always wanted to learn, you'll have a specific goal that you can begin to work toward. If self-help books or support from loved ones aren't helpful, consider seeking guidance from a professional counselor or therapist. You deserve to feel worthwhile.

05. Very successful people have high self-esteem.

"High self-confidence isn't a blessing, and low self-confidence is not a curse—in fact, it is the other way around," says Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-DoubtThose with low self-confidence are more sensitive to feedback, especially if it is critical or negative, whereas those with high self-confidence tend to become trapped by their biases of their capabilities. To prevent it from developing into pessimism, low self-esteem must be coupled with ambition and action. If you're serious about raising your self-esteem, you can turn low self-confidence into your greatest ally. The virtue of confidence is that it is built on solid achievements. Dr. Tomas shares, "Exceptional achievers always experience low levels of confidence and self-confidence, but they train hard and practice continually until they reach an acceptable level of competence. Indeed, success is the best medicine for your insecurities."

So stop looking in the mirror and telling yourself you're awesome, unless you also plan to go out there and prove to yourself how awesome you are. Because you are, indeed, quite awesome. And you deserve to live a full and happy life.