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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Post

A Few Causes of Low Self-Esteem & How to Improve

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

The origin of many human behaviors can be batted around in the nature/nurture debate. But when it comes to self-esteem, we know with absolute certainty there are always external causes of it.

No child is born with low self-esteem; rather self-critical thought patterns develop over time as a result of external stimuli and input from others.

Below are some causes of low self-esteem. However, remember low self-esteem can be improved and just listing out potential causes doesn’t do nearly enough justice to the individual causes of low self-esteem. That’s something that therapy can help explore.

OK. Without further ado, here are some causes of low self-esteem:

  • Parental Input: The most important influence in a child’s life is their parents. If the parents themselves have a healthy self-esteem they will be able to more easily pass it on to the child. Conversely, children of parents with low self-esteem will, more often than not, adopt this belief about themselves. To help instill a positive self-esteem in their child, parents should always offer love, patience, and encouragement, and avoid criticism, unfair comparisons, and unrealistic expectations.

  • Negative Self-Talk: When children receive too many criticisms, they may develop a negative pattern of thinking. If not adjusted, this pattern can turn into a destructive loop of negative thoughts like:

    • I’m not good enough.

    • I’m not pretty enough.

    • Everyone is laughing at me.

    • I’m not smart enough.

    • I can’t do it.

These self-critical thoughts eventually become core beliefs, and the person’s behavior and body adapts to match those beliefs. These limiting self-beliefs may show up in a slumped posture, a tendency to avoid people or responsibilities, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

These are just a few of the causes of low self-esteem, but they illustrate that esteem is not an inherited trait like eye color or height, but rather a set of acquired beliefs. And, like everything that is acquired, self-esteem can be altered.

No matter what may have caused low self-esteem, there are ways to improve it.

1. Befriend Your Inner Critic:

Internal Family Systems (IFS) and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) uses techniques to help us first identify where this Inner Critic is showing up in our body (e.g., neck tension, in the chest, or maybe it feels like something looming over you). Once we've identified how this part maps out in your thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions, the next step is to turn towards the Critic and begin to understand how this part of you is actually trying to help you. In therapy, I will guide you to ask questions and begin a dialogue with this part, in a process called "Befriending." Often, we find that the Critic sounds like someone we know in our life, and internalized their way of talking to us in efforts to best adapt to our environment. We may also learn that it uses shaming language to either help motivate you to be your best self or prevent you from making detrimental mistakes. Although this is well-meaning, its effects are usually demoralizing and discouraging. Bringing curiosity and openness to this Critical part of you can help it to soften, and give you access to the more vulnerable, often younger child parts inside you that it is protecting from exposure. Having the Critic pass the baton to you to take care of your younger parts of self ("inner child") results in you feeling more calm, in control, and whole.

2. Befriend Your Compare-and-Despair Part of Self

As with the Inner Critic, IFS and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) help clients to relate to their tendency to unfavorably compare themselves to others as another well-meaning but misguided Protector part of yourself. In therapy, I'll guide you to bring curiosity to how this part is trying to help you, how long it has been doing this job, how young it feels to you, and how young it mistakenly believes you are, in a process of known as "Befriending." Once this part feels respected and understood by you, this part may reveal earlier memories, and the meanings or beliefs formed at the time, that give rise to this sense of being "less than" others. This then allows us to process those earlier memories from the more informed, Adult-you (Higher Self) perspective, so you have a new, less shame-based understanding of those prior experiences.

3. Befriend Your Inner Perfectionist

As described above, using SP and IFS, we will map out how the Inner Perfectionist part of you takes over your system -- your body, your thoughts, emotions -- this way you can quickly identify it the next time it's activated and taking over. The process of befriending this part will help you to be able to gain some distance from it so your Higher Self can be the one leading the charge, taking suggestions rather than commands from the Perfectionist.

It can be hard to improve our self-esteem on our own, especially when we're so accustomed to feeling a certain way that we don't even recognize the thoughts we're having as not really stemming from our true selves, but rather defense mechanisms ("Protector" parts-of-self) that stem from unhealed experiences. Using IFS, SP, and EMDR, I'll help you map out all these different parts of you ("get to know your system") and heal the wounds they carry.

Stephanie Post, PsyD. at Higher Self Psychotherapy specializes in self-esteem therapy, trauma therapy, anxiety therapy, and depression therapy, using EMDR, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and IFS online anywhere in California and in the Marina neighborhood of San Francisco.

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