Understanding Self-Esteem: From Low To High

Understanding what causes low self-esteem and how it is developed may help its improvement. Explore neuroscientific points of view what self-esteem is and how we can build it up.
Dr Olga-Lucia Gamboa-Arana PhD is a Cognitive Neuroscientist with more than a decade of expertise in the field of Brain Stimulation and Neuroimaging.
low self esteem meaning
Dr Olga-Lucia Gamboa-Arana PhD is a Cognitive Neuroscientist with more than a decade of expertise in the field of Brain Stimulation and Neuroimaging.

Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Olga-Lucia Gamboa-Arana explains important points of understanding what self-esteem is, what causes it to decrease as well as some simple starting points to build up and improve your self-esteem.

What Is Self-Esteem And How Do We Lose It?

“Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep ’til noon.” Mark Twain

And this is exactly what self-esteem is, a reputation, but the one a man has in his own eyes.

As painful and unfair as it seems, once you get a bad name it is difficult to clear it and it becomes even more challenging when the person you have to convince of it, is your own self. Nevertheless, protecting and improving self-esteem is part of human nature and when it feels aggravated the immediate action is to actively try to reduce the infliction by adjusting our own beliefs.

What Is Low Self-Esteem?

Understanding what causes low self-esteem and how it is developed may help its improvement. In order to achieve this, there are several points to take into consideration.

Self-esteem has its base in each person’s values

Values are concepts or principles that an individual considers as worthy and relevant in life. We should know clearly what is important and what we want in each aspect of our lives (career, relationships etc.). This clarity will guide our behaviours, dictating our priorities. Stating where we want to go and what we want to reach once you get there.

It is important to keep in mind that it is not enough knowing what we do not want. Imagine you want to prepare a soup but you do not know what you want to use to prepare it. In your kitchen you find several ingredients, some you do not like, some you do and others that you do not mind. Without any recipe in mind or a clear idea of the desired outcome you pick random ingredients from the last two groups. What do you think the result will be? In the best of cases, by chance and a lot of luck you might have invented a new recipe for a gourmet soup. But, more likely than not the result will be a soup with a rather “exotic” flavour to say the least. In case the hunger is ferocious you might eat it, as you want to force yourself to believe that you are proud of your achievement and that actually it is not that bad. However hours later, your stomach does not agree with you. Same thing in our daily lives, the uncertainty of our values will lead to erratic behaviours that will most likely generate problems and therefore uneasiness in our lives.

Read more: In another insightful article, Olga-Lucia explores the neuroscience of rejection and how to deal with it.

Self-esteem does not disappear suddenly

If we try to think back, it is difficult to establish at which point our self-esteem was lost. We could even doubt if it ever existed.

The truth is that self-esteem itself is always there and its detriment is progressive. It starts with an ineffective behaviour that is repeated endlessly. It is as if you always try to open a sliding door as if it were a hinged door, being of course never able to open it. Despite the fact that you know by experience that pushing the door does not work, you always use the same technique. It is exactly so, somehow the practice of carrying out useless actions remains throughout our existence.

In the long run, we manage to gather a wide repertoire of self-defeating practices in many areas of our lives. It is here where our self-esteem is smashed by a self-perception of constant deficit and incompetence. We then stop trusting not only our capacity to perform but most importantly “the ability to learn to perform”.

Negative contradictory and unreasonable judgment

We cannot escape our own intense negative and probably unfair judgement. Self-judgement is crucial for self-image and self-esteem. It is experienced as an ever-present feeling, which is difficult to ignore. The quality of this feedback has a strong influence on the way we think, feel and make decisions. Interestingly, after a short while we need to reduce the discomfort caused by our own judgement. Thus, our opinions are eventually repressed in the need of a positive view of ourselves.

This behaviour leaves little room for change and improvement, falling in a perpetual cycle of tough judgement and wrong adjustment. That is why it is very important how we talk to ourselves and how fair or hard we are regarding our actions.

Read more: Learn how to stop the different types of negative self-talk to chat along in your head.

Interpretation of my failures

The problem of the deficiency of self-esteem emerges when, having a failure, we wrongly interpret it as a result of our lack of capacities. We identify ourselves with the mistake and conclude that “the action was wrong, therefore I am wrong”. Yet, the real failure is not being able to identify in an objective manner the real causes of the failure, namely limited skills/knowledge, incorrect approach or even lack of interest, among many other reasons.

You suppose, your neighbour does not like/know how to bake. But for reasons beyond his control, he has to make a cake for a celebration at work. Not being very enthusiastic about it and a bit annoyed he makes an effort to bake. Once at the meeting after tasting the cake he realizes that he forgot to put the sugar. His colleagues start joking about it and he is the subject of the afternoon, he feels awful. After the party he goes home and thinking about the event he wrongly reaches the conclusion that as the cake was horrible, he is also horrible (a horrible baker). He classifies himself as incapable to bake or cook anything ever, so better not to try again.

In his embarrassment, your neighbour is not able to see that this might happened because of his lack of experience in baking added to the fact that he was not so attentive during the execution, since he was not enthusiastic about it. He fails to consider that in the future, with motivation and more effort from his part a good outcome can be achieved. However, his biggest error is to identify himself with the mistake (he is horrible because the cake is horrible).

Explore hundreds of free guided meditations for acceptance on Insight Timer.

Olga-Lucia offers free guided meditations on Insight Timer (view her profile here). Below you can find two of her practices that can become useful guides in your journey to improved self-esteem.

  1. Nurturing Your Inner Strength Dr Olga-Lucia Gamboa-Arana 11:03
  2. Opening To Self-Forgiveness Dr Olga-Lucia Gamboa-Arana 11:56

How To Improve Self-Esteem

About Self-Esteem, Self-Confidence & Self-Respect

The concept of self-esteem is perhaps better understood knowing that it has two inextricable aspects: self-confidence, and self-respect.

Self-confidence is the conviction that I can trust myself, my decisions, my thinking, my knowledge, my judgement, but most important my capacity “to learn”. It is the confidence that although I can make mistakes, I am able to correct them and/or to learn from them. It refers to our capacity to acquire knowledge and skills and to my belief that I am competent to live.

Self-respect is the sense I have of being right as a person, of being a good individual, and this believe is supported by the quality of my values and actions. It refers to my belief that I am worthy of living. That is, in order to achieve love I need to be able to go for it and get it (self-confidence) and I should also believe I deserve it (self-respect).

Read more: Explore Robert Leichtman’s three-part series of understanding and overcoming the inner critic.

Self-esteem is an active process

In order to improve self-esteem it is necessary to understand that this is an active process and therefore should be attended daily. It requires full recognition of our feelings, the capacity to stick to clear and healthy values and the ability to set and achieve useful goals. Once decided, the process to build a healthy self-esteem should start immediately and be kept as part of our everyday life.

A simple practice to build new self-esteem

Write down a list of your achievements (hit list), don’t be shy! They do not have to be big, but significant. This list will help you to remember that you are a person capable of learning, doing and fulfilling when wanted or needed. Store the list in a safe place and read it when you feel like “not being able to”.

On that list, you write the date, then the event that made you proud, your achievement. Then briefly describe: how was the process to get there was it hard, slow, tiring, or enjoyable? Specify what you learned during that process: to be patient, to see with new eyes, that you are very good using your hands? Here is an example:

  • Date: 9/1/2020
  • Achievement: Learning to bake through an online course
  • Process: Time demanding and sometimes frustrating as I didn’t get things nicely done at the first trial.
  • Lesson(s): I am able to encourage myself to follow a program without supervision. I am able to learn new things with discipline, persistence and above all will.
  • Feeling: Proud of myself and happy as now I can indulge myself and beloved ones baking delicious cakes and pastry.

Meditation. Free.