Young Jennifer Thomas’s low self-esteem in early school days stemmed from an inability to be ‘as good as the other classmates’.
“As a dyslexic child who was looked upon as a ‘tomboy’, I had severe self-esteem issues while growing up,” recalls Thomas, now aged 23. “Until my dyslexia was diagnosed, the comparison of my academic growth with my peers made me feel that I was not good enough. Teachers would also make me feel I was being naughty on purpose and that I refused to take any interest in learning how to write.”
Although the confidence in their reading and writing abilities has improved, Thomas claims they still have low self-esteem issues and ‘that is still work in progress’.
What is self-esteem?
Bangalore-based clinical psychologist Dr Shubha Madhusudhan of Manasvi Counselling Centre says, “Self-esteem is what you know about yourself, the values and limitations you have. Low or high self-esteem is about a disproportionate development of the concept of the self.”
Being at either end of the scale comes with a price. While low self-esteem can lead to depression, not realising your full potential, and putting yourself through abusive relationships and situations, or a high self-esteem can also be a sign of clinical narcissism, where one may come across as being self-centred, arrogant, and having other manipulative behaviours.
How it begins
Self-esteem is largely derived from our belief systems that are based on social, biological, financial, physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects – they all contribute to building the self-esteem and confidence of a person.
Raakhee Bose, a co-founder at a marketing agency, says, “Growing up in different states due to the transferable job of my parents, I always felt like the ‘outsider’ amongst peers, and that affected my self-esteem. I was always trying to fit in. I would always feel I was not as good as everyone else.”
How others react to you, and your experience at home, school, work and in the community influence your view of yourself. Your age, role, and status in society and what you consume on media are also some factors that might affect your self-worth.
“Parents, classmates, and teachers have a role to play during the development phase. Broadly, a child’s self-esteem is based on fashion, food (not just what you eat, but where you eat also matters,) friends, the vehicle you use and other material things. As one grows up, there are different expectations and belief systems that affect one’s self-esteem,” says Dr Madhusudhan.
Coping with the challenges
In Bose’s case there was a certain push from a teacher and then she found motivation through books. “After my dad’s passing, a teacher had said ‘you will always have to take care of yourself, no one will do it for you and that stayed with me and helped me. I also found a love for reading; and reading Sidney Sheldon and such other books with strong female characters really helped me,” she says.
“Books did help me to get a world view on things. They taught me how I was good enough, even though I might have been a little different from other girls in my school,” she adds.
In Thomas’s case, it was their mother who helped them to overcome low self-esteem. “If my mother had not recognised what I was going through, I would have suffered from very low self-esteem in terms of my academics,” says Thomas. “My mother did her best to help me by taking me to special classes and using various prescribed techniques so I could cope.”
“Working on your self-esteem is based on the end goal. Personal limitations, if any, can also be seen as a development need and that can help you to gain confidence. For example, if you do not know English, you may either see that as a limitation or you could see that as a development need, and learn the language and gain confidence from it,” explains Dr Madhusudhan.
What to do if you have a low self-esteem
Remember that everyone evolves differently and there is no single solution.
- Identify troubling conditions or situations
- Build on your strengths, rather than brooding in weaknesses
- Be aware of your thoughts and beliefs
- Challenge and adjust your thoughts and beliefs
- Accept yourself – physical appearance is determined by genetics
- Swim, run, exercise
- Maintain your diet
Signs of strength
- Accept yourself as you are
- Have a positive outlook on life
- Do not seek others’ approval or struggle to please people
- Do not feel inferior; do not compare yourself with others unfairly.
- Set healthy boundaries and let others know about them.
- Express your needs
- Be aware of your self-worth and accept your limitations