Twenty-five-year-old Anjali Ramesh, educator and psychology student based in Mumbai, calls self-worth or self-respect a “complicated emotion” as it depends on the respect and admiration we have for ourselves, and get from others. Our self-worth stems from the perception of our own self, which is constantly being shaped by the environment one is in and is linked to several elements that are not in one’s control.
The American Psychological Association (APA), describes self-esteem as that which reflects a person’s physical self-image, view of his or her accomplishments and capabilities, and values and perceived success in living up to them, as well as the ways in which others view and respond to that person.
So how and where do we begin to work on our sense of self?
Internal versus external factors
Pune-based mental health professional, Tavishi Singhal, echoed this sentiment and elaborated, “In an ideal world, it would be entirely dependent on the self and would be unaffected by external factors.” However, as humans do not exist in a vacuum and the ways we think and behave are deeply influenced by our circumstances and the society we live in, it is not only impossible but also not very helpful to try to separate the internal and external worlds.
A secure, loving environment where one feels supported and cherished plays a huge role in building internal capacities and resources for healthy self-regard, especially in one’s formative years. In turn, a positive view of oneself helps to seek out and actively create spaces and relationships where one can grow and thrive. “It is a bilateral, symbiotic relationship that cannot be studied in rigid binaries,” Singhal adds.
A neurodivergent orthodontist’s journey
As a neurodivergent person on the aromantic-asexual spectrum, the discrimination and alienation Agharsh Chandrasekaran, an orthodontist from Bengaluru has encountered in society has gravely impacted his self-worth. Chandrasekaran says, “Social hierarchies and inequity tend to significantly shape our access to resources, both external and internal, and hence influence our self-esteem in varied ways.”
He says that its effects can never be fully erased since they will stay with him in both explicit and implicit ways.
Self-esteem is part of our identity, and systemic discrimination often targets several aspects of this identity. Furthermore, hostile external circumstances such as relational trauma and conflict, financial loss and hardship, or unfulfilling professional settings have a negative effect on our self-esteem that is difficult to overcome solely through internal will and effort. Hence, it is important to acknowledge and understand the nuanced, consistent impact of social norms and prejudice on our self-worth.
People with marginalised identities find it much more difficult to build a healthy relationship with themselves, which needs to be addressed through collective action and community support. “As I’ve found more people who can empathise with me and relate to my experiences, I have been slowly able to rebuild my self-esteem and practise self-acceptance and love,” says Chandrasekaran.
How social media affects it
As the pandemic began, our lives began to revolve around social media more than ever before. It played an immense role in helping people sustain connection in an increasingly fragmented world and brought moments of joy and light-heartedness in incredibly difficult times. However, seeking online validation for quick, easy gratification became all-pervasive and seemingly irreplaceable for our self-esteem.
“When we feel accepted, valued and welcomed by our communities, our sense of self-worth is evidently stronger and more resilient,” says 55-year-old Sweta Sengupta, Pune-based teacher and homemaker. “Your relationship with social media needs to be deliberate and tailored according to what brings you the ideal balance of peace and stimulation, since that will go a long way in helping you feel grounded and in building a more accepting, loving relationship with yourself,” she adds.
“I think social media has blurred the boundaries between our external and internal worlds, and that makes our understanding of self-esteem even more convoluted,” adds Ramesh. “The way you curate your own experience is crucial. Avoiding content that makes me feel bad about myself while seeking out people, spaces and art that helps me grow and thrive is what greatly helps me.”
However, a disproportionately inflated sense of self-worth, wherein one fails to practise humility and starts developing narcissistic tendencies, can be quite detrimental as well. Ramesh elaborates, “The toxic cycle of presenting the “ideal” version of ourselves on social media for external validation, getting instant ego boosts and repeating the exact same process can distort our sense of self and make it difficult for us to stay grounded to our genuine self.”
Journey towards healthier self-worth
It is clear, thus, that self-esteem is not a universal, black-and-white, unidimensional concept. Navigating and understanding the self requires a lot of nuance and consideration.
“Therapy goes a long way in facilitating self-compassion and helping you tackle unhelpful and self-deprecating beliefs and behavioural patterns,” says Singhal. “In my experience as a mental health professional, I’ve observed that the key to healthier self-esteem is rooted in nurturing mechanisms and mindsets that allow you to be kind to yourself and accepting who you are without harsh judgement and policing.”
Unconditional love and positive regard from the people one cares about is a crucial factor, too, and reliable support systems where one feels a sense of belonging, work hand-in-hand with one’s internal systems to build a sense of self-worth and confidence.
Sengupta says that she learns a lot about herself through what she reads and watches online and has found several communities where she feels a sense of belonging and has the space to be her authentic, boundless self. “Your social media experience can either worsen your self-worth and lead to constant comparison and toxicity, or actually prove to be a safe space where you can forge beautiful bonds with like-minded people as well as your own self,” she adds.
How low self-esteem or low self-worth can manifest itself
According to several psychological studies, low self-esteem manifests itself through various cognitive and behavioural patterns in our daily lives:
- Often, people with unhealthy self-esteem procrastinate significantly to delay performance appraisal, and fall prey to inertia in their professional as well as personal lives
- A negative view of oneself and one’s abilities has been found to prevent students from exploring their full academic potential
- Low self-esteem is also associated with depressive as well as anxiety disorders. Individuals with low self-esteem find it difficult to navigate through stressful situations, which make them more susceptible to developing these symptoms
- Research has also shown how low self-esteem negatively affects our relationships with others and leads to frequent conflict as well as lack of conflict resolution