Low self-esteem, an issue I see in a number of the men I work with, is common in those who tend to look outside of themselves for validation and self-worth. Not only is low self-esteem understood to relate to depression, it may also contribute to addiction, feelings of anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and/or ideation. Some of the individuals I work with struggle to maintain a sense of being “good enough” that is adequate to keep them emotionally afloat.
Let’s consider this phenomenon more carefully, considering how it might be possible to refocus attention toward the inner world in order to establish a more stable and positive sense of self. With increased self-esteem may come reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as increased overall well-being.
What Exactly Is Self-Esteem?
We often hear others talk about self-esteem, but this phrase can become so commonly used it may begin to lose meaning. Self-esteem describes a person’s subjective assessment of their own value or worth. For example:
- Do you like who you are?
- Do you think others like you, or who you are?
- Do you feel you have inherent value to the world?
Self-esteem can also be described as a kind of emotional fuel that drives many of the choices a person makes and the actions they take. A person who has high self-esteem may be more likely to choose relationships that are healthy and may also be more likely to take action when trying to achieve what they want in terms of their career, creative life and lifestyle. People with high self-esteem may also tend to refuel, or bounce back, relatively quickly when faced with criticism from others or general setbacks in life.
Those with lower self-esteem may feel as if they are not inherently valuable. Their emotional fuel tanks are low, and they may have difficulty making good decisions, or any decisions at all. People who see themselves as worthless may be more likely to find themselves in a harmful or abusive relationship or alone when they do not want to be, feeling they do not deserve anything better. They may also feel trapped in dead-end jobs or refuse to pursue something more in line with their career goals or desires.
The Source of Self-Esteem
Parents and other caretakers, as well as society at large, contribute to the development of a person’s sense of self-esteem, the shaping of which begins early in childhood. Children need loving adults to reflect back their worth. Worth might be conveyed through how the child is held, cared for, talked to, and/or the ways caretaker respond to overall emotional expression. Ideally, children get the message that their very existence has value, regardless of what they do. They learn their feelings and beliefs are worthy and valuable.
Unfortunately, not every child grows up in a healthy, nurturing environment. Young boys in particular may fail to receive adequate support in the development of self-esteem, and they may not learn that their feelings are valued or even realized. I find that society today still equates much of a boy’s—or man’s—value to what he does, not how he feels. From a young age, boys are often praised for their achievements. If you listen when parents around you praise their young children, you may often hear young boys being praised for NOT crying, for climbing the jungle gym, for building a large castle, or for walking so well.
Thus, boys may grow up believing it is what they achieve that reflects their value. As they age, they must then continue to achieve in order to demonstrate their value. Competitiveness develops, not as a source of joy, but out of an anxious need to be appreciated and loved.
An urgency to achieve and compete for recognition is inherently a position of low self-esteem. Think of it as having a leak in one’s emotional fuel tank. To keep going, some may find it necessary to “feed” this self-esteem tank with notches on their bedpost or dollars in their bank account. Some individuals keep this up for much of their lives, but secretly, in their own bedrooms or “man-caves,” experience feelings of depression and anxiety that may be exacerbated by a never-ending struggle to secure their self-esteem. Others may use sex, television, or substances in unhealthy ways to numb feelings of emptiness and pain.
Cultivating an Inner World
Low self-esteem can be particularly debilitating because it feeds upon itself. Individuals who harbor negative feelings toward their inner selves may be more likely to make choices that have a negative impact on their relationships, work, or other aspects of life. These effects may contribute to or exacerbate existing feelings of depression and anxiety. Substance abuse, one common distraction from the pain of feeling worthless, may lead to addiction, which can further a downward cycle.
Low self-esteem can be particularly debilitating because it feeds upon itself. Individuals who harbor negative feelings toward their inner selves may be more likely to make choices that have a negative impact on their relationships, work, or other aspects of life.
There is a remedy to low self-esteem, and that is to return to the source within one’s self. While this is not necessarily an easy road, it is a generative and fruitful one. Along the journey, you may discover psychological layers that must be recognized and felt, repeatedly.
These layers may include:
- Resistance, which can be described as a fear of the unknown, internalized voices saying an individual needs external validation. Resistance can also take the form of doubt.
- Shame/guilt, or feelings that are remnants of perceived past failures or low self-worth.
- Emptiness, or a feeling of lack or absence that may appear to be low self-esteem.
- Grief may be experienced as mourning for the years a person “lost” to running around urgently trying to prove their worth. Some men may also grieve the feelings they felt unable to express in childhood.
Approaching the above layers requires guidance, practice, and trust. It is not necessarily a linear process. Psychotherapy is recommended, as therapy is a practice designed to map out and make contact with these layers of the psyche in order to find an inner source of high self-esteem.
Men in particular may be less accustomed to going inside themselves and remaining in the unknown long enough for change to happen. I believe therapy is a worthy pursuit and that it provides a clear path toward healing many of the emotional and mental health challenges faced by men today.
Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2013, December 3). Understanding the link between low self-esteem and depression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(6), 455-460. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0963721413492763
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