05 Mar Self-Esteem and Challenging the Negative Narrative of “Me”
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, self-esteem is the value we place on how we feel about ourselves, both inside and out. Self-esteem involves understanding our strengths and weaknesses, accepting them, and doing the best we can with that we have. In this piece, Chad Bouma, a Clinical Social Worker and Therapist in the Waterloo region, shares his personal and professional experience on self-esteem.
Think to your own life. Did you (or do you still) look towards others for affirmation and validation that your choices (career, friends, partners, school, etc.) were/are the “right” ones? Do you think that the choices you’ve made are ones that you can feel good about? When I think to parts of my life I can see that there were many times that I did not feel like I had worth, especially in comparison to other people who seemingly were better looking, more athletic, or more intelligent than I perceived myself. I could characterize myself as someone who had low self-esteem.
In my practice, I see various adults and adolescents who are struggling and/or challenged with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, stress, and various other mood/cognitive disorders. When we begin to dig a bit deeper into the reflections of self, it’s no surprise that clients also identify that they either have or are also struggling with self-esteem issues. While not every person I work with faces these two complexities (mental health and low self-esteem), I can’t help but notice the correlation that exists for many.
In other words, how we portray ourselves in regards to our worth and abilities can definitely have an impact on how we experience and perceive our mental health challenges. Low self-esteem can definitely be a contributor and symptom of something like depressive thinking – which then acts as a “double whammy” in our ability to gain greater self-awareness. Does my self-esteem contribute to my depression or does my depression contribute to my low self-esteem? I believe the answer is both; but it also does not mean that we are altogether hopeless in turning things around. Research shows that many mental health disorders are biologically caused, meaning that talking to our health professionals and finding the right treatment (be it pharmaceutical or not) is always the best first option.
Part of the work that I try to do with people through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is to have a very honest conversation regarding peoples’ perceptions of themselves. Feelings of hopelessness or a lack of motivation do not always equate to low self-esteem, so it’s important to go through the arduous process of becoming self-aware. Here lies the possibility of a problem: if someone has positive self-esteem and self-worth then it may be relatively easy for them to identify this as such. But on the other hand, if someone does not feel like they have worth, then exploring that further may not be a rabbit hole that they really want to go down.
Talking about self-esteem is hard, and it’s even harder when you do not want to be faced with the fact that you may have low self-esteem. We live in an age where assertiveness is held as a virtue, and the subversion to more dominant personalities is seen as weak or lacking a spine. Moreover, it can be difficult to hear that your low self-esteem may be a large contributor for why things may not be going so positively for you in terms of your mental health. This does not mean, however, that you are the cause of the problem.
The good news is that your self-esteem can be changed. The bad news is that it might be hard work. Past experiences of feelings of shame, being devalued, or not being affirmed in your identity can cause behavioral and cognitive patterns of thought (“I’m not good enough”) which may eventually turn into core beliefs (“I’ll never be good enough”). It’s these road blocks that can prevent individuals from being able to view themselves in a healthier light. Gaining self-awareness by naming your core beliefs and exploring their origins, although difficult, can become a catalyst to meaningful growth.
Were you bullied as a kid? Do you have a manager in your workplace that is only critical and not encouraging? Do your loved ones build you up or make you feel like you cannot succeed? Do you tend to avoid trying new things or taking on new challenges for fear of failure? Any of these experiences can lend itself to your story and perception of your self-esteem and self-worth – and if it’s a negative perception, it only serves as validation to the negative core beliefs you already hold for yourself.
It’s incredibly helpful to talk to your therapist about your self-esteem and how you understand your own understanding of how it came to be. Particularly in CBT, your therapist will help you identify these negative patterns of thought and emotion and work with you in trying to challenge and change some of those assumptions you’ve made of yourself. Does your boss being critical of you actually mean that you’re not good in your role? Not necessarily. Does a bully at school truly know who you are and therefore your self-worth? Most likely not, and their bullying probably stems from their own self-esteem issues.
You may believe that it is beyond your grasp to change your self-esteem. It certainly takes hard work because of the incredible amount of internalizing and externalizing that needs to occur. But, simply begin with becoming aware of the messages you are telling yourself and try to challenge some of those negative assumptions you hold of yourself. With time, patience, and compassion, you have the potential to begin changing the narrative of your own self-perception.
CHAD BOUMA, MSW, RSW
I am a Clinical Social Worker who is trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (although I do not profess to be a purist in this approach!). I currently work part-time for the Delton Glebe Counselling Centre in Waterloo as an Associated Therapist and as a Field Advisor/Off-site Supervisor for the Bachelor of Social Work program at Wilfrid Laurier’s Brantford Campus. Practicing Psychotherapy has shown me that people have amazing stories and I am humbled regularly by the resilience and strength that so many of my clients demonstrate. I am passionate about walking alongside people in their challenges and sufferings, striving to provide an empathetic approach while also helping to provide practical, client-centered support. If you would like to connect with me directly, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you’d like to schedule an appointment with me please visit glebecounselling.ca or by calling (519) 884-3305.