A Guide to Help Youth with Low Self-Esteem
Biju was raised in a small town of Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh by good parents who loved him. But Biju’s father could communicate love only by giving to his family materially. He never put his arm around Biju. He never told him that he loved him or was proud of him. Biju’s mother was dominating, controlling and possessive. The oldest of the three children, Biju worked hard to gain his parent’s acceptance, love, approval. He became a “mommy’s boy”; by the time he reached high school Biju was feeble and cowardly. To make matters worse, Biju has a secret fear that someone might find out he was a chronic bedwetter. Until the age of fifteen he could never spend the nights at a relative or friend’s house, which compounded his loneliness and sense of inferiority. He felt unloved, incompetent, and totally worthless.
Biju’s college experience was characterized by sever loneliness and times of great depression. At times he sank into almost suicidal depression. He had no close friends. He was afraid to let anyone know that small, frightened boy he was inside. He was certain no one could like him, because he certainly didn’t like himself.
At times his struggle with low self-esteem has been almost overwhelming, but a significant turning point in Biju’s life occurred at a youth camp in Mumbai. He met a counselor there who gave him hope that he could be different. After one brief afternoon session, Biju’s life began to change dramatically.
In the years since that summer, God has worked to heal him of his pain, loneliness, anger, and feelings of inferiority. He has spent many hours trying to understand himself. He has prayer and sought counseling from many people. He has come a long way – and still has a long way to go. But today Biju is different Biju and is learning to like Biju.
Problem of Unhealthy Self-Esteem
As a young person approaches and enters adolescence, he or she faces a brand-new challenge, one that has profound implications for his or her future. That challenge is to answer the questions, “Who am I?” “Where am I going?” and “Where do I belong”
Three Functional Areas
The major task of adolescence is the reevaluation of self.
Dorothy Corkille Briggs adds. this reevaluation uses the teen’s past experiences and influences, as well as the messages he or she receives from parents, teachers, friends, and society in general. These all combine to affect three functional areas in the young person’s estimation of himself or herself.
The Area of Appearance.
Many parents have observed that a frequent side effect of adolescence is an inability to pass a mirror without stopping. Young people are often, intensely concerned about their appearance; they worry about their hair, their complexion, their clothes, and their weight. Any imperfection, no matter how small, assumes huge importance to a teen, and any criticism of the youth’s appearance is likely to be filed forever in his or her self-concept.
The Area of Performance.
A teen’s estimate of himself or herself is also formed by how the teen – and – others – view his or her developing abilities, skills, and intelligence. “I’m no good at math; I must be dumb.” “I stink at sports; I’m such a looser.” “I flunked my annual exams; I can’t do anything right.” Such experiences and sentiments can contribute to a poor self-image.
The Area of Status.
The social structure in which a teen lives and functions (or malfunctions) can be complex and unforgiving. Young people are measures according to who they like, who likes them, whether they’re popular, what kind of car they have, what their parents do, where they live, etc. While such things trivial to parents or teacher or youth worker, they can be immensely influential in a teen’s estimate of his or her own importance and value.
Three Keys to Self-Concept
The areas of influence described above work together to help create the self-concept a teen holds in his or her mind and heart. Maurice E. Wagner points out that the concept consists of three essential elements:
Wagner writes, belongingness is an awareness of being wanted and accepted, of being cared for and enjoyed….. Our sense of belongingness is fundamentally established in infancy. Children develop feelings of belongingness when loving parents anticipate their discomforts and affectionately provide for their needs.
Wagner writes, worthiness is a feeling of “I am good” or “I count” or “I am right.” We feel worthy when we do as we should. We verify that sense of worthiness when we sense other’s positive attitudes toward us and their heart endorsement of our actions. When others do not approve, but criticize us, we feel a loss of worthiness.
Wagner writes, this is a feeling of adequacy, of courage, or hopefulness, of strength enough to carry out the tasks of daily life-situations….. True competence acknowledges one’s abilities as well as one’s weaknesses…. Competence begins to develop in preadolescent years, but it grows on to a more fixed attitude as a person finishes his teens. Competence is affected positively by successes, negatively by failures.
Everyone – children, teens, as well as adults – wants to feel accepted, worthwhile, and competent. Unfortunately, the onset of adolescence often wreaks havoc with those feelings.
Youngsters often experience a decline in self-esteem as they enter their adolescent years.
writes Bruce Bower. “Social scientists have documented this trend – often more pronounced among girls – over the past 20 years.”
Causes of Unhealthy Self-Esteem
It is dangerous to oversimplify the many varies factors that contribute to a person’s self-image. In fact, many social scientists still argue over the validity of several claims as to its cause. However, while not all contributing factors can be presented here, several are so clearly influential they must be mentioned.
A direct correlation between child abuse and low self-esteem has been documented by a number of studies. In fact, K. Brent Marrow and Gwendolyn Sorell say that “severity of abuse was the single most powerful predictor of self-esteem” in their studies. The link between abuse and self-esteem is not limited to sexual abuse, nor even to physical abuse. Psychologist Irwin Hyman estimates that “50 percent to 60 percent of kids show some kind of stress as a result of emotional mistreatment at school,” such as sarcastic remarks from teachers or disciplinary actions meant to embarrass children in front of their peers. Mary Beth Marklein reported that
Many mental health experts say tactics such as name calling, ridicule or sarcasm can rob children of their self-esteem.
Researchers Joan Robertson and Ronald Simons reported that, according to a study they conducted,
Perceived parental rejections was significantly associated with both depression and low self-esteem. with low self-esteem showing a strong relationship with depression.
Young people who were raised in a family environment of excessive parental criticism, belittling, shaming – or of neglect and inattention – are likely to struggle with the adolescent task or reevaluating themselves and their places in the world.
Authors Bruce Narramore and Robert S. McGee are among many who point out that youth with low self-esteem often display wrong assumptions and faulty thinking. Some of those damaging assumptions and concepts are:
I must meet certain standards in order to feel good about myself.
Such standards may be the standards of parents, teachers, or friends, or they may be reactions to the standards of those people (like the girl who determined she would never buy secondhand clothes because her parents always did). McGee points out that people who accept this belief respond in one of the two ways. Either they become “slaves to perfectionism, driving themselves incessantly toward attaining goals [and basing] their self-worth in their ability to accomplish a goal,” or they despair of ever achieving anything good or ever feeling good about themselves. “Because of their past failures, they are quick to interpret present failures as an accurate reflection of their worthlessness. Fearing additional failures, they become despondent and quit trying.”
I must have approval of certain others to feel good about myself.
Acceptance of this false belief will lead young people to bow to peer pressure in an effort to gain approval. They may join certain clubs, “hang around” with certain groups of people, or experiment with drugs and alcohol in an effort to gain the approval of influential others in their lives. Some will almost do anything for a smile from a particular girl, for a laugh from the right crowd, for a nod of approval from the teacher or youth leader because they base their self-worth on what they think other people think about them.
Those who fail are unworthy of love and deserve to be punished.
Narramore writes, “We take in our parents’ corrective attitudes and actions just as we take in their goals, ideals, and expectations. To the degree our parents resorted to pressure, fear, shame or guilt to motivate us, we [develop a false assumption that say] “When i fall short of my goals or expectations, I need to be pressured, shamed, frightened, or punished.” Because the teen years involve so much trial and error – or failure – this assumption can be devastating to a young person’s sense of self-esteem.
I am what I am, I cannot change, I am hopeless.
McGee writes, “When past failures, dissatisfaction with personal appearance, or bad habits loom so large in our minds that they become basis of our self-worth, the fourth false belief becomes established in our lives…. If we excuse our failures too often and for too long, we soon find our personality glued to them.”
Finally, it must be mentioned that, to some extent at least, the reevaluation of self that characterizes the teen years is often resolved successfully with the passage of time and the development of one’s abilities, skills, and intelligence. However, self-esteem is such a crucial element to physical, mental, and spiritual health that the wise parent, youth leader, or teacher, will not neglect any opportunity to help a teen mature in this area as in others.
Effects of Unhealthy Self-Esteem
One of the most profound effects of a poor self-image can be seen in the attitude a person develops towards his or her world. Persons with an unhealthy self-image have a fearful, pessimistic view of the world and of their ability to cope with its challenges. They see unexpected or new situations as threats to their personal happiness and security, seemingly planned as attacks on them personally. They see the world closing on them, pushing and crushing them. Such people tend to receive what the world sends their way without challenging or attempting to change it. They see themselves as victims, helplessly entrapped in a hostile environment, as shown by this graphic depiction:
On the other hand, person with healthy self-esteem see the world as a challenge to be faced, an opportunity to exercise personal strength and trust in God. Such people assume they can have an impact on their world through God and that by the grace of God they can effectively change their environment. This attitude is illustrated by the image shown below:
Person with a weak or unhealthy self-image operate in life from any number of these perceived factors and motivations:
- Pessimistic outlook on life
- Lack of confidence in social skills
- Extremely sensitivity to opinions of other people
- Self-consciousness about appearance, performance or status
- A view of other people as competition to beat, not friends to enjoy
- A sense of masculinity or femininity felt only through sexual conquests
- A striving to become something or somebody instead of relaxing and enjoying who they are
- A view of the present as something to be pushed aside instead of focusing on past achievements or future dreams
- Fear of God or belief that He is uninterested or angry with them
- A habit of mentally rehashing past conversations or situations, wondering what the other person meant
- A critical and judgmental view of others
- Defensiveness in behavior and conversations
- An attitude of carrying a chip on their shoulders
- Use of anger as defense to keep from getting hurt
- A tendency to develop clinging relationships
- Inability to accept praise
- Self-defeating habits and behaviors
- A habit of letting others “walk” on them
- Fear of being alone
- Fear of intimacy because it might lead to rejection or smothering relationship
- Difficulty believing or accepting God’s love or the love of another person
- Dependence on material possessions for security
- Inability to express emotions
- A habit of using negative labels in referring to themselves.
- Anticipation or worry that the worst will happen
- A tendency to follow the crowd and avoid independent behavior
- Perfectionistic behavior regarding details
- Perpetually rigid, legalistic, and ritualistic preferences in worship
- Interpretation of their world as hostile and overpowering
- A shifting of responsibility to others for unwanted or negative situations or feelings
- Need for lots of structure and external control in life
- Overly sensitive conscience
It must be emphasized that a poor self-image is not the sole cause of all the above factors. There may be many other causes. Further, someone who has extremely poor self-esteem will not necessarily exhibit all – or even most – of the above factors.
Quality of Relationships
Low self-esteem also affects the quality of a person’s relationships. Psychology Today suggests,
Of all the problems with self-esteem, this may be the worst: people who have it create relationships that tend to perpetuate it…
According to William B. Swann, Jr., Ph.D., people with negative self-image prefer people – even seek them out – who also evaluate them negatively.”
Problems in Marital Intimacy
Not surprisingly, then, a poor self-image is also one of the prime causes of problems in marital intimacy. If you do not have a healthy self-acceptance, how can you expect your mate accept you for who you are? You can’t, and so you start to build a facade, and the man or woman who marries you marries the facade, not the real you. When that happens, the facade gets larger and larger, and usually, any intimacy that was in the initial relationship disappears.
Limited Achievement, Satisfaction, and Fulfillment
Low self-esteem bears many results, hampering achievement, satisfaction, fulfillment, and pleasure in school, work, leisure, and marriage and other relationships.
Response to the Problem of Unhealthy Self-Esteem
A poor self-image is not formed overnight. Neither will it be tempered or corrected overnight. A youth leader, teacher, or parent can be vital help to a young person laboring under weak or unhealthy self-image by pursuing a course like the following:
Some kids don’t know what it’s like to have an adult listen – really – listen – to them. Their parents don’t listen, their teachers don’t listen… or at least the kids don’t think they do. It’s important to develop a habit to listening closely to the young person who have low self-esteem. Listen to his self-critical statements; listen to the negative labels she used to describe herself; listen to what he says about his family, his parents, his childhood, his friends, his school, how other people treat him. Just having someone honestly listening can have a salutary effect on a young person.
Use such questions as the following to gently probe the young person’s ideas, attitudes, and self-concept:
- How would you describe yourself?
- Do you think you’re a valuable person?
- Do you ever call yourself names?
- Do you think other people like you?
- Do you like yourself?
- How do you think your parents feel about you? Your teachers? Friends? Others?
- What things make you feel good about yourself?
- What things make you feel not so good about yourself?
Endeavor, as the young person speaks, to listen not only to his or her words but to the feelings being expressed. And “listen” as well to his or her body language. Try also to impress on the young man or woman that God is always listening, and the most important and effective ingredient of a healthy self-concept is to know God, His love, His fellowship.
Be careful to empathize with the young person. Examine your own self-concept. What have been your greatest struggles? Do you still struggle with self-esteem? What has helped you accept yourself? Also strive to communicate warmth and empathy by:
- Leaning forward in your chair to communicate your interest.
- Making eye contact with the young person as he or she speaks without staring or letting eye wander.
- Avoiding any expression of shock, disapproval, disagreement, or judgement about what is said.
- Waiting patiently through periods of silence or tears.
- Leading the conversation by asking “What happened next? or “Tell me what you mean by….”
- Reflecting the young person’s statements by saying, “You must feel…..,” or “It sounds like you’re saying….”
David Seamands writes, “Some parents are afraid to give their children affirmation and encouragement. They think if they praise the children too much, the children will become conceited or proud…. [But we] parents are much more in danger of perpetuating our children’s fear of failure than making them unjustly proud.”
Whether you’re a parent, youth worker, or teacher, affirmation is critical to the development of self-esteem. Affirm both his or her personhood and his or her performance; try to “catch” the young person doing something right or doing something well, and make sure you comment sincerely on it.
The adult who seeks to influence a young person struggling with low self-esteem should, at an opportune time, sensitively share truth about faith that boost youth’s significance in God. Some young people, hearing for the first time about their inestimable value in God’s eyes, have taken life-changing assurance and confidence from this truth.
In addition, the caring adult should seek to counter the sources of the young person’s self-esteem. Author Tony Campolo suggests two primary emphases in directing a child in ways that will foster healthy self-esteem:
[Help the youth] develop an area where she is special, unusual. and better than others. Some parents have done this by giving kids music lessons, some by putting children into drama classes, some by focusing on developing children’s athletic abilities. You must be very sensitive to special talents and gifts of the child and then capitalize on them so the child develops them to the utmost. Thus the child feels special, and that feeling enables her to have a sense of worth.
Youth leaders, teacher can also do this by carefully observing a young person they’re concerned about to determine what opportunities and/or training can be offered to the youth. Can she be eased into leading the youth group in community? Can he be tutored with a view to someday teaching junior students at her school or NGO? Is there an area of responsibility – even a small area – that can allow her to demonstrate that she can handle responsibility and / or perform with competence?
Campolo continues: Second, the youth group at its best can give the child a sense of belonging and acceptance. Very often the child who is not accepted in the larger context of the public school can find affirmation and worth in this small body of youth. Parents need to be willing to change localities as the child comes into those junior college years, if necessary, to find a community with youth group [or begin such a group] that will serve to child’s need for affirmation.
Enlist the youth himself or herself in brainstorming ways he or she can work on self-image. Parents can shape it into a project. Youth leaders can us the task of rebuilding self-image as the basis of weekly group meeting with the youth. Tim Hansel suggests the following steps to a healthy self-esteem:
- Accept yourself.
- Know yourself.
- Be yourself.
- Love yourself.
- Forget yourself.
Enlist the youth in brainstorming ways to accomplish each of the above, such as the following:
- Do not label yourself negatively (I’m such a looser,” etc.) You tend to become the label you give yourself.
- Behave assertively (but not aggressively) even in threatening situations, particularly when you don’t feel like doing so.
- When you fail, admit and confess it to God, and then refuse to condemn yourself.
- Be as kind to yourself as you would to any other person.
- Do not compare yourself with others. You are a unique person. God enjoys you in your uniqueness; have a similar attitude towards yourself.
- Concentrate and meditate on God’s grace, love, and acceptance – not on criticisms from other people.
- Associate with friends who are positive, who delight in you, and who enjoy life.
- Start helping others to see themselves as God sees them by accepting them, loving them, and encouraging them. Give them the respect they deserve as one of God’s unique human creations.
- Learn to laugh; look for the humor in life and experience it.
- Have expectations of others that are realistic, taking into account each person’s specific talents, gifts, abilities, and potential.
- Relax and take it easy. Perhaps life isn’t in as much of a hurry with you as you suppose it is.
- Be positive. See how long you can go without saying something negative about another person or situation.
- Lead others with influence and wise guidance rather than with autocratic power.
In extreme cases – when a person’s self-image is so damaged that it results in serious depression or a total unresponsiveness to counsel and offers of help, for example – it may be necessary to involve a professional counselor. If you are not the child’s parent, the parents’ early involvement is crucial and their consent to refer is required.
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Bijo Joseph is the founder of Bijoyful Foundation, a faith-based NGO (reg. 357152/sec. 8 co.) that aims to deliver positive changes in the lives of young people troubled with adverse mental health, addiction or other life challenges through range of strength-based, recovery and livelihood programs and support offered by counsellors, social workers and volunteers. He has the youth leadership experience of 17 years and with educational foundation from TISS, Mumbai & IIM Calcutta.