Social media is filled with well meaning, but glib, memes and crass positivity. Sometimes, I feel like those most in need of greater self-esteem, must feel more lost because they can’t just ‘think positive’ or ‘be grateful every day’. And, of course, loving yourself is important, but what if you can’t? What if loving yourself is such an alien concept, that it feels impossible?
When I talk about self-esteem in my classes, it is on the assumption that the people listening have a certain level of self-esteem already. It may not be where they would like it to be, but generally my Bliss Me Quick class members are there because they value themselves enough to make time and money available for self-care. Not all of my clients feel this way. Of course, people with very low self-esteem don’t come for one to ones with me because they think they deserve to feel better. Mostly they come because of something else, very often a knock on effect of their low self-esteem. One lady who I saw a few years ago, came to me because she believed her son was growing up to be like her, and she felt he was missing out. They had been to a birthday party, where he had hung back when party bags were being handed out and when it was his turn there were none left. She said it was her fault because she never pushed herself forward, she always hung back and waited until last.
I asked her more about herself. She had experienced trauma as a child and abusive relationships as an adult. She made herself invisible now. She avoided eye contact wherever possible, not to draw attention to herself. She felt worthless, but knew that, for the sake of her child, she had to try to change the way she felt about herself and life.
I knew it wasn’t enough to tell her that she was loveable and that she should love herself more. Telling her to show herself the kindness that she shows to her son was not going to work either. Affirmations are great with people who need a daily lift, but you need a certain level of self-esteem, that she didn’t possess. It would be easy for me to lose her trust, if I didn’t get it right. I had to connect with her reality and let her know I understood what she was telling me.
Our relationship developed slowly over a few sessions, with me working gently and gradually. I knew that real world proof was what was needed, so we started with her son. She was able to tell me that he loved her, so that is where we began to build the changes that she needed in her life. One day, she told me that she knew she wasn’t likeable, because there was a lady who she passed at work every day, who always looked away when she walked by. ‘She can’t even bear to look at me,’ she said. I replied, ‘Do you think she is like you?’. She asked what I meant and I reminded her that when she had first come to see me, she told me that she avoided eye contact because she didn’t want people to notice her. It was a real light-bulb moment for her. She suddenly realised that her way of thinking might not be accurate. That assumptions that she had made based on other people’s behaviour might not be true.
Our work together progressed more quickly after that. It was so satisfying to notice small changes grow into larger ones. One day, she came to my office, obviously excited to tell me something. She said that she had been to a birthday party with her son, and that he had gone to the front to get a party bag. She was so delighted that her purpose in coming to see me had been satisfied. She recognised then that she had made real change, and her son had quickly followed. I had to hold back the tears (this happens often).
Self-esteem is a belief system that is created through emotional needs being met or not met, new skills being learned or not, progress being attained. Low self-esteem creates, and comes from, a belief system that says, ‘I am not worthy of love, I can’t get anything right, I am stupid, no one wants to know me.’ If people feel inadequate they might try to avoid relationships altogether, or even gravitate towards friends and partners that will take advantage of them or treat them badly, because this fits with their beliefs about what they deserve. Sounds crazy, right? Or perhaps it doesn’t to you. Perhaps you recognise some of that. Maybe that was you, but things have changed in your life now and you feel good to be you.
But if that’s where you are in your life now, stuck in a cycle of low self-esteem and poor relationships, I won’t make light of what you tell me. I won’t tell you to just love yourself a little more. I know crass positivity just won’t work. I will see you and hear you right where you are. I will sit with you and then, very gently, show you the way to where you need to be.