It’s Mental Health Awareness Week (well, it was when I started writing this… but let’s just pretend that I’m not an entire week late) and I’ve been pondering over what to write. The thing is, my mental health hasn’t been the worst. I’m thankful that I’ve never had major bouts of depression or anxiety.
In fact, for me, it was never been debilitating depression or panic attacks. Rather, it was been more like running a race (the race being life in general) as normal, but with a weight belt carrying 100 extra pounds, but still trudging along regardless. I used to be (and still am, sometimes) the one everyone just called a ‘worrywart’; chronically overthinking, overanalysing and people-pleasing, but largely white-knuckling it through.
Sometimes I worry that I shouldn’t speak openly about my mental health experiences and tips because I haven’t ‘had it the worst’. But I know I need to shake myself out of this, as mental health is not something that should be — or even can be — compared. It affects everyone differently, but talking about it, in all its ‘levels’ and forms, is what will encourage others to seek help and open up about their feelings.
And I’m all for that, so here we go — this is my experience of low-self esteem, the effects it’s had on my life and how I’ve pretty much managed to overcome it!
Warning: This post is hella long! I’m well aware that not everyone will want to read the whole thing, so, by all means, skip the ramble about my experience and straight to the self-esteem tips by clicking here.
What is low self-esteem?
Before I jump in, I thought it’d be good to cover what self-esteem actually is, what effect low self-esteem can actually have on our lives and why it can be a major trigger for other mental health problems.
Self-esteem is the opinion you have of yourself and how you perceive yourself.
If you have a healthy level of self-esteem, you generally feel positive and confident in yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re arrogant or have a big ego — just that you believe in your abilities and are able to recognise and value your strengths as a person. You’re less likely to let people’s negative opinions or any perceived ‘failures’ or mistakes in your life set you back — you’re more likely to be able to accept them, shrug them off and get back on your feet.
On the other hand, if you have low self-esteem, you may often feel that you’re not good enough. You probably focus on your weaknesses but ignore your strengths. You might feel that you’re flawed in some way — that you’re unsuccessful, unattractive or unlovable — or simply inferior to other people. You’re more likely to let negative opinions, mistakes, conflicts and ‘failures’ consume you and often end up dwelling on them for a very long time.
Low self-esteem in itself isn’t a diagnosable mental health problem, but it is a risk factor for mental health disorders; predisposing a person to develop a mental health problem later on.
Low self-esteem & mental health: My experience
Let me start by saying I’ve always been a bit of a worrier.
Even as a child and during my early teen years, I endlessly worried about the silliest of things. I felt a little insecure and struggled to come out of my shell in front of new people. But it wasn’t anything severe or necessarily out of the ordinary. In fact, I think everyone experiences these feelings to a certain extent. I was otherwise super happy — I had (and still have) the best family and friends back home, so I never really had reason to let things get to me.
If I had to pinpoint a time where my mind got a bit frazzled, it’d be moving away from home and out of my comfort zone. My ‘worrying’ got so much worse. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my University years — but looking back, they were definitely tainted by anxiety. I was incredibly (insanely) insecure in my relationships, became very paranoid that everyone disliked me, was very sensitive to criticism and acted defensive about everything, struggled to make decisions, overanalysed everything anyone said to me and developed bad, bad feelings about my natural appearance — to the point I didn’t let anyone except my parents and sister see me without a thick layer of makeup for years on end.
In all honesty, being prescribed the Dianette pill (which helps acne, but has strong links with depression) for two years straight probably didn’t help, but that’s a blog for another time.
Since the sixth form, I’d been going back and forth in my head between thinking I was ‘just a bit of a worrywart’ and having a niggling feeling that it might have extended past what would be considered normal. In my second year of University in Manchester, I finally decided to go to the doctor. After having a chat and filling in a questionnaire, the doctor suggested I had General Anxiety Disorder, wrote me a prescription (I never picked it up because, at the time, I felt embarrassed — which, looking back, is kinda sad) and referred me to the University counselling service. It was during those sessions that it all fell into place for me.
After a lot of talking, the counsellor put it to me straight: “The deep-rooted issue is not one of anxiety, but one of low self-esteem”. And it made total sense:
- I was insecure in my relationships and convinced myself that I’d eventually be cheated on — because I thought I wasn’t good enough for them.
- I freaked out about meeting new people and going to social events — because I assumed that people would find me dull and boring because that’s what I felt about myself.
- I didn’t want anyone to see me without makeup — because I thought my acne made me ugly and invalid.
- I struggled to make big and small decisions — because I lacked confidence in my own abilities and assumed I’d make the wrong one.
I could go on, but you get the gist here. Sure, I’d developed anxiety, but it was all triggered by low self-esteem. I was simply convincing myself that I wasn’t good enough or that I was unlovable/undesirable, but it was based on nothing — literally zilch — but my own negative thoughts and feelings.
But this was actually a good thing. It meant that overcoming low self-esteem could, in turn, allow me to wave goodbye to anxiety. Developing this self-awareness was a game-changer for me; it gave me the power to develop a real understanding of what was going on in my brain, make changes and slowly challenge my negative thoughts into more positive ones!
Overcoming low self-esteem
I’ve made some great progress in terms of overcoming low self-esteem in the past couple of years. I’m still not the most confident person in the world, but I feel in a much better place in my head than I was a few years back. I’m really happy with how my life is going, have finally managed to stop my life being ruled by constant worry and have even started to like myself for who I am as a person and without makeup. Woah.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have my down days (doesn’t everyone?!). But what I’m trying to say is that it’s totally possible to turn your thoughts around and work towards creating a more positive mindset and healthy way of thinking — no matter how impossible it may feel for you right now.
By the way, I’m not a professional and the self-esteem tips below have come from my personal experiences alone. If you’re really struggling with your mental health or feel that your low self-esteem is seriously impacting your wellbeing, I’d recommend seeking professional help rather than listening to me. There’s no shame in getting help — it’s not weak, it’s actually insanely brave!
With that said, here are my 10 tips for overcoming low self-esteem, which are all based on what helped me personally.
6 tips for overcoming low self-esteem
1: Research and read around the subject
Self-help books and online mental health workshops are not a quick-fix, an instant cure or a suitable replacement for actual therapy. But taking the time to read and research around the subject of anxiety and low self-esteem gave me valuable knowledge to put into practice.
My favourite self-help books have helped me to identify negative thinking patterns and taught me some really helpful tools and tricks on how to challenge them. They also made me feel way less alone in my thoughts and showed me how normal it is to struggle sometimes.
Most importantly, they helped me to become more self-aware of my anxious thoughts and emotions and when/how they were being triggered, which meant I was better able to fix them. They actually helped me to recognise what was and wasn’t normal about my way of thinking. Becoming aware of your own negative thinking patterns and the effects they have on you (kind of like looking at yourself as an outsider) is key to making positive changes — after all, you can’t change what you aren’t aware of in the first place!
Here are some of my favourites:
- The Anxiety Solution: A Quieter Mind, a Calmer You by Chloe Brotheridge — this is written by Chloe in the first person and I felt like I was listening to a friend. It’s full of actionable tips and information.
- Reasons to Stay Alive & Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig — by the way, I’d highly recommend following him on Instagram and/or Twitter… he’s such an incredible, uplifting and passionate guy!
- Six Pillars of Self-esteem by Nathaniel Brandan — this one is less chatty/informal but has loads of scientifically proven techniques — think of it as a workbook for your brain!
- How to Be Mindful by Anna Barnes (+ all her other books) — these ones are more visual and less detailed, but great to have a flick through if you need a boost.
- Happy by Fearne Cotton — gotta admit, I’ve only flicked through this, but my Mum has read it and says it’s been really helpful.
- The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy — this is actually more of an illustrated picture book, but it’s one of the most simple yet meaningful books I own and really shines a light on the importance of being happy with yourself as you are.
Please remember that while I do recommend self-help books, they’re not a replacement for therapy if you’re really struggling to overcome low self-esteem — please book that doctor’s appointment!
2: Get out of your comfort zone
One of the worst things about anxiety and low self-esteem is that they can make you want to hide away and avoid all the exciting (if scary) things you actually want to do with your life. It’s easy to lean back and stay in that comfortable bubble — your comfort zone — and I see a lot of people doing this as a coping mechanism.
But the truth is, regularly doing things that scare you and forcing yourself out of that comfort zone can do wonders for your mental health. Every single time you do something you deem uncertain, scary or unfamiliar, you teach yourself (and your anxiety) that you can cope, it is safe and that you can handle it. This gives you a confidence boost in a way that nothing else can. Experts call this ‘exposure therapy’ and I genuinely think it’s one of the best ways to build self-esteem.
For example, before I moved to Vietnam for a year, my brain was seriously testing me — my thoughts were ‘don’t go, you’ve never been away from your family for this long’, ‘you can’t work as an English teacher abroad, you’re not clever enough’ and ‘something will go wrong’. The week or two before I went were a blur of tears and anxiety, but I forced myself to follow through — and I’m so glad I did! That experience made me feel so much more confident and resilient in myself. As much as I love my family and my comfort bubble at home, I now know I’m perfectly capable alone and outside of that comfort zone.
It doesn’t have to be big changes like that, either. Start small and work your way up. Perhaps you’re nervous about social situations and regularly turn down invites because of it? Set yourself a challenge of saying yes — and attending — at least every other invitation you receive. Perhaps you’re scared of leaving the house without makeup because of acne? Start popping to the shop without it, then go for a walk without it, then see one of your close friends without it. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your nerves fade away once you push yourself and start doing something regularly.
3: Quit worrying about what other people think
Once you stop living your life on the basis of what other people think of you, the world becomes a much easier place to be. Living your life based on other people’s thoughts, perspectives and opinions basically makes you a prisoner. But people with low self-esteem tend to fall into this trap quite easily, because they believe other people’s opinions carry more weight than their own — but it’s time to snap out of it!
Don’t get me wrong, it’s human nature — and totally normal — to want to be liked and accepted by those around you. It’s when it becomes excessive that it can have a negative effect on your lifestyle and self-esteem. You need to be making decisions and choices based on what’s best for you and your life, not based on what other people will think of you for doing them.
I’ve rewritten this section a million times as I can’t quite get the message right. So, here are some quotes from my favourite Anxiety book by Chloe Brotheridge (linked above) — I think she gets it spot on:
“If you constantly worry about what other people think of you, you’re setting yourself up for misery. Actually, it’s none of your business what others think about you. Their opinions are just that: an opinion, and besides, they always speak more about themselves than they do about you.
Most of us believe our opinions (and those of other people) are in some way true. We think the way we see the world is like a video camera, taking in everything and perceiving it as it really is. But we’re actually more like projectors, beaming out our thoughts, beliefs and experiences on to the world and, in the process, creating what we see. When another person sees you, they’re not seeing the real you. They’re seeing all their own beliefs, experiences and emotions — and projecting them on to you. And you can’t control any of that!
This doesn’t mean you should never take on board any feedback from other people. It just means that you should avoid taking that heavy responsibility for what other people think of you. There’s a lot of relief to be gained from admitting it’s okay not to be liked by everyone. Trying to mould yourself or suppressing your true inner self in order to please others is hugely stressful and a sure-fire way to stay anxious.”
4: Be wary of social media and comparisonitis
Does it only take a short scroll for your Instagram feed to trigger a major bout of FOMO, make you feel insecure about your appearance or convince you you’re just not doing well enough? You’re not alone — studies have shown a significant link between depression and the use of social media.
For me, Instagram, in particular, has the potential to trigger awful ‘comparisonitis’ if I don’t curate and curb my usage. I scroll through, compare myself to anyone and everyone and suddenly focus on all the things I don’t have or am not. I need to be as toned as her. Their house looks amazing, we need to move. Everyone is having the best night of their lives, why am I at home? They’ve got loads of followers, why is my blog page so slow to grow?
Seem familiar? No matter what forms your comparisons take, comparisonitis can lead you to feel chronically exhausted from constantly trying to live up to an image or ideal that likely isn’t even real. I’ve already written a post on Instagram anxiety, but here a few quick tips I’ve used to stop social media having a negative impact on my self-esteem and wellbeing:
- Be wary of your triggers: Try to figure out what’s inspiring you to improve your life vs what’s consistently making you feel like absolute crap — there’s a big difference. If you see a certain post or account that immediately triggers comparisonitis or takes a hit on your self-esteem, consider muting or unfollowing them. You don’t need to feel guilty about doing this; your feed is in your power, and if you’re going to use social media, you may as well make it a happy place to be.
- Curate a positive following: One of the (few) things I love about Instagram (and Twitter, actually) is how they can be used to connect with people you can relate to, speak out for positive change and gain new, uplifting and inspiring perspectives on things. So, if you haven’t already, I’d urge you to curate your following into something that makes you smile, motivates you and educates you. For me, that has been the acne, skin and body positivity communities, as well as vegan/eco and mental health accounts. But there are accounts out there on all sorts of passions, causes and interests, so why not go out there and find some that suit you?
- Realise that social media isn’t reality: The single best piece of advice I can give to anyone who finds themselves comparing their lives to an influencer or celebrity (or anyone, for that matter) is to remember that what you see on the screen is not real life. It’s a catalogue of highlights, not a true representation of the day-to-day. The majority of people only post the happiest and most perfect looking moments — and photos can be edited and manipulated.
5: Start accepting and loving yourself for who you are right now
I get it — loving yourself for who you are, as you are, can be a really f****ng hard part of overcoming low self-esteem.
For so long, I was stuck in the trap of constantly feeling like I needed to be better — or do better — in order to accept myself and my reality. I told myself that when I cleared my skin, became more toned, became a ‘louder, funnier, more popular’ person etc, I’d be good enough and would truly love myself.
But seeking this level of perfectionism is unhealthy. Self-acceptance should not be about trying to change yourself or hide your ‘flaws’ and ‘imperfections’. It’s about being honest about who you genuinely are and accepting it— strengths, weaknesses and everything in between. It’s:
- Knowing your talents, capabilities and worth
- Knowing your ‘weaknesses’ and either accepting them or aiming for realistic personal growth
- Feeling happy with yourself, despite ‘flaws’ and regardless of past choices
I’ll use myself as a quick example. During my journey of overcoming low self-esteem, I’ve tried to focus more on my strengths; I know that I’m loyal, creative, intuitive, compassionate and empathetic, an open-minded, flexible and free-spirited person and actually, more recently, super driven. That’s not me being egotistical — it’s being proud of who I am and knowing how to play to my strengths.
At the same time, I won’t deny my weaknesses and I can fully accept them. I can be awkward, quiet and find it difficult to open up in front of new people — this is something that has got better as I’ve become more confident, but ultimately, as an INFJ, might be a part of who I am — so it’s a waste of my time forcing myself to be an extrovert when I’m just not. And I know I often come across as a little idealistic, impractical and ‘wishy-washy’; focusing on the bigger picture, rather than the small details and logic. That’s something I’m getting better at and more aware of as I get older, but is ultimately just a part of my personality — so there’s no point beating myself up about it.
The fact is, you are who you are and that’s fine. Sure, some things can be improved with time, but everyone has their own quirks, flaws and their own natural strengths and weaknesses (yes, everyone). You don’t need to be perfect in every way, be good at absolutely everything, meet society’s crazy beauty standards, be stereotypically popular or be liked by everyone you meet, in order to feel worthy.
You’re fine as you are. Pinpoint your strengths and accept who you are — striving for personal growth is totally cool, but don’t waste time trying to force change things that are a core part of you.
6: Don’t judge your worth by followers, money, job titles and material things
When I’ve had bad bouts of low self-esteem, I focused way too much on material possessions and wealth. When I get a better job and more money, I’ll be so proud of myself. When I buy a better car, I’ll be so happy. When we buy a bigger house, I’ll be content. When I get 5,000 followers on my blog, it’ll all be worth it. And I bet you’ve felt the same!
I’ll start this one off by saying that followers, money and fancy job titles might bring you a confidence boost (and you should be proud of these types of achievements), but they’re unlikely to fix the root cause of low self-esteem. Having high self-esteem is about liking yourself no matter what your financial, follower count or career status — it’s having resilience and valuing your worth as a person regardless, even if this all came crumbling down.
At the end of the day, your unique personality, kindness and how you treat people sits quietly above material worth, status and popularity — and it always will. It’s what your friends and family like you for and it’s something you can value yourself for right here, right now and no matter what your bank balance.
On the flip side, I think it’s important to add that I don’t think ambition is a bad thing. It’s healthy. In fact, I’d consider myself pretty ambitious. Like many people, I do strive to work my way up the ladder in my industry, to grow my blog, to be financially stable and, in general, to continue to grow both personally and professionally.
The key difference, though, is that I’ve learnt that life is a journey and I need to accept myself, my life and my reality at all stages of that journey. That is what is key to building long-lasting self-esteem. Otherwise, I’ll literally waste my life away trying to meet a certain ‘standard’ or ‘level’ in all aspects of my life in order to feel valid and happy in myself — which, realistically, isn’t a magic bullet to happiness anyway. So, by all means, be ambitious, but try to live in the moment and accept and enjoy your life (and yourself) for how it is in this moment, right now and beyond!
It’s also hard not to get sucked into the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality sometimes and seek money and success as a way to validate yourself. But remember that everyone’s version of success is different; one person might define success as having a frugal living but working in a job they genuinely love, another person might define success as being a high-flying city banker, while another might simply see success as having no corporate ties and the freedom to travel the world.
Don’t aim for the stereotypical, warped version of success just to follow the status quo — think what true success and happiness will look like for you personally and aim for that instead.
Overcoming low self-esteem: Final thoughts
If anyone has got through to the end of this article, please comment on here or on my Instagram post — I really, really appreciate the support!
Anyway, I hope my story of overcoming anxiety and low self-esteem was relatable for someone out there (sometimes, I feel like simply knowing you’re not the only one feeling a certain way can help so much) and that you can take something actionable away from my tips.
I’d like to end this article on a note about the importance of reaching out, speaking about your feelings and seeking help if you need it. Struggling with your mental health is not a weakness nor something you should be ashamed of. Please, please, please speak to your family and friends about how you’re feeling, no matter how big or small the issue is — and if that feels too much right now, feel free to send me a message.
And lastly, remember that help is out there if you need it. Book a doctor’s appointment — or get someone else to book it for you and bring them along for support — and get in touch with one of the following organisations for free:
- PAPYRUS: 0800 068 4141
- Samaritans: 116 123 — 24-hour helpline
- The Mix: 0808 808 4994
- SANEline: 0300 304 7000
- Anxiety UK: 03444 775 774
- Mind: 0300 123 3393
No matter how down on yourself you are currently feeling, I promise things can get better. Love to you all! 💜