When you look in the mirror, who do you see? Do you see someone you trust, admire, and believe in? Or do you see someone who is inadequate, always making mistakes, and falling short? In reality, who you see has little to do with who you are visually looking at. It has everything to do with what the little voice in your head is saying about you at any given time. That little voice in your head, the one is constantly judging everything and everyone – that is a reflection of your Self-Worth.
Negative thoughts are actually a symptom of low self-worth, not the cause. Low self-worth is not rational. We can have the best job, vibrant health, tons of money, and deep down still feel worthless. Here’s the thing: Low self-worth is learned, not inherited. It’s not based on present day challenges either. Low self-worth stems from unresolved childhood experiences and emotions and, because it is learned, it can be unlearned.
Childhood is when we form our ‘Bottom Line’ and ‘Rules for Living’ which affects the way we think and behave as we grow. This is why negative early experiences can have a very long-lasting effect on our adulthood. Your ‘Bottom Line’ is how you usually feel about something, based on your early experiences. For example, “how you felt when you first left home becomes the emotional bottom line for when you leave other things in your life.”, according to therapist Robert Taibbi.
Based on the ‘Bottom Line’, we form our ‘Rules for Living’, which are the strategies for dealing with life. For example, if you have the belief that you are inferior to others, and they are better than you, your Rules for Living would include “It’s better not to speak up. I will keep a low profile”.
“If you spend your time hoping someone will suffer the consequences for what they did to your heart, then you’re allowing them to hurt you a second time in your mind.”
When a child is born, it’s like a sponge, soaking up all the external stimuli. Some of this is loving, caring, supporting, and encouraging, while other stimuli will be criticisms, outright insults, doubts, suspicions, and discouragement. It all depends on what the child receives and how they process the thoughts and emotions that go with that stimuli. All causes of low self-worth are external and, once identified, can be rectified.
Take a moment to check in with that voice in your head. Whose voice is it?
Your history and primary caregiver relationships shaped your opinion of you. Now, let’s get one thing straight: there are no victims here. We get it – parts of your childhood sucked – welcome to Earth School. If you think it’s their fault and that THEY sabotaged your life and are somehow responsible for your (current) stupid behaviour (and less-than-desirable outcomes), then you need a reality check. Blaming your (current) bad behaviour on your parents wreaks of denial, immaturity and delusion. What’s standing between you and success right now is YOU.
So, with that in mind, here are 15 common causes for low self-worth. Join us for the rest of the series where we will share proven methods to help you process these emotions, move on and raise your value of you in your own eyes.
1. Disapproving Authority Figures
If you grew up hearing that whatever you did wasn’t good enough, or you were nicknamed some variation of ‘Trouble’, how are you supposed to grow into an adult with a positive self-image? When you were criticised at every turn, it becomes difficult to feel confident and comfortable in your own skin later. The shame forced on you for perpetually ‘failing’ can feel incredibly painful to a small child with a big heart.
2. Uninvolved or Preoccupied Caregivers
It’s difficult to motivate yourself to want more, strive for more, and imagine that you deserve more when your parents or other primary caregivers didn’t pay attention. It’s as if your greatest achievements weren’t worth noticing. This scenario often results in feeling forgotten, unacknowledged, and unimportant later. It can also leave you feeling that you are not accountable to anyone, or you may even believe that no one in the here and now is concerned about your whereabouts, when that’s actually a carry-over feeling from the past. Feeling unrecognised can result in the belief that you are supposed to apologise for your very existence.
3. Authority Figures in Conflict
Children absorb the negative emotions and distrustful situations that have been modelled for them. It’s scary, overwhelming, and disorganising for a small child with a big heart to experience authority figures in conflict. This experience can also occur when one parent is deeply distraught or behaves unpredictably around the child. Children often feel as if they contributed to the fights or to a parent’s painful circumstance.
4. Bullying (with Unsupportive Parents)
When you already feel unsafe at home, and the torture continued in the school yard, the overwhelming sense of being lost, abandoned, hopeless, and filled with self-loathing can pervade your everyday life. It can also feel like anyone who befriends you is doing you a favour because you see yourself as so damaged. You may grow into adulthood thinking that anyone involved in your life must be predatory and is not to be trusted. Without a supportive home life, the effects of bullying can be magnified and miserably erode your quality of life.
5. Bullying (with Over-Supportive Parents)
Conversely, if your parents were overly and indiscriminately supportive, it can leave you feeling unprepared for the cruel world. Without initial cause to develop a thicker skin, it can feel challenging and even shameful to view yourself as unable to withstand the challenges of life outside the home. From this perspective, you may feel ill-prepared and deeply ashamed to admit this dirty ugly secret about you, even to your parents, because you need to protect them from the pain they would endure if they knew. Instead, you hide the painful secret of what happens to you. Toxic shame can cloud your perspective. Eventually it can seem as if your parents’ opinion of you is in conflict with the world’s opinion of you. It can compel you to cling to what is familiar in your life, because it’s hard to trust what’s real and what isn’t. You may question the validity of your parents’ positive view of you, and default to the idea that you are not good enough or are victim-like and should be the subject of ridicule.
6. Bullying (with Uninvolved Parents)
If your primary caregivers were otherwise occupied while you were being bullied and downplayed your experience, or they let you down when you needed their advocacy, you may have struggled with feeling undeserving of notice, unworthy of attention, and angry at being short-changed. When the world feels unsafe, the shame and pain are brutal to a small child with a big heart. These feelings can also develop when parents were in transitional or chaotic states – so that what happened to you wasn’t on anyone’s radar. When there’s chaos at home, it can be hard to ask for attention or to feel like there is room for you to take up space with your struggles. Instead, you may retreat and become more isolated.
7. Academic Challenges Without Support
There’s nothing like feeling stupid to create low self-worth. If you felt like you didn’t understand what was happening in school – and you were getting further and further behind without anyone noticing or stepping in to help you figure out what you needed – you may have internalised the belief that you are somehow defective. You may feel preoccupied with and excessively doubt your own smarts. This can make you feel overly self-conscious about sharing your opinions. The shame of feeling as if you aren’t good enough can be difficult to shake, even after you learn your own ways of accommodating your academic difficulties.
Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse may be the most striking and obvious cause of low self-worth. Being forced into a physical and emotional position against your will can make it very hard to like the world, trust yourself or trust others, which profoundly impacts self-worth. It may even feel like your fault when it couldn’t be any less your fault. In these scenarios, the mind splits because there is so much going on at one time that you need to check out, dissociate, and detach from reality. This can make you feel like nothingness. In an effort to gain control of your circumstances, you can convince yourself that you were complicit, or even to blame. You may find ways to cope with the abuse by managing the chaos in ways that you understand are unhealthy. This means you ultimately view yourself as repulsive and toxically shameful, among a torrent of other feelings.
9. Belief Systems
When your religious (or other) belief system puts you in a position of feeling as if you are perpetually sinning, it can be similar to the experience of living with a disapproving (but omnipresent) authority figure. Whether judgment is emanating from authority figures or from an established belief system in your life, it can evoke shame, guilt, conflict and self-loathing. Many structured belief systems offer two paths: one that’s all good and one that’s all bad. When you inevitably fall in the abyss between the two, you end up feeling confused, wrong, disoriented, shameful, fake, and disappointed with yourself over and over and over again.
10. Society and the Media
It’s no secret that people in media are packaged and airbrushed into unrealistic levels of beauty and thinness. It’s an epidemic that’s only getting worse. Now, males and females alike feel they can’t measure up to what’s out there. Even when the seeds of low self-worth are sown elsewhere, society and the media make imperfections so immediately accessible that there is no relief from feelings of inadequacy. As media access is now available to the younger and younger, children are subjected to these unfair comparisons earlier and earlier.
11. Body Image
The University of Washington’s Teen Health and the Media webpage reports that 53% of girls surveyed were unhappy with their bodies. Alarmingly, that number rises to 78% by the age of 17. In her book, “I’m, Like, SO Fat!”, Dianne Neumark Sztainer reports that 50% of teen girls and 30% of teen boys practice unhealthy behaviours in an effort to lose weight, including skipping meals, vomiting, smoking cigarettes, fasting and using laxatives. From the moment we’re born, we’re surrounded by unrealistic images of what bodies should look like, what the “ideal” body type is. We are all constantly objectified in the media, making it seem as though our bodies exist for others to look at, touch, use, etc. When puberty comes around and our bodies start to change, they don’t change into what we see on magazine covers or in music videos. This can lead to feeling unattractive and inadequate on top of the profound disempowerment that comes with seeing your body as an object for others to behold.
12. Small Fish, Big Pond.
It’s easy for young people to feel swallowed up in a world beyond their control. This leads to feelings of ineffectiveness, powerlessness and worthlessness. Though most people don’t experience it until adulthood, it’s possible for young people to go through the infamous “existential crisis” – a time when the meaning of life is called into question. “Why am I here? What do I matter? What’s it all for?” An inability to answer these questions can pose a significant challenge for one’s sense of self-worth.
13. Unrealistic Goals.
Whether the pressure comes from themselves, authority figures or peers, some young people expect way too much of themselves in terms of school achievement, extracurricular involvement and/or social status. Those who struggle academically may think they should be getting straight A’s all the time. Those who perform well academically may take on too many other activities and expect to be “the best” at all of them. Young people who crave popularity may expect everyone to like them – something that simply doesn’t happen, because no matter who you are, you can’t please everyone. The inevitable failure to meet unrealistic goals can lead to the feeling that you are a failure in general.
14. Previous Bad Choices.
Sometimes we get locked into a certain pattern of decision-making and acting. Perhaps you haven’t been a very good friend in the past. Maybe you didn’t apply yourself in school. Maybe you participated in risky behaviour like drug use or unprotected sex. You might think you’re just “that kind of person” who behaves in those ways. You may even dislike yourself significantly because of past choices and don’t think you can change courses now. Therefore, you won’t try. You continue making choices that reinforce your own negative self-view.
15 Negative Thought Patterns.
When you get used to feeling, thinking and talking about yourself in a particular way, it becomes habitual. In fact we can become addicted to the brain chemicals that are released when we have the thought and feel the feeling. If you have often felt that you’re worthless or inferior, and you constantly think negative thoughts and say negative things about yourself, then you will continue feeling and thinking the same way unless you break the cycle by challenging your negative thoughts and feelings.
“Staying silent is like a slow growing cancer to the soul and a trait of a true coward. There is nothing intelligent about not standing up for yourself. You may not win every battle. However, everyone will at least know what you stood for—YOU.”
While these are not the only real reasons for low self-worth, they’re fairly common. The last one – the development of negative thought patterns – may be responsible for the persistence of low self-esteem in most people, regardless of the initial causes. Can you identify potential sources of your own low self-worth?
“A diamond doesn’t start out polished and shining. It once was nothing special, but with enough pressure and time, becomes spectacular. I’m that diamond.”
Of course, each of these sources of low self-worth merits an infinite number of posts. It is, however, most important to understand that experiencing any of these early circumstances doesn’t mean you must be bound by them as an adult. They will be woven into your fabric and absorbed into your sense of self in different ways over time. However, there are many paths to healing and becoming better prepared, less fragmented, and more confident moving forward. We look forward to sharing a few with you in this series.
“Consider the fact that maybe…just maybe…beauty and worth aren’t found in a makeup bottle, or a salon-fresh hairstyle, or a fabulous outfit. Maybe our sparkle comes from somewhere deeper inside, somewhere so pure and authentic and REAL, it doesn’t need gloss or polish or glitter to shine.”
As an adult, when you examine your history, you can begin to see that the intense negative messages you encountered when you were a small child with a big heart, weren’t necessarily meant for you. Rather, they flowed from the circumstances of the people who delivered them. That perspective can help you to dilute the power of those negative messages you received and formed. Furthermore, understanding that you are not alone in your experience can help decrease the extent to which you feel isolated and shameful.
“Self-talk reflects your innermost feelings.”
There are some circumstances you may have suffered that may be impossible to understand. You can’t and aren’t expected to understand each and every circumstance. What matters most is continuing to find ways to feel as ok and as safe as you can in your own life right now. The power is always in the present moment. The more you understand the sources of your low self-worth (and can put them into context), the more you can use your new understanding to begin the process of repairing and raising your self-worth.