Why do so many of us suffer from low self-esteem in our adulthood?
Just why do so many adults walk around with low self-esteem? It’s a question I’ve asked myself for a very long time.
Just take a look at babies, or small kids. You never hear them go like, gosh my legs are so fat, I can’t be seen outside. This stroller is hideous! I don’t wanna go around in it.
But then slowly as you get older, you start to absorb the things you see and hear in your environment. From your parents, relatives, teachers, playmates at school, TV ads, magazines, the list goes on.
And these days, things are made worse with social media. With our access to so much of information – good and bad – it can be so easy to internalise these messages and it can all do a number on our self-esteem.
In this post, we will examine some of the factors that might have contributed to you having a dent in your self-esteem. Let’s go!
Parenting Styles and Parenting Beliefs
Were you harshly reprimanded when you were a child? Hit or called names when you did something “out of line”?
Studies have shown that harsh discipline can really be damaging to one’s self-esteem. Here is just two:
- A history of exposure to harsh physical discipline has been linked to negative outcomes for children, ranging from conduct disorder to depression and low self-esteem.
- The findings here provide support for the idea that individual characteristics such as feelings of hopelessness and low self-esteem act as “generative mechanisms,” linking early childhood family characteristics to suicidal ideation in early adulthood.
Harshness can be simple in terms of speech and attitude but can go all the way to abuse and even neglect.
Adult figures can also pass on their own misguided beliefs to us – which can be quite harmful in the long run.
“We will always be poor”, “People like us will never be good enough to get what we want.”
Sometimes I think lots of people forget that children are pretty observant and sensitive and they do internalise these beliefs.
I remember growing up thinking that I can never be good enough in life because I didn’t come from an extremely wealthy background. These things can stay with you for a good part of your life and can be pretty hard to untangle.
It took me quite some time of reflecting and fighting against these childhood beliefs to be completely free of them. It was well into my 20s before I finally saw that my parents’ beliefs aren’t mine.
The teachers from your past
I’m one of those not so lucky kids that had gotten mostly pretty neutral or just straight-up awful teachers growing up.
I can remember probably less than 5 that were very nurturing and kindly to their students. But the rest were extremely harsh.
I still remember a teacher making me apologise for some playful thing I did in front of the whole class. I was sobbing uncontrollably, in floods of tears and wanted to die from embarrassment (and actually told her so lol). But nah, she kept going. I was only 9.
And oh, a lovely mathematics teacher at 16, who instead of helping out students who failed her class would instead belittle them, and she was very open about disliking teaching ‘slow’ and ‘stupid’ people. Nice.
How does that encourage children/students to like the subject or respect you as a teacher? How does that even help their self esteem? Especially when you are constantly reminded in front of everyone how “stupid” you are?
I can write a rant about how (poorly) the teachers in my culture are moulded, but that’s a different story. (Though it has certainly made me think a lot about my future children and their education).
How were your schooling days growing up, did you experience anything traumatic? It might be worth exploring if there were, because we spend a lot of time in school and a lot of these incidents might have been buried somewhere that is now affecting the way you learn or behave at work or in life.
The culture you were raised in
What sorts of values do the immediate society you live in place heavy emphasis on?
For some, they live in places where individuality and creativity is valued. In others, (like mine), doing anything outside of the norm is seen as weird and abnormal. There are strict rules you have to play to or you risk getting “punished”.
There are a lot of differences in how cultures socialise genders – in some, girls are socialised to be more careful and boys are told to explore more.
What effect do you think this will have when they go out into the world and attempt to search for jobs?
Some cultures value physical beauty a lot and have norms and standards that are upheld as perfection. What if you don’t fit those standards? How would that affect your self esteem?
Culture can really play a part in shaping our beliefs and often it occurs in a way which we aren’t conscious of.
If you’ve ever been a victim of bullying, I feel you.
I was bullied quite a bit in my elementary school days and I remember it left me feeling very confused because this was an individual I wasn’t close to and didn’t interact much with. So I had no idea why she didn’t like me and had to do that to me.
It can also mess with your feelings of acceptance and belonging. It is normal for children and adolescents to want to feel accepted by a certain group of peers.
Being made to feel excluded, ignored, etc can cause feelings of abandonment and unwantedness. And if internalised, can also affect how you see friendships and relationships.
The media you are consuming
If you are a woman, you’d know that there are just so many fashion and beauty magazines aimed at us.
I’m always of the impression that these editorials are created to make us feel unworthy or simply not enough.
Your skin isn’t nice enough – get this cream to make it smoother! Your eyebrows aren’t shaped nicely at all! Sign up for a eyebrow threading package for $1000 and look more beautiful than before.
I avoid fashion and beauty articles for this very reason.
Also, what are you telling yourself as you flip through these magazines?
“Oh that’s a nice dress. I will never be able to afford things like that”. “Oh that model is gorgeous. I’m so ugly in comparison”.
Do you constantly beat yourself up with self-talk like that? Imagine the hit your self-esteem is taking over time?
Also, social media. Whilst I think social media isn’t bad in a sense that I learn a lot from what people post there – I think it really depends on the type of content you are consuming (and why), how you are using it as well as what you are taking away from that content.
If you are constantly looking at insta-models or fitness models or whatever and thinking about how ugly you look in comparison vs looking at them as body inspiration or something positive – there might be something to explore there.
Is that self-talk a reflection of your current self-image? Are you further damaging it by feeding yourself constant thoughts of how you will never measure up?
So, what can we glean from these?
All these experiences when we were younger have a pattern to them. There is/are usually the presence of these themes:
- Lack of encouragement/lack of acknowledgement of achievements
- Punishments for failure/mistakes
- Being ridiculed/picked on
- Living up to perfection
- Judging/Putting people into boxes
- Unhealthy comparisons
Over time, when we are constantly on the receiving end of these sorts of treatment, it can really do a number on our self-esteem. When we are constantly exposed to messages from different sources that don’t uplift us, we come to believe them ourselves.
Our young minds will come to form associations that if we don’t achieve something, we are worthless; if we don’t get a perfect score, we are stupid etc etc.
These associations can take a long time to undo because a lot of pain and unpleasant feelings are attached to them. Shame, guilt, embarrassment, self-blame, humiliation.
This can also prevent us from experiencing the growth that we need. When we constantly tell ourselves we aren’t good enough and we aren’t capable, we will never put ourselves out there, give ourselves a chance to try.
It’s an evolutionary, protective mechanism. Our brains are very motivated to protect us from anything that appears threatening, painful or harmful to your survival – real or imagined.
Any threat to your self-esteem will get classified as a threat to your life and your brain will always prevent you from being in those situations again.
It will continue keeping you safe and comfortable.
And that will be detrimental to your growth and your existence.
Now, sometimes we can’t really control what happens to us. We can’t choose the parents we get, or the teachers, and certainly nobody asks to get bullied.
But what we take away from these negative experiences is key. We need to find ways to overcome them, let go of them and move away from them.
Only then will we experience the growth that we are here for.
What are your thoughts? Have you experienced any of the above in your life?
With 10 years of experience as a Researcher (MSc) in Psychology, Neuroscience, Mental Health, Consumer and Organisational Behaviour; I help action-oriented, time-strapped people and solopreneurs crush their inner critics, navigate toxic workplaces and relationships and build their self-esteem so that you can have the freedom, happiness and confidence you desire. I spend the rest of my time daydreaming and downing cups of tea/coffee – my life’s vice. Ask me any question and I will answer it in a post.