It is amazing what we accept as truth if we hear it enough times. Has something like this ever happened to you: You take a risk and get a drastic haircut. You look fabulous. You leave for work the next day in your favorite outfit feeling like a million bucks, You think “I’m so glad I did it, I love it!” You step into the elevator at work and someone turns to you, frowns, and says, “Oh, you cut your hair. What made you do that?” Your hand goes to your hair and you’d give anything for a hat. You feel terrible. Why did you have to go and cut your hair?

Self-esteem is an issue for many women. In these days of ultra-thin models and SuperMom expectations, it shouldn’t surprise us. What is surprising is how quick we are to accept another person’s judgement, and how serious our lack of faith in ourselves can become. For me, it started during high school because of a group of four or five guys who told me that I was stupid and ugly every single day. I believed them. It didn’t matter that I came from a home where both parents still loved each other and there was a steady supply of love and encouragement. It didn’t matter that my grades were excellent and that I had a best friend who had stuck by me since third grade. I was told that I had no value and I believed them with all my heart. My self-esteem was at an all time low and it almost killed me.

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem can be hard to define. More than just feeling good about yourself, taking pride in your accomplishments or liking what you see in the mirror, self-esteem is concerned with the way we judge our own worth. In his book, Foundations of Psychopathology, Dr. John Nemiah defines self-esteem as the “ability to look upon yourself as having value.”

We tend to look at the equation backwards. We think that how we look dictates our level of self-esteem when in fact it is our self-esteem — our ability to see ourselves as having value — that dictates how we react to the face in the mirror.

Impact of low self-esteem

As my confidence faltered and my self-esteem withered away, I stopped talking in class, in groups, or in the hallways. I dreaded lunch hour, never stepped foot inside the cafeteria, and the thought of class presentations literally made me sick. I withdrew and stopped smiling altogether.

Convinced I was worthless, I stressed over every test and paper even though my grades were consistently excellent. My whole life revolved around being as invisible as possible. I thought that I couldn’t get hurt if everyone forgot I was there. The situation continued and I needed a way out. I couldn’t imagine anything that could help me. Because I saw myself as the problem, I began seriously considering suicide. I wasn’t dreaming about an escapist fantasy, I was frighteningly practical. My experience is a common one.

Do you have suicidal thoughts? Read Scott’s story of finding hope.

Low self-esteem and depression

Low self-esteem does not necessarily lead to depression, but studies have shown that the two often go hand in hand. In fact the World Health Organization (WHO) uses low self-worth in its description of depression. Low self-esteem makes you your own worst enemy. Thoughts of “if only I were prettier, if only I was good at sports, if only I was funny or popular, if only I was strong enough to fix this” crowd out everything else. Even if we receive praise, the voices inside our own heads discount it. Like Julia Roberts said in the movie, Pretty Woman, “The bad stuff is easier to believe.”

The symptoms of depression are often internalized, and so the problem may be dismissed as unimportant, hormonal, or just a part of growing up. The WHO has found that, worldwide “fewer than 25 per cent of those suffering from depression receive appropriate care.” It is critically important to pay attention to low self-esteem, especially in teenagers where suicide is in one of the three leading causes of death. Even as adults, low self-esteem can affect performance and advancement at work, make us a reluctant partner, or an ineffective parent. Low self-esteem affects every part of a person’s life. It is overwhelming.

Healing

For me, things did not improve, so halfway through grade 11 I transferred to a different high school. The insults stopped but I still had to face myself. Running wasn’t going to fix that. Recovering a sense of self worth takes more than a change of scene, it requires a change of perspective.

The world is a scary place when you stop liking yourself. Going to a self-esteem conference, reading books on the topic, or seeing a counselor may help you. When I did, I finally had a sense of self worth to build upon and then the healing could begin. At last I had hope. It took a while to undo the damage all those years had done, but it was worth it. In fact, I think I’m going to make an appointment with the hairdresser!

This article was written by: Claire Colvin

Photo Credit: Caique Silva