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What keeps Low Self-Esteem going?

In the short term, Rules for Living help you to get by and keep low self-esteem at bay. However, in the long term, they actually keep low self-esteem going because they make demands that are impossible to meet - for example, perfection, complete self-control, or never going into any situation where you might fail. This means your well-being is inevitably fragile. If you find yourself in a situation where the rules are broken or are in danger of being broken, then the Bottom Line that they've protected you against rears its ugly head. Many of these situations might be very minor, day-to-day events. If your Bottom Line is 'I am not good enough', and your Rule for Living is 'If someone criticizes me it means I have failed', then any situation where you encounter criticism, however minor, will activate your Bottom Line. And when the Bottom Line is activated, it triggers a vicious cycle that maintains your low self-esteem. This cycle is explained below.

Anxious predictions

A situation that activates your Bottom Line generates anxious predictions - fears about what might happen, or all the things that could go wrong. For example, if you have to stand up and give a talk in public, and your Bottom Line is 'I'm worthless, no one is interested in me', then your predictions are likely to be that nobody will listen because they can see that you couldn't possibly have anything interesting to say.

The effect of anxious predictions on emotions

When we are anxious, this is manifested in a number of normal ways. We feel tense, our heart pounds, we sweat more and feel shaky. If you have low self-esteem, however, you may interpret these reactions in a more sinister way, leading to further anxious predictions. For example, if you were feeling shaky you might predict that people would be able to see that you were nervous and would, therefore, think that you were incompetent or weird. These interpretations add to the anxiety and make it worse.

The effect of anxious predictions on behaviour

Anxious predictions can affect your behaviour in a number of ways:

  • They can lead to avoidance. If you decide to avoid the situation altogether, this will provide some relief in the short term. But the problem is that you then have no opportunity to discover whether your predictions were correct. Things might actually have gone much better than you thought
  • They can lead to unnecessary precautions. You might go to great lengths to ensure that there was as little risk as possible in the situation (for example by rehearsing it over and over again). The problem here is that, again, you will never find out whether your fears were true, and will feel that if things went OK this was because of your excessive precautions
  • They can disrupt performance. It's normal for the symptoms of anxiety to have some effect on our performance. But if you have low self-esteem, rather than viewing these effects as a normal response to pressure, you're likely to see them as a reflection on you as a person - as evidence of your basic weakness or incompetence
  • They can lead to success being discounted. Even if the event did actually go OK, if you have low self-esteem the 'prejudice' against yourself may lead you to discount your achievement, dismissing it as a lucky escape, or interpreting people's responses as humouring you rather than as genuinely positive

Completing the cycle

Whichever of these responses to anxious predictions you have, the result is a sense that your negative beliefs about yourself are true - they are seen as confirmation of the Bottom Line. And this sense that your beliefs are confirmed often leads to a spate of self-critical thoughts - condemnation of yourself as a person. These, like anxious predictions, contribute to keeping low self-esteem going. They can have a profound emotional impact, pulling you down into depression. Depression completes the vicious cycle. It makes you more likely to view things negatively and keeps the Bottom Line activated.