I have the wonderful ladies of the Mothers’ Union to thank for the inspiration for this post. I spoke at a Mothers’ Union event in Brockenhurst last week, after kindly being invited back following my first visit there a year ago. You may recall that I spoke from my heart last June, despite fearing I’d taken the wrong speech, and my vulnerability went down well. (Last year’s blog is here: Being Real.)
This time, the women, and the few men present, were as welcoming as ever, and once again I felt humbled as I listened to the amazing work they do, bringing support, love, healing and lots of delicious cake to families in need.
This time the remit of my talk was a bit more specific. Yes, I would tell my story and be as genuine as before, but they also wanted to hear about my work in schools on eating disorders, self-harm, perfectionism and stress, as well as get some tips on how to use social media to connect with and grow an audience.
As I shared my story and talked about the message I deliver to school children, I touched on my own eating disorder and the various other forms of self-harm I’d engaged in over the decades to escape from my feelings and manage anxiety, stress and fear.
My sharing prompted a specific question from a lady in the audience, which I want to address here.
What are the causes of low self-esteem?
As we know, the reasons are complex and, for many of us, the roots go deep.
One possible reason is that we didn’t grow up with a secure base, or as secure a base as we needed to feel safe (because we are all individuals with different needs and levels of sensitivity).
As a child, we have an innate need to feel safe, secure, held and supported. If we know we are fundamentally safe, we can step out into a world that, for a small person, seems quite scary. We can go into unfamiliar situations, speak to new people, push our own and others’ boundaries, safe in the knowledge that we have a secure base to return to when it all gets a bit much. When things begin to feel too unfamiliar or we have feelings we don’t know how to process, we can rush back to the safety of our parents’ or caregivers’ arms. That secure base, in our early years, is like a crutch or a safety net. If we don’t have it, we may look around us for something else to give us that sense of security we crave.
Food is an obvious crutch or source of comfort for many because it’s so accessible. It’s easily available and we can disguise our erratic eating behaviours to a certain extent (especially if, like me, you work off many of the excess calories with compulsive exercise). As we get older, we may graduate to using alcohol as a crutch, or drugs, or we may seek highs through sex (often with inappropriate people as that can increase the high). Or we may seek to escape any uncomfortable feelings by getting external validation through high achievement, success or overworking.
Basically, we want to feel OK, safe and secure and we search for this safety in all quarters. We also avoid rocking the boat or speaking our truth in case people get angry with us, which can feel very scary for someone without a secure base.
My therapist describes codependency, which is something I’ve been recovering from for years, as an addiction to security and safety at all costs. So we either stay in our comfort zone, avoiding situations that might frighten us, or we step out of our comfort zone but use unhealthy crutches like food, drink, drugs etc to shore us up and to try and simulate some sense of safety.
I did a bit of both. I stayed in my comfort zone for many years in some ways, sticking to a job I knew well and could do well, even when it no longer fulfilled me. I also avoided speaking my truth or being real in situations where doing so might invoke others’ anger. I still struggle with this. I still struggle with knowing it’s safe to be me, to say what I feel (it’s much easier to blog it than to say it!).
In other ways, I moved well out of my comfort zone, travelling the world on my own, getting myself in dangerous situations, hitchhiking along on huge highways, jumping off bridges and rocks, being bold and brave, but always with my crutches to support me (excess food, alcohol, male attention and so forth). Yes, always with my crutches.
So if we haven’t started out with a secure base, how do we recover?
Firstly, we have to try to divest ourselves of our crutches. Often we have no choice, as the crutches stop working. In my case, there came a time after many years when the pain I used to feel after overeating was greater than the pain I was trying to avoid by bingeing on sugar and carbs.
It’s scary to let go of a crutch.
Imagine a child starting to walk without the support of a parent, a table, a wall or a stroller to hang on to.
Wobble. Wobble. Crash. Cry. Eventually, though, that child finds balance within itself and its muscles and core grow strong enough to keep it upright.
If we let go of our crutches, we too must find a new balance and develop a strong core. I have done this over many years, through meditation, by developing a relationship with a power greater than myself (in my case, God) so that I can let go of my tight grip on everything, let go of control, surrender and find some peace, and by gradually learning to trust myself rather than lean on some false crutch.
I have become my own safety net. I can step out into the world. I can take risks, like publishing my book – a big risk for someone who traditionally craved affirmation and hated any form of criticism – or doing the work I love. I can get into a relationship and get engaged, because I know I have the inner resources and a supportive network that will help me cope with any feelings that come up, with any fear, panic, anxiety, stress or crisis.
There’s another aspect of self-esteem I’d like to talk about – the idea that children think it’s their fault.
I remember a story my therapist told me a long time ago about a family who came for therapy. This is how I remember it, which may not be exactly as he told it. The father was a drinker who used to get angry with his kids when he’d had a few too many. He especially didn’t like the sound of his son munching crisps – too loud when he was drunk or hungover. The parents split up and the father moved out. In therapy, the child asked, “Is Daddy leaving because of the way I eat my crisps?”
Children think it’s their fault.
When parents argue, split up or divorce, many children assume they’ve done something wrong to cause a row or drive a parent away. When a parent dies prematurely, some children may think there must be something truly wrong with them for their parent to leave for good.
This is especially the case if we haven’t grown up with a secure base, as explained above, and we haven’t learned to process strong feelings. It’s also especially the case if our parents or caregivers don’t have the emotional intelligence and maturity, through no fault of their own (they were parented too), to explain to the children what’s going on and reassure them it’s not their fault.
If, as a small person, we think it’s our fault, we may decide there’s something fundamentally amiss with us. We think we’re flawed. We think we’re unloveable. We think we’re not good enough.
Feeling this way, we’ll spend much of our lives trying to feel good enough, trying to prove our worth, trying to please others to win their affirmation and validation, perhaps working too hard or bending over backwards or hiding our truth.
How do we reverse this sense of being flawed? How do we counter this deep feeling of being wrong or bad? By teaching ourselves we are loveable, good, special and worthwhile. By doing lovely things for ourselves. By treating ourselves in the way we would treat a best friend or a young child who depended on us.
We give ourselves hugs, good rest and nourishment. We build a support network for ourselves – of friends, family, faith, spirituality, whatever works for us. We try to act in our best interests, to value and respect ourselves, to say Yes when we mean Yes and No when we mean No. We teach others how to treat us by the way we love and respect ourselves. We esteem ourselves by doing estimable things. We care for ourselves.
Those are just a few reasons why we, our friends, or the young people we know or care for may struggle with low self-esteem. So let’s build up our self-esteem. Let’s act in our best interests. Let’s learn to trust ourselves. Let’s be true to ourselves. Let’s speak our truth. Let’s value ourselves in work and in relationships. And let’s extend that love, care and respect to those around us.
How does this apply to our romantic lives, if we are single, dating or in a relationship we’re unsure about?
Well, you can imagine that without a secure base, you will be drawn to seek safety in the arms of others. You may crave the support and affection of a man or woman and while there’s nothing wrong with getting that support and affection, it’s the craving that’s the problem. If we are desperate, if we are looking for a rescuer, someone to make things better, make us feel safe, restore the losses from our childhoods, or take us away from all this, our judgement may be skewed. We may end up chasing men or women who aren’t good for us. We may end up ignoring our intuition and our better judgement because we’re so desperate to feel safe. We may actually end up in situations that aren’t safe because our need has blinded us to the truth.
Similarly, if we’ve always believed everything is our fault, we’ll turn a blind eye to a partner’s behaviour. We’ll accept less than we deserve. We’ll rationalise away any bad behaviour. We’ll let him off the hook. We’ll ignore that tap on the shoulder or that feeling in the gut that tells us to walk away. We’ll override our better judgement.
If we believe we’re flawed and if we don’t love and accept ourselves, we’ll also struggle to love and accept a romantic partner. We’ll pick holes. We’ll judge them. I could say a lot about how I did this but that’s for another day, or you could read my book.
So this is why creating our own secure base and understanding that we’re not fundamentally flawed, that we are loveable, are so important, in love and in life. If you didn’t get your needs met as a child, you can learn to meet them as an adult or to ask for them to be met.
You can build your self-esteem from the inside out.
So let’s do it. Let’s start today.
For more thoughts and support on this topic, hop over to my free Facebook group for women: Being Real, Becoming Whole. If you like what you’ve read here, you may enjoy my book: How to Fall in Love – A 10-Step Journey to the Heart. I also have a How to Fall in Love course running at the moment. We began a week ago but the course runs for six weeks so there’s still time to join and catch up if you’d like to. Drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you’d like to hear me speak, I’ll be delivering a workshop on the topic of How to Fall in Love at the Festival of Change in London on August 6 at 3 pm. It would be wonderful to see you there. There’s also a dating event that same evening for any singles with a social purpose, so do sign up if you’d like to meet some like-minded people.
Thank you for reading and for your support.