As we looked at in the previous lesson, having self-esteem issues can impact many areas of life. Low self-esteem (LSE) can lead us to set unreasonable expectations for ourselves, triggering temptations of overcompensating. This can then lead to feeling depressed, anxious, or unworthy. But what creates these habits, and negative opinions, and why is it so hard to stop?
One of the answers lies with our ‘core beliefs‘. Core beliefs are (pretty much what it says on the tin!) broad, generalised beliefs that we hold about ourselves, and our influenced by experience. Going through negative experiences (especially early on in life) contributes to our beliefs and how we analyse ourselves. For example, if we do obtain negative feedback from others through bullying and abuse, we begin to formulate negative beliefs about ourselves. Core beliefs in this context are usually represented as short, declarative statements such as ‘I am stupid‘ or ‘I am worthless‘. As our beliefs about ourselves feed into our self-esteem and self-efficacy (how well we believe we can execute a task), it is no surprise that when these beliefs are negative, low self-esteem begins to develop.
Our beliefs about ourselves and the world also influence our attention and processing of new information. Now think about this in the context of low self-esteem. Those with low opinions of themselves will, like anyone, seek out information that is in-line with their beliefs. This process is called confirmation bias. So for those with low self-esteem, they are more likely to focus on the negative information about themselves and ignore the positive, further cementing the core belief. For example, after completing a big project, a supervisor may provide you with both positive and negative feedback. Someone with low self-esteem may focus on the criticisms rather than the compliments. Similarly, they influence the way we interpret and extract conclusions from information. For example those with low self-esteem may overgeneralise – ‘I did poorly on the project’, ‘I’m rubbish at stuff like that‘ , ‘I must be stupid‘ .
There is so much information to process within our immediate environment, that our brain picks and chooses what information to pay attention to. The core beliefs we hold influence this. In the context of low self-esteem, someone may hold the core belief that they are a failure, influencing them to focus only on times they made mistakes, and ignoring their successes. Therefore, evidence that supports that negative core belief is always attended to and gathered, helping this low self-esteem to be maintained.
Rules of living
As we’ve established, these core beliefs are usually very harsh and can trigger negative thoughts and emotions. Naturally, in order to protect ourselves from these thoughts and feelings we create rules of living. Those who feel negatively about themselves are more inclined to set up these rules in an attempt to overcompensate. These usually follow the format of ‘If… then..’ Or ‘I must/should…’. For example, ‘I must be perfect all of the time’ or ‘If I work really hard, no one will see I am worthless’. These rules are usually rigid and inflexible, making them difficult to live up to.
Instead of challenging the core belief, in a way the rules keep the beliefs alive. If an individual is unable to live up to theses rules (which is usually the case as they are usually very difficult to maintain) then this triggers more self-critical thoughts, and another hit for their self-esteem.