Self Esteem and the Deep End of the Pool


Question: Despite the fact that I have been successful in many areas of my life, I still have low self-esteem. What can I do about it?



Low self-esteem is an issue we hear about frequently in counselling. I’ve had many clients who initially present themselves with such confidence, that you would have no idea of the fears and doubts bubbling beneath the surface. We think of self-esteem as an individual quality, but it develops through, and is sustained by, our relationships with others. We begin to build our self-esteem from the moment of birth through the countless actions, interactions, and reactions, in our daily efforts to survive our psychosocial environment. Though many of these experiences are not remembered, deep in our psyche they are added up, and their sum is the experience we call self-esteem. Fear is at the center of low self-esteem. People with higher self-esteem, are able to face their fears and take on stressful situations, without being intimidated by their own anxiety. Basically, self-esteem is about our reputation with our-self. If our self-esteem is low, we need to improve that reputation. The secret is to take on a challenge that will stress the system but not overload it. So, if you are working on your fear of water, you don’t jump into the deep end of the pool. You want to have a success, not a repeat of the problem. It has to be the right amount of stress in the right situation and at the right time. You are trying to break down the old brain circuitry around a particular fear and build a new one. My client Joe, (not his real name) is a good example of a success story.


Joe is the youngest of four siblings in a family that had a lot of problems. Unable to focus in school and falling behind, he dropped out in grade ten and started working. All of his siblings finished university and even though Joe was successful, he felt inferior, especially when together with the whole family. He was quick to make comparisons, and he felt inadequate and overridden in discussions. He was pretty sure that going back to school was important but he’d convinced himself that he couldn’t do it. Eventually, he took on the challenge, and with great trepidation, registered for one class. “I was scared stiff,” he said, “but I worked like a dog and I did well and as soon as I finished that course I took another one. It took me nine years to get a B.A. but it did more for my self- esteem than anything I had ever tried.”


Joe’s success in school gave him the courage to look at other insecurities that affected his self-esteem and he started counselling to get some coaching around his relationships. He agreed that much of how we think about ourselves begins in the early years of family experience and he was ready to look at his part in the ongoing tensions with his siblings. He had an older sister who wouldn’t let him forget that he was the youngest. “It ticks me off,” he said, “and I want to get to the place where I don’t react.”Just as with his education, Joe’s efforts with family have been about small thoughtful steps towards doing better with his own anxiety during family visits. He’s pretty sure that he’s on the road to another success, but at this point, he simply shows up, tries to be a better observer, and breathes!


Margaret Anne Speak, M.A., C.C.C. works with couples, individuals, and families from a Bowen Family Systems perspective at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.