Most people assume that they need to understand the origins of their low self-esteem to improve it.
And while it’s true that unpacking the original cause of your low self-esteem can be helpful to an extent, the more important insight is this:
Whatever caused your low self-esteem in the past, it’s your present habits that are maintaining it.
In my work as a therapist, by far the biggest reason I see people struggle with low self-esteem is that they are caught in subtle mental habits that keep them feeling bad about themselves.
If you can learn to identify and overcome these four mental habits, you’ll find your self-esteem is actually much higher than you realize.
1. Dwelling on past mistakes
Of course, we all make mistakes. And when we do, it’s normal to feel bad about it:
- We fail to catch simple errors in our work and feel disappointed with ourselves.
- We say something insensitive at a dinner party and feel embarrassed afterward.
- Sometimes we even fail outright: not passing an exam or even getting fired from a job for poor performance and feeling like a failure.
Now, some amount of thinking about and reflecting on our mistakes is healthy and good for our self-esteem because it helps us avoid similar mistakes in the future:
- If you failed a test, it’s probably worth asking yourself why so that you can prepare better next time and learn from that failure.
- If your marriage “fails” because you were consumed with work and never spent quality time with your spouse, it’s probably worth reflecting on that if you want future relationships to go better.
But like many of our best efforts in life, thinking about and reflecting on past mistakes is subject to the law of diminishing returns:
- Spending a couple hours reflecting on what went poorly during that interview you bombed will probably be very helpful for your performance in future interviews.
- Spending a couple hours per week for a few weeks might lead to some new insights. Although that’s a lot of time for just a few new insights…
- Spending hours per week for years thinking about how you screwed up that interview… Yeah, probably not worth it!
I use the idea of the law of diminishing returns here because it’s important to frame your thinking about past mistakes in terms of helpfulness.
Just because it’s true that you made a mistake in the past doesn’t mean thinking about it more is helpful.
Helpfulness is what distinguishes healthy reflection from unhealthy dwelling. And one of the biggest reasons people suffer from low self-esteem is that they get into the habit of unhelpfully dwelling on their past mistakes.
When you reflect on your mistakes and try to use them as learning opportunities, you do feel bad about yourself but that bad feeling gets offset by the new learning and insight you gain—and presumably, the confidence and healthy self-esteem that comes from doing better in the future.
But when you dwell on past mistakes beyond the point of helpfulness it’s all side-effect and no benefit.
So why do we get stuck in the habit of dwelling on our past mistakes even though we know it’s not helpful?
For many people, dwelling on past mistakes gives the illusion of control. Because even if a problem isn’t solvable, thinking about it feels like you’re working on solving it…
When you make a mistake in the past, it’s done and there’s nothing you can do about it. This leads many people to feel helpless, which is incredibly uncomfortable for some. Dwelling on the mistake and continuing to think about it can, in the moment, give the feeling of being able to do something.
Of course, that relief from helplessness is very temporary. And it has a pretty high cost: chronically feeling bad about yourself.
If you find yourself stuck in the habit of dwelling on past mistakes and feeling chronically bad about yourself as a result, there are two things you need to remember:
- Just because a mistake is true doesn’t mean thinking more about it is helpful.
- We are helpless to change past mistakes. Living in denial about that fact by continuing to dwell on our mistakes only hurts us in the long run.
“The past can’t hurt you anymore, not unless you let it.”
― Alan Moore
2. Worrying about the future
Worrying about the future is another mental habit that feels productive but is actually harmful to both your emotional wellbeing and self-esteem.
Here’s the key distinction to keep in mind:
Planning for realistic dangers is very different than worrying about unrealistic ones.
Our imagination is a powerful tool. But like most powerful tools, it can be used well or poorly…
- Imagining how you might enjoy working in a new career can help you grow and explore new professional options. But imagining all the ways you’re likely to fail in any new endeavor will make you anxious and depress your self-esteem.
- Imagining what would happen if you lost power while on a trip to the cabin for a weekend get-away might help you plan ahead and bring extra flashlights, water, and other supplies that might be helpful. But imagining you and your family getting into a car accident driving to the cabin will likely make you anxious and insecure.
Both realistic planning and unrealistic worrying are forms of thinking about dangers in the future. And while it’s helpful to plan and prepare, worrying is rarely helpful and always comes with two big downsides:
- Worry makes you anxious. When we get caught in the mental habit of imagining unrealistic fears and worst-case scenarios in the future, we train our brains to be afraid unnecessarily. As a result, we end up feeling unnecessarily anxious. Worry is the engine of anxiety.
- Worry lowers your self-esteem. In addition to making you feel anxious in the moment, chronic worry about unrealistic things eventually makes you feel incompetent about your ability to navigate life successfully. And when you feel like that persistently, your self-esteem takes a hit.
Just like thinking about past mistakes quickly hits the point of diminishing returns, so too does thinking about future dangers.
If you’re caught in the habit of worrying about unrealistic fears in the future, you’re getting all side-effect (chronic anxiety and low self-esteem) with no real benefit.
Your ability to think about the future is a tool. And like any tool, it’s useful in some situations and counterproductive in others.
If you want to improve your self-esteem, try to resist the habit of worry and unhelpful thinking about the future.
“Worry is a misuse of the imagination.”
― Dan Zadra
3. Ruminating on old injuries
In #1 we talked about how dwelling on our past mistakes hurts self-esteem. Similarly, dwelling or ruminating on injuries or slights against us can be similarly unhealthy.
Of course, when someone hurts us it’s perfectly natural to think about—this is especially true if it’s someone close to us like a parent, friend, long-time co-worker, etc.
Reflecting on how others have hurt us in the past is also helpful to a degree…
Keeping track of who hurts us on a regular basis is an important way to know which relationships are healthy and to be cultivated and which ones are unhealthy and to be avoided!
But like dwelling on past mistakes and worrying about future dangers, thinking about how we’ve been wronged in the past can easily slide into an unproductive and self-esteem-killing habit.
There are a few major downsides to a habit of ruminating on old injuries:
- Chronic anger and resentment. Rumination leads to anger. And while anger isn’t bad in and of itself, chronically feeling angry can lead to resentments, excessive stress, and relationship conflicts.
- Avoidance of productive action. Moving on from an unhealthy relationship or old injury is hard. Often it requires setting (and enforcing) healthy boundaries, removing people from your life entirely, or working to forgive someone. Because each of these is quite difficult, our natural inclination is to avoid them (like anything else in life!). And if we’re not careful, it’s easy to end up procrastinating on doing what you really need to do to move on from an old injury by letting yourself ruminate about it.
- Lower self-esteem. Finally, allowing yourself to stay stuck in a habit of unhelpful rumination slowly chips away at our self-esteem because, deep down, we know it’s not helpful—and in many cases, actually makes things worse. How many relationships get ruined because of the inability to forgive? How many people stay stuck in their lives because they can’t let go of the past, and as a result, end up ignoring their present and future life?
At the end of the day, the decision to continue ruminating on an old injury or let it go comes down to this:
Do you want to live your life chained to the past or work for the freedom to live your life moving forward?
Because it is morally justifiable, rumination is an especially dangerous trap to fall into. But just because you’ve been hurt, doesn’t mean replaying that hurt is in your best interest.
“Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”
― Corrie Ten Boom
4. Judging yourself for how you feel
You’ve probably heard the term gaslighting before: It means when one person manipulates another person into thinking they’re crazy.
It’s common in many abusive and unhealthy relationships where, for example, one person—in order to maintain control and power in the relationship—convinces the other person that they’re not confident enough to make important decisions by secretly undermining their decisions over time.
And while this is certainly a terrible situation for some people, what’s even more tragic is this:
Many people unconsciously gaslight themselves by getting into the habit of judging themselves for how they feel.
- When you criticize yourself for being “weak” whenever you get sad about something that happened a long time ago, you’re making yourself feel crazy over something that’s actually entirely normal and healthy.
- When you judge yourself for feeling anxious and indecisive during a meeting at work, you’re making yourself feel crazy over something that’s entirely normal and happens to everyone (even if they don’t always admit it to themselves).
- When you get angry at yourself for feeling angry, you’re making yourself feel crazy for experiencing a perfectly normal human emotion.
And guess what happens when you’re in the habit of consistently making yourself feel crazy?
Yup, your self-esteem crashes.
How could you have healthy self-esteem if you think you’re crazy or a bad person for feeling emotions—something you don’t have direct control over?
That’s like judging yourself as a bad person because you got rained on or have brown hair.
When you’re in the habit of judging yourself for things you can’t control—like how you feel emotionally—it’s a setup for chronically low self-esteem.
Instead, practice accepting your emotions and validating them for what they really are: Sometimes painful and inconvenient but never bad or dangerous.
If you can build the habit of self-compassion, you’ll find your self-esteem rising dramatically.
“Feelings are something you have; not something you are.”
― Shannon L. Alder
All You Need to Know
Healthy self-esteem isn’t necessarily about what you do more of so much as what you avoid.
Specifically, if you can avoid these 4 mental habits, you’ll find your self-esteem rising:
- Dwelling on past mistakes
- Worrying about the future
- Ruminating on ancient history
- Judging yourself for how you feel
STRONG INSIDE: A Practical Program for Building Better Self-Esteem
On Thursday, March 16th, I’ll be teaching a live, 90-minute workshop over Zoom on how to improve your self-esteem. You’ll learn the core psychological dynamics that keep people locked in low self-esteem, plus 3 simple but powerful exercises that build healthy and lasting self-esteem.
9 CommentsAdd Yours
Wow, this is so spot on. Thank you for your continued work in helping to heal people like myself. I always find your articles enlightening.
You’re very welcome, Don! And thanks for the kind words 🙂
The timing of this article for me and where I am in life is so perfect. Thank you for your insight in flushing this out for me.
You bet, Elizabeth!
Low self esteem, or the wound is supposed to be a cause of “narcissism”.
How this relates to “vulnerability”, which is supposed to be the opposite of “narcissism” would be appreciated.
I love the way you present your thoughts. Great, helpful content. Thank you!
Thank you Nick, I love all your articles – they’re always insightful, easy to understand and tangible. Re: point 1, I’m still dwelling on a mistake I made at my first job, 12 years ago. (It concerned their main client, so was quite a big deal). In hindsight I recognise my mistake was due to not having had a handover from my manager and being 2 weeks into the job, but it still hangs over me and my confidence at work… Even though I know it’s not helpful to think about it, it still makes me worry about things going wrong in a job and I have not managed to feel confident in any role. Any advice to finally shut it down?!
Thank you, Nick was this spot on post. I would be in a better place in my life if I had seen an article like yours several years ago, but all I can do is move forward with your reassuring insight. Believe if my parents or those I depended on coming up as a kid had told me dwelling on my mistakes too long is a sign of narcissism, I would have dropped the poorly learned habit years ago.
Anyway, I appreciate your writings and look forward to reading more of them.
Thank you, Nick for your blog post. Serves a great purpose in my own life and well-being.