Low self-esteem (and what to do about it). ~ Ben Ralston

Via Ben Ralston
on Jan 18, 2012
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“I wish I could show you, when you are in light or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being” ~ Hafiz


You may suspect that you have low self-esteem,

but you probably have no idea what to do about it!

 

Most articles about self-esteem talk about thinking positively, making affirmations, smiling a lot, etc. These things are just band-aids – they will only serve to suppress the truth about how you feel about yourself for a short time. I am not interested in band-aids. I am interested in prevention and cure…

In this post I’m going to tell you what self-esteem is really all about; how it is negatively affected; why I think it’s hugely important that we do do something about it – and what to do.

 

What is self-esteem?

(other than a term that is much used and little understood)

 

My definition of self-esteem is 5 words:

~ ‘how deeply you love yourself’ ~

So, how deeply do you love yourself?!

(Don’t worry, I’ll help you answer that question quite accurately in just a moment)…

I believe this is perhaps one of the most important questions you will ever ask, and here’s why:  the extent to which you love yourself dictates how successful you are in every area of your life – relationships, work, and health (emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual health).

I have a nice way of answering the above question. It is called The Mirror Exercise*, and there are 3 simple steps:

1. Look yourself in the eye in a mirror.

2. Tell yourself sincerely: “I love you”.

3. See how it feels, and measure the feeling out of 10 (see below).

If your self-esteem is intact (if you do indeed love yourself deeply) then the exercise should be fun!

However, for most people there is at least some difficulty – as they say the words there is a feeling of stress. This is because human beings are hardwired not to lie. So if you have low self-esteem (you don’t love yourself), telling yourself “I love you” feels like a lie – it feels stressful.

Lie detector machines (polygraph machines) work by detecting the biological symptoms of stress. But you don’t need a polygraph machine – you know when you are lying, because you feel the stress. That’s why this exercise is really quite an accurate (although not scientific) indication of how high your self-esteem is.

So the mirror exercise is to do the above 3 steps. The final step, measuring the feeling of stress on a scale of 0 – 10, works like this:

10/10 stress: as you say the words you probably feel quite uncomfortable, and you just don’t believe it at all. This means that you have very low self-esteem.

0/10 stress: no stress, therefore high self esteem.

Go ahead and do it now..

 

~ (I’ll wait right here) ~ 

 

So, if you just did the exercise, you probably felt at least a little discomfort or stress as you said those 3 words. Here’s why:

We should love ourselves completely. Human beings are Loving beings. The essence of the human experience is love itself. Your essence is love.

In Yogic terms this is known as Satchitananda: pure existence, pure consciousness, pure bliss. In a word – love.

But almost all of us suffer the consequences of unresolved trauma – usually much more than we realize.

Childhood trauma…

Birth trauma…

Trauma experienced by our Mother whilst we were ‘in utero’…

Not to mention ancestral trauma: the emerging branch of science called Epigenetics has demonstrated conclusively that trauma from the lives of our ancestors – especially trauma from the time when our egg was created in the ovary of our Mother (when she was a fetus in the uterus of her Mother*) – directly impacts on our life, even our genetic predispositions and biological constitution!

The kind of trauma that affects self-esteem the most is abuse trauma. And if you think that abuse is probably something that happens to a minority of those ‘other’ people, think again! There are perhaps as many as 99 different kinds of abuse, ranging from the more obvious (sexual) to the very subtle (emotional neglect). And abuse (defined here as a violation of one’s boundaries) is entirely subjective…

Some of the consequences of abuse are that we feel guilty, ashamed, and responsible for what happened. Essentially, we feel that there is something wrong with us – and if there is something wrong with us, we have a very good reason to love ourselves less, right?

Our self-esteem suffers.

My theory is that abuse trauma is the cause of most of mankind’s problems. Not long after establishing this theory, something happened that blew my mind. I was sitting at my desk, thinking and writing about this theory when someone sent me a link to a book:

The Origins of War in Child Abuse”
 by Lloyd Demause.

So I realized that other people were also coming to the very same conclusions as I was. And I don’t believe in ‘co-incidence’.

The purpose of this post is not to explain the mechanism of trauma and abuse in detail. If you’re interested to know more about that check back later, because I’ll be posting articles about it soon. Right now though I want to stay focused on self-esteem. And what I want to communicate is this:

1. Most people don’t love themselves nearly enough.

2. This low self-esteem causes many, many problems, both on the personal level, and globally (think war, corruption, and environmental destruction).

3. It’s not so hard to fix the problem on the personal level (thus directly and powerfully influencing the global).

When is your self-esteem determined?

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance” ~ Oscar Wilde

If you go through a painful divorce after 20 years of marriage, can that affect your self-esteem? I don’t think so: I think that the experience will simply expose your underlying low self-esteem (that was always there even while you were married). I believe that our self-esteem is set in childhood, perhaps up until the age of around 21 years old. Early trauma (at birth and pre-school) is probably the most impactful on how much we love ourselves.

However, another theory (which does not necessarily negate the childhood theory, but may just be another perspective on it) is that we inherit our self-esteem. After all, the trauma that we experience in our lifetime is usually  an echo of similar trauma that our ancestors experienced. So it could be that we inherit poor self-esteem, and then attract experiences that reinforce it (such as divorce), and perpetuate the pattern.

Either way, it does not really matter. Two things are important in this – being able to recognize the effect of the trauma (as opposed to the actual trauma itself, which is far less relevant), and being able to heal those consequences.

With modern healing techniques like Reference Point Therapy, which are simple, fast, and highly effective, we are able to pinpoint the exact consequence of the trauma (which is usually a subconscious association between one of our survival instincts, and safety), and heal it (release the subconscious association).

The effect of this kind of healing is a subtle change in all aspects of one’s life. Relationships, feelings, emotional reactions, and even the physical structure of the body (posture, lung capacity, etc) are transformed.

And the beautiful thing is that the change is not a particular change, but a wave of change – it is an ongoing process, namely, of us coming back to our true selves: love.

The analogy I use is this: if you have walked for a long time with a stone in your shoe, it will eventually affect every area of your life – your posture, your emotions, your deeper feelings, your sense of self-identity (ego), even the expression on your face!

But when you remove the stone, all of these changes do not instantly disappear – it takes time for each aspect of you to settle back to normal, and even the expression on your face will gradually, over time, relax.

Similarly, when releasing subconscious blockages, the effects may be felt instantly, but are always ongoing…

 

How do you raise your self-esteem?

“You can’t build joy on a feeling of self-loathing.” ~ Ram Dass

 

As with anything else, you solve a problem permanently only by changing what caused the problem.

In this case, low self-esteem is caused by the consequences of unresolved trauma. When you heal the trauma, you instantly begin to love yourself more.

I wish I could tell you in a short blog post how to heal trauma yourself, but it’s not quite as simple as that – it takes a number of days of intensive training to be able to safely find the blockages, identify their roots, and heal them. It’s quite simple really – you don’t need a degree, but you do need proper training.

I hope though that this post sheds some light on something that I believe to be the key to a more sustainable, compassionate, and peaceful human society: how much we love ourselves as individuals.

 

Participate in a simple social experiment?

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” ~ Joseph Campbell

 

I would like to propose what could be a useful social experiment: when you do the mirror exercise post the ‘score’ (out of 10) as a comment below (along with the feelings that came up too, if you like). It only takes a moment to do this, and may be done anonymously, and if this article gets 1000 reads, and 5% of people participate that’s 50 people – a reasonable number of results to compare and analyze . The results will either support or undermine my theory that most of us suffer from low self-esteem, and either way, it’ll be interesting! If you also write a little about what feelings came up as you did the exercise, I will do my best to answer your comment in a helpful way.

And share it up folks – spread the love, as always. Thank you!

 

* Biology lesson: a woman’s eggs are all produced long before she is born. They are formed in the ovaries at around the time of 3 months gestation in the womb of her own mother.

 

Bonus: click here for a fascinating and entertaining documentary about epigenetics.

 

I believe I first discovered The Mirror Exercise in a book, but I have no recollection of which book. So please, if you have ever come across this technique before, let me know so that I can properly give credit to it’s creator? Thank you!

 

 


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About Ben Ralston

Ben Ralston is a therapist, healer, advanced Sivananda Yoga teacher, and writer. His writings have been read by millions of people and can be found on Elephant Journal, Rebelle Society, and various other portals online. He has been teaching Yoga for 16 years in hotels, ashrams, beaches, gyms and rooftops worldwide. And he runs a busy international therapeutic practice from his home in rural Croatia. Offering sessions in person or via Skype, his therapeutic work is based on healing trauma, and the tools he uses for this are varied – mainly RPT, Shamanism, and energy work. He has also developed some of his own methods, particularly in the area of abuse trauma; ‘resource state’ awareness; and boundary reconstruction. He regularly runs retreats combining Yoga and other energetic exercises with his therapy. He would love nothing more than to see you on one of these retreats, since he believes that this approach to personal development is really the only effective way of bringing love and peace to global human society. Connect with Ben on Facebook. Read more of his writing on his new website with integrated blog! Yes, he's excited about that :)

Comments

114 Responses to “Low self-esteem (and what to do about it). ~ Ben Ralston”

  1. kerri bean says:

    Surprisingly enjoyed the exercise.. I’d say my stress was about a 6… which is great progress for me :) thank you.. I really enjoy reading your articles. I guess my question would be how to resolve trauma if you’re not exactly sure where it originates ?

  2. Bobby says:

    This was tricky for me. When I looked at myself in the mirror and told myself I love you, after a moment, I smiled at myself. There wasn't much stress. BUT, and it's a big but (hence the capitals). When I next thought about seeing male friends that I knew prior to having a baby (and subsequent pnd) it caused me a huge amount of stress. I have made decisions not to see wonderful wonderful friends when they came back to Australia because of how I had changed physically. Any comments / suggestions?

  3. Ashley says:

    Yeah, if I keep eye contact, it's not difficult or stressful to say, but if I look down and at my body, then I know that I'm lying to myself. I guess that says a lot about my self esteem

  4. Bobby says:

    PS. My initial score was 3 or 4. When I thought of having to see old friends it increased to 7/8. I realise vanity is in play here, but assume self-esteem issues are also present..

  5. Ash says:

    hey thanks for the article.
    I recently made a choice to embrace self love and happiness- I have been looking myself in eyes when I catch my reflection in a mirror, and express self love- it feels really good!
    I have some issues with self esteem / anxiety in my being.
    expressing self love at every opportunity has been incredible for me.
    thanks again!

  6. Karen A says:

    Will be sharing with my group page Ennufff. Thank you that is amazing..

  7. JMN says:

    3? It sounded weird. Saying it to someone else seemed easier I thought. Will do it more often now. Thanks for your article!

  8. JB1 says:

    Peoples perception of me when" i have love for myself" is that i am selfish, what distinguishes a loving behaviour from one that is self centred, egocentric and selfish, any thoughts.

  9. JoAnne says:

    10. Not comfortable at all, and couldn't say it without grimacing. Just can't get the hang of liking myself.

  10. Vanessa says:

    I can say it all day long but truly feeling it is another thing…
    I know the root of the problem, have spent years & lots of dollars on therapy… but this exercise is still very hard.
    I'd love a new perspective

  11. Pam says:

    Thank you for this article Ben. I have always struggled with low self esteem and now I know a bit about why. My score was 5. Here's what came up after. I am the last born of 6 children. I was a definite "oops" child, yet deeply loved by my mother. I was born with a rare form of kidney cancer (go figure)…which I was fortunate enough to survive. Most of my life I was a quiet by-stander in the family. Grew up with a deep longing for parental attention that I never received. When you say that low self-esteem stems from early trauma this really hits home for me. Now I long to know how to release this and live a full and happy life.

  12. B . Waterfire says:

    Just the thought of it made me cringe.I am not at all surprise.Winter always brings up the shit for me.I have long known I have trauma, all kinds, of abuse, some subtle(emotional neglect from mother), the hardest to pinpoint and the not so subtle(sexual) but very repressed.I almost laughed at the reflection as I said it because I know it to be untrue, then I said it again and cringed and shuddered ans felt like the biggest liar.I know I have trauma from childhood , adulthood and from the womb and probably inherited as I see my eldest son has inherited from me, my genes… my youngest not at all…now how to resolve this? I am very interested in your therapy. I was at a big fat 10!!!! I agree with your theory.I feel better now that you have written this….now how again to change this around?I am a yoga teacher and as I said winter is a shit storm, I feel like a fraud teaching lately….obviously I have been using band-aid methods as it keeps coming around.Thank-you for your insight.

  13. Lori says:

    P.S. By the way…all that took place BEFORE I read your post. I also know that is NOT a "co-incidence"! : ))

  14. hayleyrules says:

    Such refreshing insight into ones self esteem. It sparked memory of my father teaching me from a young age to look into the mirror and say, "I love myself, I love myself, I love myself". It has been such a long time, remembering this puts a smile on my face.

  15. Lori says:

    I am "debating" some of this with a couple of friends on FaceBook – just spent the last oh, hour or so (???) typing out this long quote from one of my favorite books. You can find that Very Relevant info here: http://thebluemoonturtleblog.blogspot.com/2012/01…. I welcome everyone's feedback! Enoy! : ))

  16. mindy says:

    Wow…eye opener. I barely managed a 4 comfort level (1-low/10-high) I felt fear and disgust. I suffered sexual abuse as a child which I have blocked out and only rarely have flashbacks. I also suffer from an eating disorder…I went to treatment 9 years ago and feel I have recovered, but it is a devil on my back always. My dad abandoned myself, my mom and my 3 brothers when we were all young. I guess, for me, I expect everyone to leave or hurt me. I have also always based my self worth on the acceptance and opinions of others…it gets difficult to live up to everyone's expectations. I have wonderful people in my life…I have a beautiful daughter and a wonderful boyfriend and family. I have been divorced for 2 years now…something I vowed would never happen. Anyway, thank you for this post.

  17. roberta says:

    I did it and almost burst into tears. I'd say I scored a 8/10. There is a part of me who feels compassion for myself and the state I am in, so I think there will always be a part of me loving myself at least a little bit. But yes, abuse and traumas in ancient times are the reason why I am feeling like this, I have looked into my own story and saw the abuse, and realized it was the copy of an older one which my unaware "torturers" (my parents) had been through themselves, and their parents and the parents of their parents…and when I look around I see the same pattern going on everywhere, or almost. I think love needs to be brand new and to win over despair everytime as if it was the first time, so I am just trying to assist this feeling as it struggles to come into light despite all the fear . But when I look into my eyes, right now, I see a person in pain who just wishes for help and hardly believes she'll make it.

  18. Devyani says:

    I could easily say “I love you”. Tears started rolling down. I don’t say it very often to myself.

  19. pathwalker says:

    8 – funny thing is I’ve been doing this exercise for years, plus EFT, meditation, affirmations–I even watched Ref point therapy online and tried to do it myself. Yesterday after 3 days of staying focused on gratitude and saying “i’m happy & grateful” over and over–the unhealed part of me had a meltdown and my mirror exercise was the child in me telling off “God” (in me). and she is pissed and sabotaging big time. Today I’m trying to get my perspective back to begin again-did EFT for an hour. When I manage to get my finances together I will drop you a line…until then any articles that point in the direction are useful (I followed a couple you posted but couldn’t seem to clear it-even though I’m able to pinpoint where I feel things in my body). namaste.

  20. Janet says:

    This was a little weird for me, but I guess my comfort level was about a 5. I have been working on esteem issues for a long time and you are right, started in childhood. I guess the biggest thing was father leaving when I was a kid, never to be seen again, but I have been working on that for years. Logically I know it has nothing to do with me, but emotion and logic are two different things. Also have body image issues that I work on constantly, too, which negatively impact on self-esteem.

  21. Kathryn says:

    Much lower than I would have scored a few years ago before I started practicing yoga daily! Probably a 3-4 on the stress-o-meter. More than stress I feel a big ol lump in my throat and get the tears of joy feeling- it feels like a release and something that needs to be done more often! Not so much a negative experience. Thanks for the great post and suggestions for pursuing trauma healing- I am definitely interested in how I can explore this in my yoga practice. Also plan to watch the epigenetic doc- studied anthropology and have always felt that reconnecting to our ancestral roots is strongly needed in our vagabond, ungrounded culture.

  22. annonymous says:

    As soon as I read about doing the mirror exercise my stress levels went up to 10, when I eventually did it, id say they where at 100, did not enjoy it at all. Felt very uncomfortable, I dont like never mind love any part of myself exxcept for my generosity and my talent for making other people feel good about themselves!

  23. Nitya says:

    I wouldn't say that this exercise was easy. I would say that the discomfort was about about 4/10. I felt it in my belly with tension and the urge to cry. I have been aware of my own self loathing for a couple years now. Slowly I begin to look at myself in the mirror with kinder eyes. But I feel that I always come back to this sense of being inadequate. I am fully aware that I need to find joy, love, peace within myself but I continually look to exterior sources for validation. I am currently studying TCM and I fully support your belief of trauma being a root cause. In TCM trauma is stored in the blood…that is a very yin level…any suggestions on how to release my trauma would be great. I did my yoga training as well at Sivananda…in Kerala. Anyways, I really enjoyed your article. I believe that the phsycho emotional is the root of all dis-ease.

  24. Mariette says:

    I guess I would say I score on good days a 6 and on most days a nine… I just started seeing a psychologist because I know that I need to start loving myself cause otherwise I will never be happy and will never be able to share my happiness… I am 27 but I remember even with 4 years old haveing a low selfesteem. Its strange but it has been a red line through my life, ruining times, friendships and other relationships. I really hope that I can work through and pull through. It will be hard enough but the worst is doing it alone, but I have to, its the only way.

  25. CoreyYogey says:

    Unfortunately it was about a 9/10. I had a fairly good childhood, lots skin issues which made me extremely self conscious. When I reached age of 26 I was stricken with a strange circulation issue in my hands causing my sleep to be disrupted. As a result, of having a low quality of sleep I am always very tired, unable to enter relationships and unable to focus (as most people with sleep issues experience). It's tough to have self esteem when you are not able to do what you want in your life and always feeling like sleep is a must. I've been to many doctors both Western and Eastern. Interesting article but be curious what you think of self esteem for people who have unsolved issues like I have.

  26. katie says:

    some butterflies walking to the mirror, but maybe only a 4 once i did it. lots of struggles lately and actively working on improving them. i always enjoy your articles and look forward to more!

  27. John says:

    .5 Mostly because it was cold in my bathroom and I was uncomfortable and should be sleeping. Other than that, I really love myself. My definition of love is acceptance. That's how I can love each and every of the 7 billion emanations of divine spirit on this planet.

  28. grey says:

    Interesting topic. I have had a voice occasionally in my head before I go to bed that asks "do you love me?" I realized last night it was me asking myself the question, and that the answer was a sorrowful "no" I read your article this morning and did the experiment, I give myself 7, I can look my self in the eye but the answer is still the sadness and the "no"

  29. Maya says:

    Louise Hay says to do the mirror/i love you thing in "you can heal your life." Great article I want to look into that therapy ur talking about, sounds good, all the trauma stuck in my body in three days, that's fast, lol! I do Primary Emotional Energy Release Bodywork, P.E.E.R., this work I've been doing for 3 years its amazing. Namaste

  30. Erika Chotai says:

    I actually could feel and see the light..have done this practice before, but didn't see this deep into myself then. I come closer to the being I know from my "happy years", which is about 15 years ago and then I did know and deeply love my own being (but of course something else – good – has evolved now instead) from time to time. I think it's because I have worked a lot on myself lately, that my blockages are finally letting go! I am grateful for all the help I get, and I wish you a happy life!

    /Erika.

  31. Maya says:

    another thing, I have so much trauma from my past, and I have realized that the most severe is the emotional abandonment and how much it has hurt myself esteem! I became a Certified yoga teacher a year ago and I have never taught a class that wasn't to a friend or family. I am really trying to build up the confidence to interview and teach yoga. What bothers me about that is I've been doing yoga everyday for the last 5 years, and there is people in my class that had their own studio and started teaching the next day. It is definately a struggle and if I have never done any work on myself I would be saying "trauma, what trauma" and be in a lot worse place today, if here at all, but it did bring me to yoga and that has been a blessing!

  32. Tanya Lee Markul says:

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  33. FromTheNorth says:

    I don't usually respond to these sorts of posts but for whatever reason I feel compelled to do so. Let me start by saying what you ask is not something I can easily do. At one time while learning the heart sutra we had to acknowledge the god spirit in ourselves as well as within each one of us. Unfortunately this is something I just can do. I’ve been down too many dark roads and unpleasant landscapes. Now approaching 50 the only wish I have is not to pass this on to my sons. Ben you are doing wonderful things. Keep up the good work and strong spirit.

    All the best

  34. chiara_ghiron says:

    Hi Ben! I did the exercise. I'd say 0-1, I am a pretty self-loving type of girl (see? I consider myself a girl even though I am actually 46…). BUT while saying "I love you" to myself I remembered that last week I was completely convinced of being totally unfit to deliver a current work objective so I would have given myself a 3-4 probably. What I mean is that – especially for women I guess – the self-esteem varies dramatically over a period of time. Perhaps a worthwhile experiment would be to keep a log and check how it oscillates through the months?

    Love
    chiara

  35. Aurora says:

    I did this exercise 10 years ago and sobbed as I looked at myself with pity. I thought about doing this exercise again just now and it made me feel anxious and I thought to myself, "Yeah, you've got some work". But then I did it and I was fine. I said it three times with no discomfort. Hooorah! My # -0- ( in this moment anyway).

  36. Hmmm says:

    My score was a 2. Started out smiling, but got squirmy after a minute. Hmmm…something to think about. Thanks!

  37. Brandon says:

    I had to start over a few times… I could not even maintain eye contact with myself without feeling stressed. I would score myself as 10 with an inkling of 9. I was overcome with a great deal of anxiety and fear, quickly escalating into fear and sadness. When I look at myself, I feel hatred. I hate the person I am, I hate my past and present life. The few things I like about myself are things I have been told I should have no pride in and have no worth.

  38. kamelien. says:

    […] lo and behold, I found this lovely article (via Elephant Journal) about the importance of loving […]

  39. Carl says:

    Before I even said "I love you" I felt a bit uncomfortable..then I said it and it was a 7. As i said it more and more it was a 5 and then I started to smile but then had a feeling of being stupid …Can we love ourselves better in practicing in front of the mirror ? Thank you for your dedication!

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  45. Cheryl A. Lowitzer says:

    I truly appreciate this article and the courage/honesty expressed by people who've responded to it.

    I've been doing a similar mirror exercise for the past 2 months. Some days, very low stress response (1-2) and I'm incredibly grateful. Other times, stress level can shoot right back up to 10 – go figure! Practicing compassion and radical acceptance of myself, all my feelings and continuing to face myself in the mirror (with a smile) are now part of my daily round. Recently saw the film "Beasts Of The Southern Wild". Something about Hushpuppy and the way she faced her beasts hit a deep chord. It's a wonderful image that I now hold very dear.

    Namaste,
    CAL

    P.S. Louise Hay suggests the Mirror Exercise in several of her books, including the classic You Can Heal Your Life.

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