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!




About Ben Ralston

Ben Ralston has been practising personal development—necessity being the Mother of invention—since he was about six years old. He’s been teaching and sharing what he’s learnt along the way for a couple of decades. His main thing is Heart of Tribe retreats—whose very purpose is to help you fall back in love with life, no less. Leading these retreats alongside his woman Kara-Leah Grant—also an elephant journal writer (that’s how they met!)—they combine a deep well of lineage-based yoga teaching experience, with expertise in healing trauma and various other methods of personal development. Ben also works with clients one-on-one via Skype, writes, makes videos from time to time, and is passionate about parenting. He lives in an intentional, tribal community in the hills of Croatia, where you might find him gardening barefoot and talking to the rocks. Connect with Ben on Facebook or YouTube or check out his website for more info.


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

  1. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thank you for commenting.

  2. Ben_Ralston says:

    The feeling of hollowness is very relevant, in my experience, to self esteem. Compare hollowness to emptiness, and read this: http://benralston.blogspot.com/2011/07/emptiness-

  3. Ben_Ralston says:

    Mindy, trust me, you can be free of all of it. I speak not only as a therapist, but as someone who also suffered my share of abuse – http://benralston.blogspot.com/2011/08/my-educati
    Check out Reference Point Therapy, find a good practitioner (me, if you feel it), and go for it. It's a technique that can heal trauma in a very short time – sometimes one session is enough to heal a lot.

  4. JB1 says:

    Thanks Ben
    Whats the most effective cause of action for Trauma, i notice you cited some therapies in this article? What does this reference point therapy involve, would it allow me to face myself in the mirror every day, love myself and bring me closer to other people? what would such a session cost please ben.

  5. Ben_Ralston says:

    Yes, I cite Reference Point Therapy because it's what I do, and I know how simple and effective it is. There may be others that are equally good, but I don't know them. RPT involves talking, finding the deepest feelings and instincts that were 'activated' by the trauma, and releasing them (all just by talking). It allows me and 95% of my clients to face the mirror with deeper self-love, confidence, inner peace. So I am pretty sure it would you also.
    I charge €125 (euros) for the first session (2 hours), and €95 for subsequent (90 minute) sessions – but this therapy is fast (you don't need to have sessions week in, week out, for years – there is always a noticeable change after every session).
    If that's too much for you have a look at the RPT website, and you'll find other therapists listed – but I don't think there's anyone much cheaper than me (could be wrong on that).

  6. Ben_Ralston says:

    Dear Roberta,
    You. Are. Love.
    But your experience is veiled by trauma.
    It's that simple really…
    Your essence is pure energy, pure consciousness, pure love. But because of the 'stuff' (and you described it very accurately in the comment, so I know you understand it) that happened in the past, you get caught up in the veil. Trapped in the past.
    Love doesn't need to be brand new – it IS brand new: every present moment, always changing, ever new, is where love is.
    I can help you, please email me.

  7. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  8. 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

  9. 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?


  10. JB1 says:

    i am sure this would be more effective in person, but could it be practised remotely, maybe through a webcam or skype?

  11. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi JB, most of my clients are all over the world! It's no less effective over Skype – the same results.

  12. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thank you for sharing Devyani.

  13. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thanks for sharing Pamela.

  14. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Pathwalker, thank you for your comment.

    RPT is elegantly simple – but when you want a technique to also be highly efficient, then the simplicity must suffer. It's just not possible to learn it simply by watching it online. The training takes 2 full days, or 5 including the advanced technique.

    EFT I'm sorry to say is not so efficient – it heals, but not permanently, so you have to keep tapping. Simpler than RPT, but less efficient.


  15. Ben_Ralston says:

    Trauma is something that we carry around with us. Baggage. Just as you can simply put down baggage when you choose to, and leave it behind, so you can also release trauma quite easily – because it's not who you are.
    Who you are is pure consciousness, untainted by trauma.

    This is the basis of Reference Point Therapy.

  16. Ben_Ralston says:

    Check out the doc, and check out RPT which applies the knowledge in the doc with other science and spiritual wisdom to make a simple and effective method for permanently healing trauma. Yoga is wonderful – I teach it for a long time now – but it's slow. In combination I find it to be really quite wonderful 🙂

  17. Ben_Ralston says:

    I'm sure that your generosity and talents outweigh the things you don't like many times over – but the thing with self-esteem is that it's like a veil, so all you see is what you *don't* like. Heal it and suddenly you see the light, and fall in love with yourself all over again!
    Thank you for the comment!

  18. Ben_Ralston says:

    The belly is where it's at Nitya. Real healing has to heal the stuff that's in the belly, but most healing works on head (psychotherapy) or heart (emotional healing methods like EFT). To really undo the effects of trauma you have to release it in the belly – the gut – the survival instincts.
    As for the suggestion you ask for – all i can say is try RPT. I do sessions via Skype, or you can find another therapist on the RPT website. It's a very fast and easy way to permanently release trauma and increase the love you feel for yourself, others, and life in general!

  19. Ben_Ralston says:

    I wish you luck on your path Mariette. If you'd like to know more about the methods I describe, or healing trauma in general, email me.

  20. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Corey,
    I have a feeling that your skin issue was about boundaries, and that the sleep problem is about secondary gain. I believe I could help you solve it. Essentially boundaries are connected to abuse, so I'd heal ancestral abuse trauma, strengthen your boundaries, and heal the secondary gain that causes you to sleep badly.

  21. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thanks Katie, more in the pipeline!

  22. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi John,
    Your comment (thank you by the way for that) reminds me of Eckhart Tolle's last chapter (ish) in his book New Earth. he describes the 3 'modes of dinginess'.
    First is acceptance, second is enjoyment, and third is enthusiasm.
    I think that it kind of works applied to self esteem – a reasonable self esteem is when we fully accept ourselves. Then when it gets stronger we really, truly enjoy being ourselves. And finally, when we love ourselves very deeply, fully, we feel bliss.
    To me, healing is more than just about feeling ok, or feeling good. It's about spiritual growth and personal development… and I guess my background as a Yoga / Meditation teacher informs this a lot.
    Thanks again.

  23. Ben_Ralston says:

    I can help. Email me if it feels right…

  24. Ben_Ralston says:

    I dont' know about ALL trauma in 3 days, but specific traumas can be healed in one session easily. Actually, RPT is faster now than ever (it's constantly evolving), and you can heal a lot of trauma in one session. But I don't know about it all in 3 days. Some people, yes. Others it takes a bit more time 🙂

  25. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thankyou for sharing Erika.

  26. Ben_Ralston says:

    I can help. Email me if it feels right.

  27. Ben_Ralston says:

    Did you do the mirror exercise though?! 🙂

  28. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thank you for a powerful comment.
    When we heal our trauma, we also heal our children and our ancestors. This is my experience. It's a chain, and one broken link breaks the pattern completely. I'm sure you have already helped your sons a great deal. Perhaps they are free of the patten completely? Anyway, keep up the good work also, and if I can be of service please let me know.
    With love

  29. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Chiara,
    Interesting comment. Definitely true that *something* vacillates, but I'm not convinced that it's self-esteem. Maybe more like confidence? But I'll think about it a while because it's a very interesting suggestion… in fact I'll do the experiment you suggest myself and see what happens!

  30. 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).

  31. Ben_Ralston says:

    Congratulations! It's good to see the progress you've made huh?!
    Thank you for sharing 🙂

  32. Hmmm says:

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

  33. JAJ says:

    just don't wait too long…work on one's self is a lifelong process. Children will grow you up and teach you and love you!

  34. 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.

  35. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thanks for sharing Miss Hmmm 🙂

  36. Ben_Ralston says:

    That's very interesting Julia, thank you for letting me know. I'll investigate further, I'm sure.

  37. Ben_Ralston says:

    You know, the wound you mention is the most common. Also perhaps, the most painful, although that's debatable and, iI suppose, entirely relative.
    Thanks for sharing JAJ.

  38. Ben_Ralston says:

    First, forget everything you've ever been told. When you like something, it's real, and focus on it. Your heart guides you well.
    Second, if you feel you hate yourself, I urge you to do something about it. Please read this: http://benralston.blogspot.com/2011/09/3-steps-to
    I say this because I know how it feels, and I know that such low self-esteem makes life an ordeal, every day a struggle, every moment full of resistance and stress. And it just does not have to be that way.
    With love to you Brandon.

  39. Daniel says:


  40. Ben_Ralston says:

    Positively undoubting is where it's at. Keep at it 😉

  41. kamelien. says:

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

  42. 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!

  43. […] with everything but everything deserves your acknowledgement. If you aren’t being you, than who are you being. It’s too exhausting to be what we are not and only when we allow what we are to be present […]

  44. Ben_Ralston says:

    No Carl, you can't love yourself better just by saying it. Unfortunately it's not (quite) so easy. You have to heal the blockages that prevent you from feeling the love that is already inside you…

  45. […] is something I was faced with […]

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  48. […] he was still a great dad, he had his demons—the ones who (I found out later) told him he was never good enough. The one’s who made him sabotage his own successes, the very one’s he inherited from […]