Low self-esteem: The pitfalls of using great accomplishments to raise it.

woman hugging herself

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

Some people unfortunately very deep down inside feel badly about themselves. They suffer from chronic low self-worth or low self-esteem.

Often times such people develop a strategy to relieve themselves of such feelings. They think "All I have to do is accomplish great things and then I will be a worthy person deserving of high self-esteem. Then I will feel good about myself." So begins the quest for accomplishment. It can be a lifelong endeavor, seeking goal after goal in the hopes that just one more great success will finally relieve the person’s poor feelings about himself. It seems logical that if a person thinks, "Look at all the great things I've done. Surely it doesn't call for low self-esteem. In light of these great accomplishments I am naturally going to feel great about myself." But curiously it doesn't seem to work. No matter how great his list of accomplishments those deep feelings of low self-worth are still there, and he is in a rat race of constantly striving for greater and greater accomplishments to try and relieve them but all in vain. In addition such people do not get true enjoyment out of their accomplishments because their entire goal is to relieve the low self-esteem, and so they can't even focus on enjoying the process of their accomplishment. This robs them of much of the pleasure of life. Furthermore their motivations for all those accomplishments are very insincere. Their true goal is not to achieve the Nobel Prize and contribute to world peace and science, or help others, their real goal is to relieve their bad feelings, so their accomplishment is tainted. Let's say someone started a charitable foundation in the quest to relieve his poor feelings. How would all the people he helped feel if they knew he was only doing it to feel good about himself? How sincere would all his efforts be? 

So the question is why don't great accomplishments relieve low self-esteem? 

To answer this we need to understand how low self-esteem is generated in the first place. In almost all cases it comes from early childhood stressors. Maybe the child’s emotional life was not recognized and celebrated, and he learned to think, “My emotions and my self is not important.” Maybe the child was verbally mistreated, maybe criticized or put down. Maybe his parents only approved of him conditionally, that is only when he did great things did his parents show him love and approval, leading him to believe that when he does not accomplish great things he is not worthwhile. Maybe there was conflict between parents, a divorce or one of the parents was absent, leading the child to think “It's because I am not good enough, that mommy and daddy broke up or left,” as children are wont to think. Most adults with low self-esteem have no idea that these childhood experiences they had play a role.

That is, they are completely unaware that their childhood memories are constantly generating low self-esteem anew.

Being unaware of all the details of their unfortunate childhood experiences means that those experiences lay unprocessed which means that they are traumas that are constantly experienced as fresh. When a parent mistreats a child the experience is too painful to process at the time and the child represses it but the memory of that experience lasts for a lifetime just below consciousness, and constantly re-traumatizes the adult, leading to constant feelings of low self-esteem. Accomplishments no matter how great they are don't undo the mechanism. 

You can raise your low self-esteem tremendously!

man with attractive eyes

Only through good psychotherapy, that is carefully going through all of those childhood memories and bringing all those traumas into consciousness and processing them and the emotions related to them, can we break the cycle. See my blog post, How does psychotherapy work? where I go through the steps in detail, but briefly here, a person with low self-esteem needs to first gain a complete intellectual awareness of all the events in his childhood, especially his relationship with his parents. How did they treat him? How did they relate to him? Then he needs to get his emotional history. How did he feel as a child during every step of his relationship with his parents? He needs to identify carefully any mistakes his parents may have made and any mistreatment he may have experienced. Then he needs to deeply mourn and grieve these unfortunate traumatic experiences, similar to the way one mourns for a lost love one. Yet, the loss of a happy childhood is an even greater loss. This mourning is extremely important as it will allow him to process all of those traumatic memories so that they will become integrated into his consciousness and therefore will never be able to shock him anew,

that is they will lose their power to re-traumatize him and this will stop the generation of low self-esteem.

Then he needs to express his anger. You see any time a person is hurt even accidentally, anger is the automatic result. A child who was mistreated by his parents is automatically angry at them and those angry feelings are usually repressed and instead directed at the self, generating low self-esteem and all kinds of mental health problems. Therefore by releasing and processing those angry feelings and recognizing that he is truly angry at his parents and not himself, will bring tremendous relief. After doing the above work for some time it will be very helpful to seek an admission from his parents. That is if he can get his parents to admit that although they loved him and did the best they could they made certain mistakes that affected him.

This will be very helpful for gaining conscious awareness of the reality of his imperfect childhood, and thus breaking the cycle of low self-esteem.

Finally he needs to cognitively restructure his thoughts by asking such questions as "Did I truly deserve to feel badly about myself? Wasn't I born an innocent child just like everyone else who deserves to feel decently about himself? Wasn't it only because I was mistreated that these bad feelings and low self-esteem were generated? Isn't it true that I have accomplished more than enough to earn my existence in this world many times over and I don't need to accomplish anymore?” 

Notice and remember all the many wonderful things you do every day

young jewish woman smiling

Once the above work is done and no more new low self-esteem is being generated, he can use accomplishments to counteract those residual thoughts. He or she needs to do a technique invented by Dr. Mayer Wickler of Brooklyn, where he writes down in a journal two small accomplishments he made each day. Not grandiose things such as becoming head of a company or winning the Nobel Prize, but small achievements in therapy related personal growth such as, "I allowed myself to relax and enjoy the sunshine for 20 minutes today,” and "I grieved and journaled about my childhood for a half hour today,” and "I called up my sister and worked on a positive relationship with her." He or she needs to celebrate the accomplishments of enjoying the everyday mundane activities of the self and not only grandiose spectacular accomplishments.

In addition he needs to constantly resist the temptation to engage in efforts to make great accomplishments to relieve his low self-esteem, by replacing those efforts with much smaller mundane everyday accomplishments.

Never underestimate the power of this great work it has healed many people!

For more information on the pitfalls of low self-esteem, and how to overcome it, click here.

Please be advised that the above work needs to be done under the guidance of a wise and empathetic psychotherapist, and it must be a very gradual process, so as not to overwhelm the patient. Have patience with your progress and you will see wonderful results gradually.

Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, or the specialties on my website, download one of my informative free reports or view my video.

If you are experiencing low self-esteem or other mental health issues, and would like treatment from a warm, caring therapist in lower Manhattan,

you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15 minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!

For more information on childhood emotional neglect, click here.