Self-Esteem: Do you at times feel terrible and at times fantastic?

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

woman with hand to window that has raindrops on it

There is a common situation that many emotionally unhealthy individuals find themselves in. They alternate between feeling very badly about themselves, that is suffering from very poor self-esteem on the one hand, but on the other hand sometimes feeling very grandiose, superior and amazing. This is nothing but an attempt to bounce themselves out of those bad feelings by imagining themselves having superior, amazing qualities, which are so great that they can redeem them from even the most terrible feelings of low self-worth. Both situations are equally emotionally unhealthy and undesirable, and the patient finds himself trapped in a pattern of alternating between each extreme. This is also known as the saint/sinner syndrome. How does a person get this way?

Where does low self-esteem come from?

To answer this question we need to go back to the most important thing in any person’s life, his early relationship with his parents. Very often such individuals had loving, well-intentioned parents who unfortunately made the errors of being overly critical or inconsistently approving, or who perhaps verbally mistreated their child. Possibly there was marital conflict. A child’s sense of self is very fragile and sensitive and such situations can easily lead to intense feelings of low self-worth. A child who is often criticized or mistreated feels he can never make the grade and in order to redeem himself from such terrible feelings he has fantasies and aspirations of grandiosity coupled with intense pressure to be amazing and highly accomplished. This can generate significant anxiety as he always fears he will not reach that lofty and unrealistic goal. It can generate depression as he feels hopeless and helpless to ever achieve the goal and redeem himself from his poor self-worth and falls into depression. It can generate OCD as he compulsively obsesses over details in an attempt to achieve perfection and redeem himself. The condition is related to perfectionism. For a fascinating discussion of the causes and treatment of perfectionism, click here.

How does a person get out of this painful situation and heal his or her low self-esteem?

depressed woman with back of her hand to her face

The first step in therapy is to understand exactly how he got there in the first place. He must take a detailed history of his emotional life beginning with early childhood. He must understand the whole chain events that led up to these thought patterns. He must understand that the way his parents treated him was a tragic error with far-reaching consequences. This first step is purely intellectual. Next he must gain conscious awareness of how he felt during all those moments in his childhood, how he was shamed and how he was angered. Children who are mistreated tend to repress the negative emotions and those emotions simmer in the back of his mind for a lifetime and create mental health problems. Therefore gaining conscious awareness of the history of his life's feelings is a very important step. This will allow him to process the emotions so they can fade into the past. Then as I described elsewhere he needs to mourn and grieve the loss he underwent in his childhood. That is, the fact that he had a troubled childhood in all its’ detail should become as part of his everyday consciousness as facts such as “I live in New York”. This will bring great relief and restoration of vitality. All of the above will bring his self-esteem closer back to where it should be, because truly and deeply understanding where it came from and how it is not his fault shatters the folly of low self-worth and restores dignity and self-value.

How to raise low self-esteem

Then he must cognitively challenge his hitherto poor image of himself, not by striving for grandiosity and amazing achievements, but by asking such questions as "Was I not born and ordinary and decent person like everyone else? Don't I deserve to feel like an average, halfway decent person like others? Wasn't it only my history of being emotionally mistreated that caused me to feel badly about myself and not an intrinsic defect? Don't I deserve to take pleasure in average ordinary mundane accomplishments like everyone else and not be a slave of striving towards grandiose achievement?” He then needs to work on getting into the habit of feeling deep enjoyment of the ordinary everyday activities of the self, that is simply enjoying every day mundane, mediocre accomplishments. Indeed he must learn to appreciate the beauty and bliss of the mundane, since the normal and healthy life by definition necessarily consists of mostly such ordinary accomplishments, he must learn to celebrate the beauty of such healthy mediocrity. It is tremendously liberating and stress-relieving to allow oneself to enjoy the privilege of being a normal, ordinary person! In addition he must gain conscious awareness of his emotional life, of the authenticity of his own feelings.

All this will help them to develop true self-esteem and will break the cycle of low self-worth and grandiosity.

depressed woman holding her diary

It may take a year or a few to complete this work in therapy, but it is well worth the time and money. It is a small price to pay for a resulting lifetime of emotional health and happiness!

For further information on this process at length, see my post, “How does psychotherapy work?”

Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, or download one of my informative free reports.

If you are dealing with self-esteem issues, and are seeking a psychotherapist in lower Manhattan to help guide you through your healing journey,

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