‘Low self-esteem’ is a label that gets slapped on me and my mates the whole damn time. It’s like you workers have one of those old-school price-labelling machines with ‘low self-esteem’ labels and boy do you love using it. Yeah, there’s truth in it, a whole load of truth but labelling me, right in front of my face really doesn’t help. If you repeatedly say it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s just another thing for me to feel crap about.
So do me a favour would you? Stop saying those words to my face. You see, life has thrown so much trash at me, like abuse, like put-downs, like neglect, that I have come to believe that I am the trash. Giving me another label of what is wrong with me does not help one bit. It’s just another piece of negativity for me to pull down into myself and to dwell on like a music track on loop.
And even worse is when you try to help me deal with my low self-esteem by getting me playing all these negative thoughts about myself in loud stereo with a body-juddering subwoofer: ‘Let’s talk about how your Dad used to beat you up?’, ‘Tell me about when your Mum left.’ ‘Tell me what your teacher used to say to you’.
Well meaning, but totally not helpful. I totally ‘get’ that we do need to talk about this kind of stuff if I am really to move on from it, but if I have rock-bottom self-esteem then I am in no position to handle these kinds of conversations from the beginning. I will likely tell you where to go.
Before we can do anything, you need to build me up so that I have the mental strength and resilience to handle such difficult conversations. You don’t send a physically starved child on a hike up Everest do you? Well please don’t do the same to me, cos that is what you are asking me to do emotionally.
So do you see what I’m saying? You can’t build up my self-esteem by talking about the stuff that gives me low self-esteem cos I don’t have the strength to, because I have low self-esteem. You have to build me up first in another way.
And this is the key. One of the main reasons I feel crap about myself is because I’m actually obsessed about myself and with what other people think of me. I’ve internalised the negative stuff that people have told me and as a result I come to believe it and become paranoid with how others view me. And it destroys me and stops me growing. I won’t try anything new for fear of looking like an idiot. I’ll kick off rather than let people see that I can’t do something cos they’ll think I’m stupid.
Like if a teacher asks me a question that I don’t know the answer to, I’ll sooner give them some serious cheek and get the class sniggering rather than have them see I’m thick and useless. I’d rather have the teacher thinking I’m rude than stupid. I’ll nick the booze from the shop to avoid having my mates saying I’m too pussy and pathetic. Do you get me? What others think is EVERYTHING to me.
Which is the paradox of my low self-esteem. I’m obsessed with what other people think, yet I’ll quite happily dish out anti-social behaviour that draws attention to me and shows no consideration for others. I’ll smash that window, I’ll yell at parents, teachers, social workers, members of the public if it stops them from REALLY seeing me. What everyone sees is not me, they are just seeing a performance that stops them from seeing the inadequate excuse for a person that I feel I am. I’m ultimately obsessed with me and image management. See the image but whatever you do, don’t see below that.
So I’m all curled up in on myself, constantly trying to protect myself from further hurt and stopping people from seeing what a messed up failure I am. But this whole plan is flawed because as much as I’d like to think it doesn’t, the negative views people have of me and my image management behaviour do ‘get’ to me. Which just makes it worse, I curl in on myself more, and round we go again. More image management, more distractions from seeing the real useless me, more negative views, more image management and on and on it goes.
So you can see why just talking about what makes me feel crap about myself won’t work. In fact it usually only adds fuel to the cycle and makes things worse. Plus I’m an expert at trying to stop people from seeing the real me. What makes you think that you’re going to get me to talk?
Trust me, the only way you can help me break the cycle, can help me to feel better about myself is to help me stop obsessing about myself. And the best way to do this? Get me looking outward rather than inward.
Get me involved in activities where I have a chance to help others. Something as simple as being allowed to help my teacher get books out the cupboard to something bigger like getting involved in a community project to clear up a litter-strewn area, or raising money in a charity car wash. Rather than me existing on the badly-behaved edges of society, get me involved. And you will see my self-esteem rise as I receive positive feedback for the good things I do. And over time you will see a transformation as my thinking gradually changes from being obsessed about me, to thinking about others and how to help them. The outward looking ‘helping’ buzz will infect me, colonise me until the bad thoughts get drowned out by good ones.
Give me a voice, and a place to have a voice and I will also thrive. This might need you to rethink some of your youth voice councils. You see, things like school councils are stuffed full of the ‘good kids’, usually with no place for me. But I exist too and I’m entitled to a say. Give me a voice and some responsibility and I will grow faster than you can possibly imagine.
Problem is everybody is desperately trying to shut me up and keep me out of anything with a whiff of responsibility. I can’t be trusted you know. Stupid thing is that if you give me an appropriate forum to have a voice then 9 times out of 10 I will rise to the challenge and the bad behaviour that you are desperately trying to shut up will no longer be an issue. Look at the kids at Uservoice, they were young offenders who were given a voice and see what they did!
Boosting my self-esteem involves helping me to open up and interact in a positive way with the world around me. You can’t teach me self-esteem by endlessly post-morteming my life so far, you have to show me how to acquire it, and things like volunteering are an easy way. Boosting self-esteem is something that you do, not something that you talk about.
Do all this and then you might get me to a place where I have the strength to really deal with my past issues as I will have gained the understanding that my self-worth is not tied to my history. If it was, then doing the self-esteem boosting activities wouldn’t make a difference, but the truth is, they do.
Get me to this place of looking out so that I can get some perspective and see that there is more to my life than what is going on in my head. My life then becomes a place of possibilities, of hope and I am no longer imprisoned inside myself. I can begin to move outwards, onwards and upwards; I am free.