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10 Telltale Signs of Low Self-Esteem

<p><em>Anneli Rufus is a frequent contributor to&nbsp;Spirituality &amp; Health. Her books&nbsp;</em>Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto<em>&nbsp;and the Nautilus Award-winning&nbsp;</em>Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On<em>&nbsp;examined our lives as individuals in a crowded world. Rufus’ upcoming work,&nbsp;</em>Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself<em>,&nbsp;will be released by Tarcher Penguin in the spring and continues this path, addressing self-esteem. It serves as the catalyst for this blog and asks: Why do we feel the way we do about ourselves?</em></p>

by Anneli RufusNovember 05, 2013

We who struggle with low self-esteem don't all walk alike, talk alike, sleep alike or eat alike. Well—not exactly alike.

While we are all unique, low self-esteem has a sneaky way of giving all its victims the same quirks. Regardless of our other differences, those of us who struggle with low self-esteem react to similar triggers in startlingly similar ways. Just as a four-star general and a shy poet both slur their words and stagger when intoxicated, if you and I both have low self-esteem, we are both probably perfectionists and pessimists. We are also probably chronic apologizers who have hazy boundaries and can't say no.

We might not realize that we even have these quirks. Or, we might realize, but revile, these quirks along with everything else about ourselves. It took me decades to discern that these habits were not innate, not actually me, but rather symptoms of a deeper tragedy. I see these habits now as as telltale signs marking members of the Self-Loathing League.

What are other signs of low self-esteem? I'll tell you, but first let's agree that these aren't flaws. They're neither inborn nor necessarily permanent. They're just the outermost layers of inner pain: inflections of affliction, shared with way too many.

  1. We're indecisive. Given our choice of anything—vacation destinations, menu items, careers—we freeze, assuming that whatever we select will wield horrid consequences: angering, disappointing and/or hurting others or ourselves. 
  2. We fake it. Afraid and ashamed of exposing our true selves to the world, we hide behind masks, hoping to "pass." This lends our lives a sense of inauthenticity, putting us in a perpetual state of performance anxiety. 
  3. We deflect praise. When praised, we argue, explaining in agonizing detail how and why our would-be praisers are incorrect. Our second impulse, just as fierce, is to suspect each compliment of being a sophisticated joke, an insult in disguise.
  4. We're hypervigilant. No gesture, word or blink escapes our raptly terrified attention. We compile it all as evidence that we are failures, disliked and/or doomed. 
  5. We have great difficulty inhabiting the present moment. Regretting what we've done and fearing what we'll do sends us seesawing back and forth between past and future, both of which Eckhart Tolle calls illusory.
  6. We give up easily. And we give in. Certain that we're always wrong and will always lose, we never stand up for ourselves.
  7. We plead. Believing that we merit no kindness, decency, or respect and that our fates rest in the hands of others who can judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves, we turn even the simplest requests into desperate, self-abasing pleas. 
  8. We aim low. Always predicting our own failure, we set low targets for ourselves. This keeps our predicted falls less steep. 
  9. We are chronic comparers. We compare ourselves constantly—and unfairly—to everyone we know, see, or even hear about. Guess who always loses?
  10. We puncture our own fun. Believing we deserve no happiness, we flood with dread at the first spark of joy. We can't enjoy ourselves when we are thinking: This can't last. What will go wrong? Do I look fat in this?

Recognize some of these habits in yourself? In others? Recognition spurs a certain solidarity: the first step toward compassion. Next? Reframing, refracting and sculpting some of these quirks into healthy versions of themselves: Deflecting praise (sans self-loathing) is modesty. Hypervigilance (sans self-loathing) is mindfulness. That's a healthy start. 


Anneli Rufus’ latest work, Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, was released by Tarcher Penguin in May 2014 and continues this path, addressing self-esteem.


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