Low Self-Esteem and Mental Illness

Low Self-esteem and mental illness may coincide together however; anyone can suffer from low self-esteem at any time without having mental illness. There are times throughout all of our lives that we encounter periods of low self-esteem. For those persons who do not suffer from mental illness and have low self-esteem, the door out is much more accessible. For those of us that suffer from and live with mental illness, low self-esteem is more of a constant friend. For those of us with mental health disorders it tends to be a component of our makeup, sprinkled into whatever disorder we happen to suffer from. Simply having mental illness, low self-esteem goes hand in hand. You can find ways to cloak it, however it may never go away and it will always be important to work on those self-esteem issues. Failure to work on your self-esteem issues can increase the level of your other mental health problems. Whereas lessening your self-esteem issues can help to improve your day-to-day issues. Those of us with mental disorders realize full well that we are different than those without them. It can be a hard task to try not to play the comparison game for those of us with mental illness. When we see those who are “normal” seemingly take things in stride, it can be a sure blow to our self-esteem when we cannot. This is why it is so important to stay in your own lane and try not to compare yourself to others who seem “perfect” or as if they “have it all together” when we are fighting a mental disorder that makes it hard just to make it through the day.

The most prevalent time for low self-esteem is adolescence. All it can take is one big zit to destroy a young person at that tumultuous stage of life, leaving them not wanting to venture out of the house. The reason, low self-esteem and insecurity, sprinkled in with a little puberty and hormones!  Perhaps, if you are a guy, you are hesitant to join in at the beach or the swimming pool, because to take off your shirt will serve to reveal your lack of physique. The same for the female gender who might suffer from being under endowed as she can feel she is not as pretty or sexy as the other girls more endowed are. Once someone experiences a situation that causes such situations, you have a recipe certain to cause ostracization, perhaps from bullying, or just from the way we feel about ourselves. This can be even worse for those of us who suffer with mental health issues. With most mental disorders, we may find it to be a daily battle in learning how to conquer our negative self-talk and we may feel that we will never have the true capacity to see the way out of our bad thoughts to our good thoughts. We may possess certain qualities and traits others think well of, or have skills in sports or music that others brag about, but what hinders us is that we don’t know how to see or acknowledge them. The reason being is we know that deep down we have this flaw. We never asked for it and it will never go away, making low self-esteem entrenched in the journey of those of us with mental disorders. I have personally experienced periods of time in my life when I felt a lifting of my self-esteem, times like getting married, having our child, doing well in a job, yet that little nudge is always there in the background when we suffer with mental illness that wants to drag us back into the negatives.

Even if a person does not have a mental disorder, low self-esteem can occur from a variety of things - insecurity, fear of embarrassment, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, being ignored, being picked on, bullied, or being excessively teased. Since these and others are all viable reasons why any person can suffer from low self-esteem, this issue deserves discussing often and openly. If a child is suffering from low self-esteem issues and the parent does not notice, they are not parenting. My husband and I were well aware of the fact when our daughter was not wanting to go to gymnastic lessons anymore that there was a problem, and we knew why. It was written all over her face when I took her to practice, the fact that she could not conquer her dismount off of the balance beam.

Our daughter, thankfully, does not suffer with a mental disorder. She was spared that bullet and I thank God for that every day. Still, she had many times when her self-esteem was in the toilet for various reasons during her growth years and even now, in her late 20s, there are issues that she struggles with at times. Back to the dismount off the balance beam. She would freeze every time after her routine on the beam and then abort on her dismount. Then came the tears, the punching of the gym mat, and the defiance of not wanting to attend lessons any more. I notice that many parents these days, and even back then, some 20 years ago or so, would let their child “off the hook” and tell them it is okay to quit, as it was too painful FOR THE PARENT to go through. It’s the truth. It is harder for us as parents to see our children struggle than it is for them to struggle. Many a parent wants nothing to do with their child being uncomfortable in any type of situation. To be truthful, it is very hard to watch your child struggle, it is also very necessary.

Unfortunately, having a low self-esteem especially in one’s early years, can lead to not only various forms of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, OCD and more, but it can also lead that person into addiction. The urge to take away the pain even if for a little while can become overwhelming. Many people with mental illness have experienced this need to feel better seeking out sex, drugs, alcohol, food or anything that gives them a release from their feelings even if short lived. Eating disorders are a prime example of this form of low self-image, binge eating and more.

I believe that our daughter’s work ethic, diligence, commitment, and never give up attitude ALL stem from those days on the balance beam. I took her aside, out of the gym and sat her down. I said, “Niki, you are not always going to be good at everything you do. It is a given that you will never be good if you quit. You have a choice as to whether or not you want to walk out on your gymnastic classes because you are not able to conquer your beam dismount at this time or, you can practice at it until you get it and feel the VICTORY of success from hard work”. I remember she mulled this over for some time before she finally looked me in the eyes and said defiantly, “I’ll do it”.

Guess what? Not only did she conquer that dismount, she went on to use her skills from gymnastics to become the Team Captain of the Cheerleading Team in Middle and High School. Those skills propelled her into dance lessons, which took her into theatre where she played lead roles that called for dance and she received a scholarship for her skills when she attended College and majored in Communications and Theatre. Now, she is one of two women at our 4,000 member church who takes the stage to give announcements, commence communion, she choreographs the flow of the service and works with four Pastors on their presentations skills and sermon oratory. All that from a little discussion and a choice she made when she was just seven years old.

What I knew, from growing up with mental illness, is that self-esteem, even though it is not a form of mental illness, can have many of the same symptoms and lead to mental health issues such as depression and others if left untreated. Our level of self-esteem is highly linked to our sense of confidence and our thought processes. I would say our thought processes are the biggest factors in our level of self-esteem. People who exhibit a lot of negative self-talk greatly reduce their ability to see and feel positive about situations.

Negative self-talk may stem from the person themselves or as a result of outside forces and experiences. Once we begin thinking we are not good enough, not likable, and incapable of achieving or excelling, we’ve placed negative labels and ideas upon ourselves that lead to low esteem. Believe it or not, WE can be our biggest Bully at times and usually are. Then things like negative relationships with a spouse, parent or friend can be harmful because such a close relationship opens the door for trust allowing the harm to occur. People often forget that words hurt! This can extend outward in schools, the workplace and social situations. People with a highly developed sense of self-esteem have learned to block out the negative words of others while increasing the amount of positive self-talk to themselves.

For a person suffering from mental illness, we often lack the ability to believe we are capable of being a good person or have good qualities that can lead us to a happy and successful life. The sad part about this is that often some of the most successful people who suffer from depression and other forms of mental illness cannot see how talented and successful they are.  We can bring up the famous comedian, Robin Williams, the actress, Carrie Fisher or Pattie Duke, who all struggled with mental disorders. In their eyes, no matter what they did or accomplished, it wasn’t enough to make them feel good about themselves. This is the hidden danger of having low self-esteem. I know, as I have lived it my whole life. In her autobiography, “Postcards from the Edge”, Carrie Fisher talks about her enormous fame as Princess Leia, in Star Wars, and she still felt the need to self-medicate with recreational drugs and alcohol due to her feelings of inferiority from suffering from Bipolar.

There are things I know that I rock at! I am a great salesperson, I have very good people skills, I find it easy to reach out and help others when I see them in need, and I would say I’m a halfway decent writer. I know these things about myself inherently, yet when I get down on myself, it gets real dirty. I can put myself in a hole of self-pity and self-loathing faster than you can snap your fingers. Unfortunately, the major disorder I have, Borderline Personality Disorder, is known for having its sufferers think the worst of themselves. It takes a lot, and then even more, and more after that, for us to feel good about ourselves. I have found that I have to force things into my life and my daily schedule to keep myself on track or that low self-esteem takes full control over me. I force things like exercise 4-5 times a week, yoga classes, writing these blogs and my book, reaching out to help others, going to visit the elderly and the sick in the nursing homes, participating and volunteering at our Church, listening to upbeat music, wearing cosmetics, taking good care of my skin, dressing well and presenting the best possible “outside me” to the world. It is not a choice, it is a necessity for me to do these things and continue to do them or I fall deep down the hole, just like Alice in Wonderland. Part of that list also involves taking my psychiatric medications and attending my talk therapy sessions weekly.

Building self-esteem is crucial for everyone, but especially for those with mental illness. The problem is changing those deep rooted, negative feelings forged during childhood. Many times outside help is necessary to overcome these feelings. If this is your case, you should look into receiving some form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. There are many forms of therapy that fall into this category like DBT, EMDR, Emotion focused therapy, mindfulness based therapies, and more.

To overcome your low self-esteem, try these tips:

  • Think about what it is that’s affecting your self-esteem so you can attempt to fix it.
  • Do your best to avoid negative self-talk.
  • Try connecting with positive people.
  • Don’t be afraid to get professional help.
  • Try to separate yourself from those who may be helping to bring you down. This may require ending harmful relationships.
  • Focus on your positives and talk to yourself about these items to boost your esteem.
  • Set small challenges for yourself where you are able to do well and talk positively about your success. Increase those challenges, as you are able.
  • Learn to become more assertive in your life. Often striking out and doing things on your own can make you feel good, just as informing someone speaking to you negatively that you don’t appreciate their words can be uplifting as you take back control from them.
  • Last, but not least, take care of yourself. It sounds silly, but eating right and getting plenty of rest goes a long way towards how we feel.

Hopefully, these tips will provide you with the ability to overcome your low self-esteem problems. We all have worth. We may not always see it but it’s there. There is a quote that says, “God didn’t have time to make a Nobody”! Once we can tap into our sense of self-worth we learn to overcome some of the darkness that seeks to overtake us. When you have mental illness as I do, this is a very important part of recovery. My illness and symptoms do their best to tackle my brain as it is. Letting them make me feel like I have no value to others and myself is a constant battle that we either win or lose. I hope that you will be like me and do your best to fight to win.

With you on the journey,


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2 thoughts on “Low Self-Esteem and Mental Illness

  1. Kiely Allen

    Alice, This is a wonderful article. Thank you for sharing and shedding some light on other’s feelings and fears. I would NEVER have guessed that Niki suffered from low self-esteem. She is such a beautiful, well-poised, loving person. I guess that is the double-edged sword of such a thing – often it is difficult to recognize in others, so we overlook, thereby adding to their pain at times. I am so grateful for you creating this blog. I appreciate you. 🙂

    Hugs and blessings, Kiely

    • Hey Kiely, We ALL suffer from low self esteem from time to time – right? Thanks for readying and the kind words about Niki. You are very special and I wish we had spent more time together in FL. Hugs and Blessings back to you! Alice

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