How low self esteem and anxiety may co exist
This blog considers some aspects of the relationship between anxiety and low self esteem. Anxiety can occur when we feel threatened. Low self-esteem can be considered a ‘threat’ to an individual and their ability to survive and thrive.
Low self-esteem is an ‘internal’ threat where an individual, because of their negative self-image and associated negative behaviours, becomes a threat to themselves and their well-being. From the relatively minor e.g. compromising themselves to always please others and consequently feeling second best, to the much more serious e.g. acts of self-harm because the person feels they deserve to be punished, low self-esteem is a very real form of threat.
Our emotional brain does not at a basic level distinguish between types of threat i.e. a threat is a threat no matter where it originates from. However, if low self-esteem is not considered as a possible cause of someone’s anxiety then any attempts at dealing with it may be unsuccessful. Concentrating on physical symptoms of anxiety and/or assumed or real external threats without considering low self-esteem might be detrimental to chances of recovery.
Low self-esteem, left alone, effectively places the person in a permanent fight, flight or freeze state - in other words, a permanent state of anxiety.
Past, present and future
A function of our emotional brains is to consider the relationship between our past, present and future. Those with low self-esteem often have difficult or problematic pasts that are constantly woven into their present with all the implications this has for their futures. In this instance, anxiety is the emotional brain’s attempt to communicate with its ‘owner’ to do something about this negative, repetitive and, yes, threatening process. The longer it continues, the higher the levels of anxiety.
Neuroscience has identified parts of our brains whose job it is to go into our future and, based on an assessment of our present approach to life, determine our likely future. If the conclusion is for a negative future then this is, again, a threat to us resulting in anxiety.
Perfectionism and anxiety
Those suffering low self-esteem are often perfectionists because faced with continuing disappointments they seek to deal with them through striving for perfection. This creates a gap between reality and idyll i.e. the difference between how things are and how someone wishes they were. We all experience this but usually the gap is bigger for those with low self-esteem. High levels of anxiety ‘pour’ into this gap because continually striving for perfection can be a long-term threat to a person’s health, both physical and mental. If left unaddressed, perfectionism can be exhausting and extremely demoralizing because ultimately it is unachievable.
Those with more robust self-esteem are comfortable enough with themselves as individuals and with what they do therefore they do not have the need to strive for perfection.
The vicious circle of anxiety
Anyone how has experienced anxiety will testify how a feeling it is. Understandably people seek ways out of this state, but when these attempts are unsuccessful the anxiety becomes worse because the threat level has increased. The original threat – the low self-esteem – is now compounded by behaviours that often provide only a short-term escape from the anxiety. These typically include avoidant, addictive and obsessive-compulsive behaviours, all of which threaten the present and future well-being of the individual. A vicious repeating circle of anxiety can be perpetuated when people make unhelpful attempts to deal with it.
If you experience anxiety or know someone who does then I hope this article has been helpful in identifying a possible cause of this emotion.
Anxiety and Depression - Symptoms not Diseases
One of the things that clients I see are often most confused about when it comes to anxiety and depression is the relationship between the feelings and the root nature of the problem. All too often we label the feelings as the problem. Consider it from this perspective; if you go to hospital with a broken leg, you wouldn’t say, “I have pain-in-my-leg disorder”. The pain signals that there is an underlying problem. Similarly if you are out in the cold with no jumper, you wouldn’t say that you have "a coldness disorder". Feeling pain and cold are signs that your basic needs for bodily integrity and warmth are not being met.
Negative feelings like depression and anxiety function the same way. They are, for the large majority, emotional signals that an individual’s psychological health is not ideal and that their needs are not being met. Humans have needs for relational value in the following areas:
There is also the relationship they have with themselves and the extent to which they feel proud and accepting of themselves (or not). In other words, it is vital we feel known and valued by our family, our friends and our lovers and that we have a way to be known and valued in terms of how we contribute to society. It is also vital that we have compassion and respect for ourselves.
Depression can be our emotional system signaling that things are not working and that our relational needs are not being met. If you are low on relational value in the key areas of family, friends, lovers, group and self; feeling depressed in this context is the same as feeling pain from a broken leg and feeling cold from being outside in the cold with no coat.
Depression often serves not to help and enlist social support, but instead exacerbates further isolation of the individual, thereby creating a vicious spiral of withdrawal, doing less, feeling more isolated, turning against the self, and thus feeling more depressed. As such, depressive symptoms often do contribute to the problem, and people do suffer where extreme negative moods are definitely part of the problem.
It is important to understand that that anxiety and depression are symptoms of psychosocial needs and threats. They should not be considered ‘wrong’ feelings that need to be eliminated or fixed. If we can start by acknowledging and accepting our feelings of depression/anxiety then we can to work towards a better understanding of ourselves and our needs and how we might get these met.