Role of self-esteem, self-worth and self-image in mental well-being Low self-esteem is characterised by a lack of confidence and feeling badly about oneself

Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse
Mental Wellness

As discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

A key part of maintaining mental well-being is having a healthy self-esteem, a sense of self value and self-worth as well as a positive self-image. Low self-esteem, a low sense of value of oneself and a poor self-image, can put us at risk of mental health problems like depression or anxiety and can affect our ability to reach our full potential and thrive in life.

What factors affect our self-esteem, self-worth and self-image?

Self-esteem is a description of how we think about ourselves, our abilities and our beliefs about how others see us.

Self-worth is the value we place on ourselves and our thoughts, ideas and contributions. Self-image relates to how we see ourselves and has been described as our attitude toward ourselves.

Many factors influence the ideas, thoughts and attitudes we develop about ourselves including:

  • Early childhood experiences and upbringing: Children are like sponges that absorb what is around them including words and attitudes. Children and young people often learn if they are valuable, if they are lovable, if their voice matters from the way they are treated by the adults and caregivers in their lives. The home is therefore the earliest risk factor for low self-esteem, if a child is consistently treated as if they do not matter, if they are neglected or ignored. Positive role models who care for and love a child can protect a child from challenges of low self-esteem and the complications that come with that.
  • Experiences with school/learning and ability to work productively: As we grow older, our experiences with school or learning as well as our ability to perform well in our line of work and to be productive and effective will have an impact on how we view ourselves and value ourselves. If we struggle with learning and have inadequate support, this can result in feelings of inadequacy that can lead to poor self-esteem. If we struggle at work and we are ineffective and unproductive, this too can affect our self-esteem and self-worth. If we find ourselves unemployed and unable to care for ourselves and our family adequately, this can have a devastating effect on our sense of self and well-being. Conversely, when we are coping well with school and feel competent in the work we do, this gives us a sense of self efficacy and that builds our self esteem and self worth.
  • Our social support system: The company we keep will affect how we feel about ourselves. Supportive friends and family who see the best in us and encourage us where we are struggling can be a key part of maintaining a healthy sense of self and mental well-being. Friends and family who constantly criticise us and break our confidence can cause us to doubt ourselves and sink into low self esteem.
  • Our personal mental resilience and ability to solve problems: our internal capacity to think through and solve problems when we are faced with challenges as well as our ability to bounce back from failure or disappointment will also impact our self esteem and sense of self worth. If we feel helpless and powerless in the face of life’s challenges we will often start to feel worthless too.
  • Our self talk: the person we talk to the most in life is ourselves and if our self talk and internal Reflections with ourselves are consistently negative, it can be challenging to build a healthy sense of self and self worth.
  • Our personal value systems: what we believe about the value of people and what is important in life and how we measure success will influence how we evaluate our own value. If we believe that each and every human being is valuable because they exist not because of their achievements or what they can do or the wealth they have amassed, we will continue to value ourselves even when we face challenges.

How can I improve my self-esteem, self-worth and self-image?

Our self-esteem, self-worth and self-image can be worked on and improved. Even if you had a difficult childhood or you have struggled to be effective and productive in certain aspects of life, there is always an opportunity to rebuild one’s self esteem.

Some simple strategies to improve self esteem could be:

  • Start the journey to healing from childhood emotional scars. Many low self esteem issues are rooted in how we were spoken to, treated or made to feel as children. Recognising this is a key step towards healing from these wounds but it may take additional steps of seeking counselling to address the childhood roots of our low self esteem and lack of self worth. We remain valuable in spite of any negative words that were spoken to us or neglect or mistreatment that we have faced.
  • Challenge negative self talk: while childhood emotional wounds maybe the root of some of our challenges with low self esteem, we can perpetuate the challenges through constant negative self talk. Many of us struggle with mental self discipline and we allow all sorts of thoughts to take root in our minds and some of these can be destructive to our sense of self esteem and self worth.
  • Build a constructive support network around yourself: it has been said that we become the sum total of the people around us. This does not mean that we surround ourselves with ‘yes’ men/women who always agree with us. We need constructive feedback and criticism to grow but people who consistently knock us or put us down will not be good for our self esteem and self worth.
  • Be a life long learner, build problem solving skills and mental health resilience: we do not need to be defined by our failures or disappointments in life. The ability to learn from our challenges and continue in our journey is a valuable skill that we can all learn and build on. This will help us in our journey to build our self esteem and work towards a greater sense of mental well-being.

If you think that you or someone that you know may be struggling with low self-esteem, self-worth or a negative self-image, please contact your nearest health service provider and get help.

l This article was written for Association of Healthcare Funders of Zimbabwe (AHFoZ) by Dr Chido Rwafa, a Consultant Psychiatrist. Feedback: Dr. Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse +263714987729 (AHFoZ www.ahfoz.org ; [email protected])

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