Conquering Low Self-esteem Through Psychotherapy

By Carol Goh  |  Published on 22 May 2021


When you received a group photo of a recent gathering in your mobile phone, who do you look at first in the photo? I believe most of us will first search and look at yourself in the photo. You may fuss about your hair, your smile, your eyes, or your posture. This is normal.

But what if you dare not even look at yourself in the photo? Or you may take a quick glance at yourself and conclude that you are such a failure, whether based on your look, personality, intelligence, or fashion sense.

You have this fear that others in the photo will be critical of you, and none will accept you. It may lead you to wonder why are you born and exist. If you find yourself often critical of who you are, and detest your existence, then this article is for you. You need to do something to build up your self-esteem quickly.

To address your self-esteem, you will first need to explore the causes of your low self-esteem.

What are the real causes of low self-esteem?

If you have low self-esteem, it is common to hear an incessant, convincing voice inside you that reminds you of your imperfections and failings. Such reminders often make you feel unaccepted and worthless. As a result, you developed negative beliefs that can shackle you for life:

- “I can do nothing right.”
- “I don’t deserve to be loved.”
- “I’m no good at whatever I’m doing.”
- “I’m a failure, a loser.”
- “I’m never good enough.”

How do you free yourself from such negative beliefs?

You may have tried various techniques such as replacing negative beliefs with positive ones. You may have engaged in new hobbies hoping to erase the negative beliefs in you. You may have tried looking at yourself in the mirror every day and chanting mantra such as “I am a winner”, or “I can be successful”.

While these techniques may work for a short while, soon you may have to entertain those same negative thoughts again. Not only that, to your dismay, these negative beliefs seem to increase in intensity and strengths.

To effectively overcome low self-esteem, you need to unlock the chains of beliefs that are hidden deep within you. To do that, you will have to first find out the actual cause of your low self-esteem.

"To effectively overcome low self-esteem, you need to unlock the chains of beliefs that are hidden deep within you."

Based on the therapy sessions I had with different clients over the past 10 years, I found the cause among them is quite similar: it is because of consistent negative messages received either explicitly or implicitly by significant people in their lives. These people could be their parents, teachers, friends, or relatives.

Messages transmitted from authority – parents, teachers

We live in a very competitive society. Many households today are becoming more affluent and parents are more educated. These trends inevitably create a host of demanding expectations for young children today.

Many parents believe in starting young, such as in pre-school, to mould their children to be ‘successful’ in the future. These children are conditioned to believe that in order not to disappoint their parents and end up being rejected by them, they must do very well academically (Khan & Hassan, 2020).

In our society that focuses so much on academic results, many of us grow up bearing the brunt of our parents’ unrealistic expectations. Parents may have good but misplaced intentions, resulting in bringing severe hardship emotionally and mentally onto their kids.

Whether the child’s grades are good becomes relative. Many students with good enough grades are made to feel they are not good enough, which leads them to see themselves as a not good enough person. Such feeling of not meeting up to parent’s expectations often set off an emotional trail of anger, hopelessness, depression in people suffering from low self-esteem.


Mary (not her real name), always top in her cohort, was expected by her parents to top her cohort in PSLE score. However, when the PSLE results were released, her parents were utterly disappointed after discovering that she was not even among the top 5% within her school. The disappointment and the shame are too much for her parents that they refused to talk to her for a week. It was a tough week for Mary, and the feeling of being rejected by her parents was unbearable and almost killed her internally.

After this incident, she lived with the fear of disappointing her parents again. As a result, in her secondary school years, she studied extra hard and tried all means not to allow herself to slip. Over time, this led her to develop a perfectionist personality. From then on, she lost her joy and happiness. The need to perform often stressed her out. Eventually, she found both studying and life becoming meaningless.

You may have continuously strived hard to meet your parents’ expectations to gain their acceptance. When the going seems so tough, anxiety sets in and you fear you may never meet your parents’ expectations. You end up not doing well, not because you are not up to it, but the fear of failure has crippled you from reaching your goal. Your confidence thus plummeted, and this becomes part of a vicious cycle. In due time, this became a trap that you have unwillingly got yourself into, which seemed to sink deeper and deeper.

Messages transmitted from peers

As a student, school became your second home as you spent a lot of time with classmates and friends. From pre-school to secondary school, friends can become either your allies or enemies.

You may have run into troubles with some of your friends or classmates and they may have in the process hurl hurting words at you and rejecting your friendship. Such rejections can take the form of bullying, ostracising, name-calling, shaming, or betraying you.

As a result, you could not make sincere friends in schools and this affected your self-identity. You end up constantly living with insecurity and embracing the following self-defeating beliefs in your life:

- “I’m ugly”
- “I’m fat”
- “I’m flawed physically”
- “I’m a failure”
- “I can never beat my friends academically”
- “I’m a loser”
- “No one likes me”
- “I am useless”
- “No one will accept me”

Sam (not his real name) was thin and short when he was in primary school. His friends will make fun of his size and looks, calling him a weakling and that he looked like a monkey. Sam grew up feeling so ashamed of his physique and looks and always feared friends will not accept him. He withdrew himself from his social circle and dare not approach anyone to make friends.

When he was in college, though he was of average height and good frame and even looked pleasant, he still believed he was ‘ugly’ and that no one will want to make friends with him. He dared not open up to share his life with his friends. Even among a couple of school friends whom he can get along with, he was still constantly worried if they will reject him one day. He isolated himself and hid in his closet most of the time, finding pleasure only in online games.

Impact of low self-esteem

To balance the low self-esteem, you could be seeking to over-compensate your social life by:

  • Working extra hard to gain continuous acceptance from your significant ones
  • Being a perfectionist, not allow any moment to slip fearing the consequences of abandonment and rejection by others
  • Indulging in addiction such as online games as a form of escape and release of tension
  • Engage in sexual promiscuity as a form of power and control which is lacking in your life
  • Always trying to fulfill tasks given by superiors to the point of exhaustion
  • Becoming controlling and possessive in your current relationships with people

Emotionally, you could struggle with anger, anxiety, or even depression. ‘Failing’ is such a taboo in your life. You work extra hard to please people in order to gain their acceptance. You find it very tiring over time and such stresses keep adding on and on.

"You find it very tiring over time and such stresses keep adding on and on."

According to a research study, childhood trauma and in particular child abuse (can be in the form of verbal, emotional, physical) was found to affect a person’s self-esteem negatively. Low self-esteem affects the entire persona of the person, with the worst impact being on emotional health leading to depression, anxiety and stress (Çelik & Odaci, 2019).

Psychotherapy intervention for low self-esteem

Have you ever felt you should have done better in controlling your anger? Or have you ever been in a situation which you felt that anger has almost ruined your relationship with your dear ones. Fret not. This article aims to help you gain control of anger by understanding what anger is, diagnosing the root of anger, and thereby recommending ways in which you can take effective control over anger.

1. Awareness of the causes of your low self-esteem

To work on your self-esteem, start with identifying all the negative messages various people or events have ingrained in you in the past. As you walk down memory lane, some memories might be disturbing and still cause unpleasant sensations in you; be it sadness, fear, or anger. That signifies there are still unfinished businesses in your life that need to seek closure. This is the start of your healing journey. It requires courage to face up to the hurts and walk through it despite the overwhelming emotions.

We can only grow and be who we really are by healing our inner hurts. After the first stage of unearthing the piles of unresolved emotional debris under the rug, we begin to heal them one by one in the next stage. Different hurts will require different therapeutic techniques to work on to bring closure to.


2. Psychotherapy techniques to heal the past hurts

Themes that run in one’s life that are crippling current functioning are usually abandonment, rejection, and betrayal. To bring negative beliefs to the other end of positive beliefs requires specialised techniques that are beyond just talk therapy. Such techniques cut deep into the emotional realm to bring about healing of such hurts.

a. Gestalt technique

This technique engages you to “talk” to those who have hurt you to release pent-up emotions suppressed over the years. You will be asked to visualize the party involved being present in the room and having the opportunity to vent it all and find closure.

b. Inner Child dialogue

This technique provides the wounded child within you to voice your fears, hurts, and pains. It is cathartic and helps release the emotions that have been buried all these years within you.

c. Schema therapy

This technique identifies life traps and in a therapeutic environment, the therapist speaks up to the perpetrators to give you a voice that you could not defend yourself previously. This is done in the counselling and psychotherapy session with the help of visualization technique.

d. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR helps process the past hurts and desensitize the unpleasant emotions. When the past hurts have been processed and found closure, that is when it is easier for positive messages to find inroads into your brain.

Free yourself from the shackles of limiting fear and give yourself permission to embrace your own excellence and live up to your highest potential. You have what it takes to overcome your fear and live your lives expressing your true selves.

"Free yourself from the shackles of limiting fear."

Client’s healing journey…

"They said that it takes time to heal wounds. Although these words may be true for most matters, some wounds may still remain. This was an area I was struggling to cope with. I was struggling to cope with my failures: tests, presentations, my parents' expectations. Even after so many years, I still could not let go of these incidents. This all changed when I recently went to see Ms Carol and opened up to her about problems that have been bothering me. Of course, it is not a one-day process, it took me months to accept myself for who I am and to accept the fact that I am only human who makes mistakes, and those mistakes do not define me and do not make me less of a human. I have learned that what is written on my result slip does not change my worth as a human, and I have you to thank for that. So, thank you, for being there when I needed to talk to someone and when I needed help."

Teenage female in tertiary education

"I got to feel my emotions that were blocked off, which was relieving. I've now understood that negative beliefs from past experiences aren't true and hence, felt more confident in life."

Female young adult

"Previously, when I first met you, I was not feeling very confident as I was always scared of failure. Now, I have accepted that failure is part of learning, and that I have to fail sometimes in order to move forward stronger. I used to be very anxious and stressed out about my grades. However, after we met, I realised that it didn’t really matter. What matters is that I have put in my best effort that I can, and that I cannot control the final result. It is important that I did my best, and that I cannot control external factors as we had discussed. I have thus been more carefree during lessons and more confident of my own abilities. I really feel more positive and confident now even from the little things, such as feeling more confident walking to school, choosing what to wear and during daily presentations. I would sincerely like to thank you for all the help you have given me and understanding my challenges. I am also learning to overcome more challenges ahead as I move forward in life. Thank you so much and I greatly appreciate your support."

Teenage male in tertiary education

"My ex-boyfriend used to be very abusive and will use words like “dumb, worthless, stupid, ugly” to demean me. I felt shameful and was totally devoid of confidence in myself. When I entered a new relationship, I was filled with so much insecurity that I was easily triggered and paranoid. I was controlling and could not trust him which made him feel suffocated. Our relationship was so toxic with frequent fights. After a few sessions, I felt the shame lifted and was able to see my own worth and not believing in what my ex-boyfriend said about me. I was able to have more quality relationship with my boyfriend."

Female young adult

When you have restored your self-esteem, you will live a liberated authentic life. You can cook meals as gifts spiced with love and no longer cook them as obligations poisoned with resentment. You will also be able to resist what the world goes after such as branded bags, branded cars, branded things….. I like what Morrie said in the book “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom:

“The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”

Book Recommendations

1. Healing the Child Within by Charles Whitfield

2. Rescuing the Inner Child: Therapy for Adults Sexually Abused as Children by Penny Parks

3. Self-Esteem by Matthew McKay, Ph.D. & Patrick Fanning

4. The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

5. The Journey from Abandonment to Healing by Susan Anderson

6. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom


Çelik, Ç.B., & Odaci, H. (2019). Does child abuse have an impact on self-esteem, depression, anxiety and stress conditions of individuals? International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 66, 171 - 178.

Khan, R., & Hassan, S.S. (2020). Childhood Trauma, Irrational Beliefs and Self-Esteem Among Adult Individuals with Conversion Disorder.

Baydemir, C., Açıkgoz, A., Derince, D., Kaya, Y., Ongun, E., & Kok, H. (2014). The Effect Of Childhood Trauma Life On Self-Esteem In School Of Health Students In A Province Of Western Turkey.

The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.