Low Self-Esteem: What it is, why it persists, how to work with it
Low self-esteem is a pervasive belief held by a part or parts (exiles) about not being of value to itself or others. These parts are often coupled with parts experiencing depression and/or anxiety. Parts with low esteem do not like themselves and believe they should be better. The exiled parts that hold these beliefs and feelings want to return to the system and will “blend” with you (take over) in order to get your attention. When we are unaware that this is what is happening we will experience the blending as being “Me.” These parts blend in order to get our attention.
Exiled parts are young and may have experienced criticism or shaming from others – parents, other adults or peers. Because children are trusting of adults and are told or expect that they will be nurtured by them, parts that experience shaming or other forms of abuse will believe that there, is something wrong with them, that they should perhaps have never been born, that they are not entitled to happiness or internalize other similar messages. Living with such beliefs within the family unit where escape is impossible is intolerable, so these parts are exiled from the system.
Other parts (managers) who seek to maintain order within the system may take on the role of the internalized parent or abuser and remind the exiled part of its worthlessness. They may use the critical voice to trivialize, minimise or discount the reality of the pain held by the exile.
Still other parts will hold the belief that they were hurt because they were not good enough and will decide that they simply need to try harder to get the attention/affection/praise they need. Chronic people-pleasing activities can result from these parts. One of the tragedies of this organization of the parts is that even if the behaviour results in positive feedback, it will “land” on a part that says, “If you only knew the truth about me (my badness/worthlessness) you would not offer me praise.” Therefore despite the best (and exhausting!) efforts of the approval-seeking parts, nothing can shift the exiles acquired beliefs about itself.
Holding a belief or feeling that you are worthless is soul-crushing and firefighters will do much in the way of distracting us from encountering exiles that hold these positions. The range of firefighter activities is quite vast (alcohol, drugs, cutting, disordered eating, sex bingeing, overwork, gambling, sleeping, TV watching etc) and firefighters are doing their best to protect the system. Their strategies are, however short-lived at best, and when they trust that your goal is to get to know and help the exiles they are often willing to allow the Self access.
Working with Exiles
Fortunately when you bring Self to the exiled parts and listen to them they are able to unburden their beliefs and escape from their prisons in the past. If there had been a trusted and loving adult available at the time the exile was created the child would have been reassured about its worth and value and the exile would not have been born. The good news is that since beliefs are acquired (we’re not born with them) they can therefore be shed.