Coping with Low Self-Esteem

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume C, No. 6June, 2000

Jackelyn Frost, CSW

Most people’s feelings and thoughts about themselves fluctuate somewhat, based on their daily experiences. How you did in your latest audition, how your employer treats you, ups and downs in a romantic relationship – all can have a temporary impact on your sense of well being.

If you have good basic self-esteem, normal ups and downs may lead to temporary fluctuations in how you feel about yourself, but only to a limited extent. By contrast, if you have poor basic self-esteem, the ups and downs may be extreme, and may cause pervasive problems in your life. When struggling with poor self-esteem, how you did in a recent performance can determine how you feel about yourself. You may rely on positive external experiences to counteract negative feelings and thoughts that plague you. And even then, good feelings (generated by a successful performance, etc.) can be temporary.

People tend to rely on some combination of internal and external sources to maintain their sense of self-esteem. When your self-esteem is shaky – or you are functioning on the basis of grandiose feelings of your own worth, rather than self-esteem – you may come to rely heavily on external sources to boost your feeling of being worthwhile. As a musician, you may come to rely on praise from your audience, employer or fellow musicians to feel good about your music, and thus about yourself.

Hunger for admiration may cause you to be driven to obtain recognition, and lead you to demand high achievement or perfection from yourself. Self-esteem problems can also lead to a number of emotional and life problems including:

  • Career underachievement;
  • Performance anxiety;
  • Procrastination and inaction;
  • Stress, loneliness and increased likelihood of depression;
  • Difficulty in beginning or maintaining friendships and relationships;
  • Increased vulnerability to drug and alcohol abuse;
  • Choice of abusive or unfulfilling relationships;
  • Inadequate or punitive parenting.

These negative consequences themselves reinforce one’s negative self-image and can take a person into a downward spiral of lower and lower self-esteem, and increasingly nonproductive or even actively self-destructive behavior.

Clearly, basing your self-worth on how you think you are performing can create major problems. This doesn’t mean that you should not work up to your highest standards – but basing your sense of your own significance on achievements in a single area of your life can lead to an emotional roller coaster.

Believing in yourself and your ability to accomplish what you take on is essential in reaching your potential. Healthy self-esteem is an ingrained sense of personal worth. It is based on your ability to assess yourself accurately – to know yourself – and still be able to accept and value yourself unconditionally. This means being able to realistically acknowledge your strengths and limitations, while at the same time accepting yourself as worthy without conditions or reservations.

Self-esteem develops and evolves throughout life, as you build an image of yourself though experiences with other people and various activities. Childhood experiences play a particularly large role. When growing up, your successes and failures – and how you were treated by the members of your immediate family, by teachers, coaches, religious authorities and your peers – all contributed to creating your basic self-esteem.

People with low self-esteem were often given messages that failed experiences (such as giving a poor music performance or getting a bad grade) represented failures of their whole selves.

People internalize these voices from the past. Thus, your past experiences – even things you don’t usually think about – can all be alive and active in your daily life, in the form of an “inner voice” which may constantly repeat those original messages.

If you have healthy self-esteem these messages will tend to be positive and reassuring. If you struggle with low self-esteem, however, your inner voice may be a harsh inner critic, constantly criticizing, punishing and belittling your accomplishments.

The first step in improving self-esteem is to become more consciously aware of these negative messages and to rebut them in your mind: reassuring yourself rather than being unfairly harsh, being more objective rather than seeing problems and setbacks as catastrophes.

Another step to more healthy self-esteem is to begin to treat yourself as a worthwhile person. Start to challenge past negative experiences or messages by nurturing and caring for yourself in ways that show that you are valuable, competent, deserving and lovable. There are many ways to do this, including the following:

  • Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, exercise, practice good hygiene;
  • Plan fun and relaxing activities. Go to a movie, have a massage, get a pet, learn to meditate;
  • Reward yourself for your accomplishments. Take some time off to celebrate a good performance, spend time with a friend, or compliment yourself for making that hard phone call;
  • Remind yourself of your strengths and accomplishments. Keep momentos of accomplishments you are proud of where you can see them;
  • Forgive yourself when you don’t do all you’d hoped. Self-nurturing can be surprisingly hard if you are not used to doing it. Don’t be critical of yourself when you don’t do it just right.

Getting help from others is another crucial step to improving your self-esteem, but it can also be the most difficult. You may have difficulty asking for help because you feel you don’t deserve it, or may feel you should do it all on your own. But since low self-esteem is often caused by how people treated you in the past, you may need the help of other people in the present to challenge the critical messages shaped by negative past experiences.

Ask for support from friends. Sometimes low self-esteem can feel so painful or difficult to overcome that seeing a professional can be helpful. Talking to a counselor is a good way to learn more about your self-esteem issues and to begin to improve your self-esteem.

If you would like to speak to a social worker about issues related to self-esteem, or other issues you may be dealing with, call Local 802’s MAP office at (212) 397-4802. Also, if you are interested in the 10-week Performance Anxiety Group starting on June 16, which will be held on Fridays from 10:30 a.m. until noon, please call the MAP office to schedule a preliminary meeting with the social worker.

Material for this article came from the following sources: “Better Self-Esteem” from; “Self-confidence, Self-Esteem and You” by Stephen Day, from; “Peak Performance, Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy,” from