If I hear one more person say “I suffer from low self-esteem,” I might punch her. Even the word “suffer” sets my teeth on edge—it shows that she is wallowing in her own victimhood: “Poor me; nobody understands.” Low self-esteem, in its true psychological sense, is a defined emotional disorder linked to social phobia, but it has become a catch-all excuse—a get-out clause for not engaging with other people or, more fundamentally, with life.
Could this be you? If you go to a party and feel too shy to talk to anyone new but complain afterwards that nobody approached you, then yes. If you sit in meetings at work, wondering why nobody is asking for your input—which you feel too selfconscious to offer yourself—and then contemplate why your career isn’t progressing, then yes. If your boyfriend’s friends terrify you into silence but he insists that they’re great and you need to make an effort (while you fume that he doesn’t understand how nervous you are), then yes. If you walk around in a state of—take a deep breath here because nobody likes this particular label stamped on their forehead—self-pity, then fundamentally what you’re really doing is thinking about yourself.
Yes, I know, it doesn’t feel like that—you’re not self-obsessed! Far from it. If anything, you put other people first—after all, you’re the one who doesn’t want to force yourself on them if they’ve done nothing to indicate that they want to hear from you. But, actually, when you concentrate so hard on yourself—and how shy you feel or how dull other people might find you—the only thing on your mind is how you feel. You’re making yourself the most important person in the room. Essentially, what you’re saying is that your self-esteem is more important than theirs (or “I’m not particularly interested in you; I’m more interested in what you think of me”). After all, there’s more than one way to be a narcissist. It may sound harsh—especially when you’re already struggling with social anxiety—but take a moment to think about it: Who is to say that those people at the party feel any better about themselves than you do? Why do you think that they should make the effort to talk to you instead of the other way around?
As a teenager, I was agonizingly shy. I blushed if somebody even spoke to me. I wore my shyness around like a badge. I was sensitive, different, special. I didn’t think of it that way, of course, so I was outraged when I stumbled across a phrase that defined shyness as a form of arrogance. Arrogant? Me? Terrified, more like it—frightened of my own shadow. Then I started to really think about it and came to the reluctant conclusion that it’s true. I was behaving like I deserved unique treatment, thinking that my needs were so much more important than anybody else’s that I didn’t have to try because I was shy.
I still feel nervous and anxious at times, but I took the S-word out of my vocabulary and started paying attention to other people’s feelings rather than my own. And guess what? They responded, smiled, talked, laughed. As they opened up and blossomed under the warmth of my attention, my shyness slowly started to vanish, as mist does in sunshine. The way to be free of low self-esteem— as counterintuitive as it sounds—is to put other people’s self-esteem before your own. Who doesn’t flourish under a benign gaze? Who doesn’t retreat in the blank face of silence? The person who is desperately chatting away in the void of your apparent indifference as you eye her warily isn’t likely to be thinking that you suffer from low self-esteem and are casting around for something to say that she won’t immediately dismiss as inane; she’s probably thinking that she’s boring the pants off you or that you’re not interested or don’t care—when, of course, the opposite is true. You care too much—but mostly about yourself and how you’ll come across.
What we’re really talking about is self-consciousness. Being too conscious of yourself is the badge of adolescence. Teenagers live in an almost-permanent state of self-consciousness because they literally need to: Neurological research reveals that the adolescent brain is so busy working out who the self is and how it fits into the world that it doesn’t have much time for anybody else—or, if it does, it dwells on comparisons rather than communication. It’s only when we hit our 20s that any true degree of empathy emerges, but it has to be worked on and developed. And, of course, it’s hard to kick the habit of comparing yourself to others, but comparisons are, inevitably, self-centred. (“How do I match up? Am I as good?”) They are also central to a society that trades on success—both physical and material—loading us with the constant burden of a not-good-enough culture. Who says? We do ourselves, of course. Nobody is whispering into our ear “You’re not good enough; I’m better than you”—or, at least, they’re not unless they’re downright cruel, in which case they’re not to be taken seriously.
A degree of narcissism is healthy: It establishes confidence, sets boundaries (“I am me, and you are you”) and defines us as independent individuals instead of entrapping us in the painful emotional leakage of codependency. Pure narcissists suffer from stunted emotional growth, locked permanently in the self-involvement of adolescence. Their motto? “It’s not my fault.” The only sympathy they feel is for themselves. That’s narcissism at its most extreme, but low self-esteem teeters dangerously on the edge of “It’s not my fault.” It is poisonous to any relationship to expect other people to take care of us and load the burden of ourselves on others—that sapping need for constant approval and reassurance is an evasion of responsibility. If we never take responsibility for our own emotions, our own lives, our own behaviour, we never grow up.
Of course, most of us are nowhere near that bad, but that can bring its own problems. If you’re bright, able and “normal,” who is going to expect that you’re a whirring mass of anxiety inside your own head? No one, that’s who. They’ll think instead that you’re not talking to them because you are unfriendly or superior or simply can’t be bothered. So, you have a choice: You could wear a badge that says “Sorry, I’m not talking to you; I’m really shy” or, more rewardingly, you could simply open your mouth and speak.
There is a remedy to your problem: other people. Research into the science of happiness proves that doing things for others brings more satisfaction than anything else. It creates a glow of contentment that lasts for days rather than hours. It is selfless: When we do esteemable acts, we feel esteem.
And it’s not hard. People don’t expect Wildean levels of wit or anecdotes from a life full of crazy adventures. In fact, you’d probably do better just to ask people questions about themselves because that is both friendly and flattering. A well-known socialite once explained that her trick for the kind of networking that had made her into a household name was simply to go up to people and ask them their name—that was it. And, yes, she felt the urge to hide in a corner and wait for people to come to her—everyone does—but experience taught her that everyone likes it if someone takes an interest in them.
So, take an interest, speak up in an important meeting and go out on a limb. Your inner voice might squeal in protest, but who says you have to listen to it? Drown it out with a voice that’s probably much more interesting: somebody else’s.