Understanding the link between low self-esteem and anxiety

“Low self-esteem just makes everything more difficult. I feel as if I am interrogating myself constantly. I see threats everywhere – people, tasks. Even my dreams ‘attack’ me.” Sarah

In this blog we look at aspects of the relationship between low self-esteem and anxiety. Anxiety, as is now commonly known, is the emotion we feel when we are threatened and low self-esteem can be seen as a ‘threat’ to the individual and their ability to thrive and survive.

Self-esteem – an internal threat

Low self-esteem is not an ‘external’ threat. Rather low self-esteem is an ‘internal’ threat where the individual, because of their negative self-image and associated negative behaviours, becomes a threat to themselves and their wellbeing. From the relatively minor e.g. never feeling proud of an achievement or never feeling quite good enough, to the much more serious e.g. self-harm behaviours because the person feels they deserve to be punished, low self-esteem is a very real form of threat.

Although an oversimplification (in reality it’s much more complex) some find it helpful to think about the role of the emotional brain. The emotional brain, whose job it is to alert us to threats, does not at a basic level distinguish between types of threat i.e. a threat is a threat regardless of its source or origin. Understandably, people concentrate on physical symptoms of anxiety and/or assumed or real external threats. However, if low self-esteem is not considered as a possible threat and cause of someone’s anxiety, then their attempts at dealing with it might prove unsuccessful.

Low self-esteem, left alone, effectively places someone in a permanent state of anxiety.

Past, present and future

Another function of our emotional brains is to consider the relationship between our past, present and future. For example, current neuroscience has identified parts of our brains whose job it is to go into our future and, based on an assessment of our current approach to life, determine the likely future ahead of us. If the conclusion is a for a negative future then this a threat to us. The result? Anxiety.

People with low self-esteem often have difficult or problematic pasts; pasts that are constantly woven into their present with all the implications this has for their future. Anxiety can be seen as the emotional brain’s attempt to communicate with its ‘owner’ to do something about this negative, repetitive and yes threatening process. The longer it continues, the greater the levels of anxiety.

Low self-esteem, perfectionism and anxiety

People with low self-esteem are often perfectionists because faced with constant disappointments they seek to deal with them through striving for perfection. This can open up what might be called a ‘fantasy-reality gap’, which represents the difference between how things are and how someone wants them to be. We all have a fantasy-reality gap, of course, it’s just that they can be larger for people with low self-esteem. People with good levels of self-esteem are OK with how things are, so they have no need to strive for the impossibly perfect.

High levels of anxiety ‘pour’ into our fantasy-reality gap because perpetually striving for perfection, an ultimately impossible goal, can be a long-term threat to physical and mental health. Perfectionism as a response to low self-esteem, is another way of switching on a state of anxiety. Left unchecked it is exhausting and extremely demoralising.

The vicious circle of anxiety

As anyone who experiences anxiety will testify, it is an unpleasant emotional state to be in. Understandably, people seek ways out of this state, but when these attempts are problematic anxiety can worsen because the threat level has increased. The original threat of low self-esteem can be compounded by thoughts and behaviours that often provide only a short-term escape from anxiety. These typically include avoidant, addictive or obsessive-compulsive patterns of thought and behaviour, all of which threaten someone’s present and future wellbeing. A vicious circle of anxiety can be set in motion when someone makes understandable if unhelpful attempts to deal with it.

Getting support for low self-esteem and anxiety

We hope you have found this blog helpful in developing your understanding of the relationship between low self-esteem and anxiety. If you or someone that you know are struggling with the issues covered, it is really important to seek help. At Conversations With Impact, we offer a safe and confidential setting, where our clients can openly discuss their issues free from any judgement. For more details, please get in touch.

You can also read our blog on How to Spot the Signs of an Anxiety or Panic Disorder.