Downward Spiral

Coming from a very supportive background and loving

parents, Lisa didn't know why she had felt so bad

about herself. Her life was full of rich validation from

her two best friends and from her boyfriend, but Lisa

still asked why these people would want to be with her when they could be with someone else. Why did her boyfriend stay with her when he could be dating someone with better looks or a thinner body?

Concentrating solely on the negative aspects of her life and the petty criticisms that fell into her path from professors and friends, Lisa never appreciated what she did have and never enjoyed the love and affection that she received from many sources. She had begun the downward spiral. Rooted in small disappointments and failures due to risks she had taken before, her low self-esteem perpetuated a vicious cycle. The light at the end of the tunnel seemed a long way away.

Looking for positive affirmation from friends, family and loved ones may not always turn out to be the most beneficial solution. Confidants carry keen insights about the real kind of person that their friends are, but ultimately one needs to become one's own best friend. Self-esteem, whether positive or negative, underlies the way people think of themselves and of others. Influences, interactions with one's environment and behavior, and personal will either uplift or undermine levels of individual happiness.

Defined by Dr. David Burns in his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, self-esteem is the "capacity to experience maximal self-love and joy whether or not you are successful at any point in your life." Burns argues that low-self esteem and negative patterns of thinking are characterized by "cognitive traps," or stereotypical thought patterns that commonly arise with victims of low-esteem.

An all-or-nothing viewpoint and mental filters are two examples of negative and irrational thinking. Seeing things in black-and-white fashion (all-or-nothing) is common among those considered perfectionists. Those who see situations as perfect or imperfect consequently see their performance as a failure when it falls short of perfection ("I need a perfect love and a perfect relationship to be happy" or "I got a 'C' in my Biology 182 and my G.P.A. will be so low I'll never get into medical school now!").

Self-talk is another phenomenon that has taken form in the pop psychology spotlight. "Some of the literature deals with negative self-talk. Negative self-talk is a very common experience, maybe literally. Everybody experiences self-talk, which is where you comment to yourself after you have done something. It's not all negative, but for most of us, it's pretty negative," says Dr. Kenneth Marsh, chief psychologist for the UA's CAPS program (Counseling and Psychological Services) at the Student Health Building. Everyone argues cognitively with themselves everyday of their lives. Self-talk can shift two ways: it can be created and molded to reflect the happiness of the individual or it can become one's worst enemy.

Dr. Barbara Pritchard, a practicing clinical psychologist in Tucson, says that "the person with a low-self esteem and negative self-talk will filter negative experiences through their negative filter and will feel defeated and give up. Or, even if they work harder, they can't do it with a sense a confidence because they are trying to achieve as a way to prove that they are worthy. They are trying to convince themselves that they are OK. Striving becomes a way to disprove fears of not being good enough."

Mental filtering refers to the tendency to single out negative events and overlook and discount the positive events that one may have encountered. Negative self-reflections from metal filterings stem from abnormal ways of looking at situations. One word or phrase of criticism in the course of the day may be overgeneralized and blown out of proportion. Someone makes a remark or a bit or constructive criticism and those mental filters start their adverse psychological destruction.

Jumping to conclusions (interpreting things without facts to back it up) and personalization and blame (holding one's self personally responsible for external events that are under no control of the person) are two other forms of cognitive traps along the paths of negative thinking, according to Burns. Negative thinking is directly linked to low self-esteem; it's the transformation from negative to positive patterns of talking to one's self that will lead to happier people and higher levels of positive self-esteem.

"Self-esteem is like building a sandcastle," says Pritchard. "You keep building up your self-esteem in spite of the incoming tides that consistently wash it away." Dr. Pritchard believes that self-esteem is a direct function of early childhood and adolescent development experience. Strong parent-child relationships in early childhood will either instill in the child a sense of well-being and self-security or will create more abnormal, twisted thought patterns that lead to low self-esteem and negative thinking.

Difficulties in self-esteem arise,

according to Pritchard, in early

childhood, from lack of parental validation. Children with a deflated sense of well-being begin reinforcing themselves in a negative way. As adolescence is introduced, peer relationships offer validation; they are crucial to the self-image and are externally determined. People are still looking for a sense of self through these social groups, especially through experimentation in romantic relationships.

According to Pritchard, the college stage is an interesting concept for the growth of the self. As a time for exploration and growth, relationships take on different forms. The self-image is dependent on how others see oneself. It is a time of natural vulnerability, mixed feelings and a fragile self-esteem. Normal experimentation, through sex, drugs, or alcohol use, is considered accepted by many psychologists, but the line is drawn when these outlets are abused.

Dr. Marsh says that the pop

psychology trend and self-

help industries have

boomed in the last 10 to 15

years. Researchers and psychologists started to look across different diagnostic categories, such as anxiety, depression and relationship problems. Low self-esteem was predominant in many observable categories.

Based in California, the self-help bandwagon started to roll. Self-help books skyrocketed in sales and workshops sprang up all across the country in the name of feeling good.

"It's hard for this pop psychology to get through the thick layers surrounding the core of negative self-view and self-worth," observes Dr. Pritchard. She feels that professional psychological counseling is a better alternative to self-help books that may tend to twist self-esteem affirmations in a superficial manner.

But what are the underlying factors that contribute to a low sense of self-worth and low self-esteem, according to Marsh? We are brought up in settings, primarily in early childhood settings, with critical overtones, without a strong sense of nurturing. In our American society, criticism overshadows praise. Criticisms are seen by Marsh as an attempt to constructively criticize and point out flaws in the person that they could change or improve.

"Unfortunately, for too many people, it (criticism) eats away at your confidence. As a classic example, picture sitting with a little kid and you're putting his or her shoes on. Suppose the child raises the left foot, when you have tried to put on the right shoe. What do you say? Wrong foot. The reality is that "wrong foot" is one way to look at it and "wrong shoe" is another way to look at it. It's a trivial example but it illuminates where this negative self-talk comes from."

Friends and trusting people

provide the catalyst for a posi

tive self-esteem. Those im

portant people who believe

in their friend's capabilities give "an ounce of self-esteem," says Marsh. "Because of that ounce of self-esteem, you try something, you do something, like take a risk. If you succeed, that gives you a pound of self-esteem. This produces more opportunity to take bigger risks (in the future)."

As cyclical and degenerative as negative self-esteem is, it is paralleled and patterned much the same way that gaining positive self-esteem happens: through the snowball effect. One risk, once successfully achieved, will lead to greater risk-taking opportunity.

Read Next Article