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We all have times when we lack confidence and don’t feel good about ourselves.
But when low self-esteem becomes a long-term problem, it can have a harmful effect on our mental health and our lives.
Self-esteem is the opinion we have of ourselves. When we have healthy self-esteem, we tend to feel positive about ourselves and about life in general. It makes us able to deal with life’s ups and downs better.
When our self-esteem is low, we tend to see ourselves and our life in a more negative and critical light. We also feel less able to take on the challenges life throws at us.
Low self-esteem often begins in childhood. Teachers, friends, siblings, parents, and even the media give us lots of messages – both positive and negative. But for some reason, the message that you are not good enough sticks.
You may have found it difficult to live up to other people’s expectations of you, or to your own expectations.
Stress and difficult life events, such as serious illness or a bereavement, can have a negative effect on self-esteem. Personality can also play a part. Some of us are simply more prone to negative thinking, while others set impossibly high standards for themselves.
The problem with thinking we’re no good is that we start to behave as if it’s true. “Low self-esteem often changes people’s behaviour in ways that act to confirm the person isn’t able to do things or isn’t very good,” says Chris Williams, Professor of Psychosocial Psychiatry at the University of Glasgow.
If you have low self-esteem or confidence, you may hide yourself away from social situations, stop trying new things and avoid things you find challenging.
“In the short term, avoiding challenging and difficult situations makes you feel a lot safer,” says Professor Williams. “In the longer term, this avoidance can actually backfire because it reinforces your underlying doubts and fears. It teaches you the unhelpful rule that the only way to cope is by avoiding things.”
Living with low self-esteem can harm your mental health, leading to problems such as depression and anxiety. You may also develop unhelpful habits, such as smoking and drinking too much, as a way of coping.
In order to boost self-esteem, you need to identify and challenge the negative beliefs you have about yourself.
“You need to look at your beliefs, how you learned them and why you believe them,” says Professor Williams. “Then actively begin to gather and write down evidence that disconfirms them.”
Learn to spot the negative thoughts you have about yourself. You may tell yourself you are "too stupid" to apply for a new job, for example, or that "nobody cares" about you. Start to note these negative thoughts and write them down on a piece of paper or in a diary, suggests Professor Williams. Ask yourself when you first started to think these thoughts.
Next, start to write down evidence that challenges these negative beliefs: "I am really good at cryptic crosswords" or "My sister calls for a chat every week". Write down other positive things you know to be true about yourself, such as "I am thoughtful" or "I am a great cook" or "I am someone that others trust". Also write down good things that other people say about you.
Aim to have at least five things on your list and add to it regularly. Then put your list somewhere you can see it. That way, you can keep reminding yourself that you are OK.
“It’s about helping people recognise they have strengths as well as weaknesses, like everyone else, and begin to recognise those strengths in themselves,” says Professor Williams.
“You might have low confidence now because of what happened when you were growing up,” he says. “But we can grow and develop new ways of seeing ourselves at any age.”
Here are some other simple techniques that may help you feel better about yourself.
We are all good at something, whether it’s cooking, singing, doing puzzles or being a friend. We also tend to enjoy doing the things we are good at, which can help to boost your mood.
If you find certain people tend to bring you down, try to spend less time with them, or tell them how you feel about their words or actions. Seek out relationships with people who are positive and who appreciate you.
Professor Williams advises: “Be compassionate to yourself. That means being gentle to yourself at times when you feel like being self-critical. Think what you’d say to encourage a friend in a similar situation. We often give far better advice to others than we do to ourselves.”
Being assertive is about respecting other people’s opinions and needs, and expecting the same from them.
One trick is to look at other people who act assertively and copy what they do. “It’s not about pretending you’re someone you’re not,” says Professor Williams. “It’s picking up hints and tips from people you admire and letting the real you come out. There’s no point suddenly saying, ‘I’m going to be Chris Hoy’, but you might be able to get your bike out and do a bit of cycling for the first time in ages.”
People with low self-esteem often feel they have to say yes to other people, even when they don’t really want to. The risk is that you become overburdened, resentful, angry and depressed.
“For the most part, saying no doesn’t upset relationships,” says Professor Williams. “It can be helpful to take a scratched-record approach. Keep saying no in different ways until they get the message.”
We all feel nervous or afraid to do things at times. People with healthy self-esteem don’t let these feelings stop them from trying new things or taking on challenges.
Set yourself a goal, such as joining an exercise class or going to a social occasion. Achieving your goals will help to increase your self-esteem.
You may feel you need some help to start seeing yourself in a more positive light. Talking therapies, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy, can help. Your GP can explain the different types and tell you what’s available in your area.
Read more about the different types of therapy.
You can also refer yourself for counselling or therapy. Use the NHS Choices Services Directory or visit the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy website to find a registered counsellor and therapist near you.
Hear Dr Williams' podcast about tackling unhelpful thinking.
Rock climbing used to be considered the preserve of adrenaline junkies, but in recent years it has broken into the mainstream.
A growing number of people in search of new experiences and outdoor adventure have been getting a taste for the crag in climbing centres around the country.
The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) estimates there are about 5 million visits to climbing walls each year in the UK.
Find out about rock climbing’s unique physical and mental challenge, how to get started and the life skills it provides.
Rock climbing was originally used by experienced climbers to practise skills needed for scaling difficult sections of a mountain. By the 1980s it had evolved into a globally popular leisure pursuit in its own right, practised indoors and out with many variations such as:
Almost anyone can rock climb. At beginner level, it caters for people of all ages, fitness levels and abilities, including mental and physical impairments. There are courses for children as young as five and it's not unusual to see people climbing well into their 80s.
Despite its image as an athletic sport, you don’t need to be super-fit to rock climb. Good technique is more important than physical strength, although the more you climb the stronger and ﬁtter you will become. Good footwork, body positioning and problem solving will get you up many more climbs than just brute strength. Many climbing centres have specialist instructors who have experience with rehabilitation and working with all kinds of physical and mental disabilities.
Climbing uses lots of muscle groups, both in the upper and lower body. Your back, abdominal and leg muscles all get exercised as well as your ﬁngers, shoulders and arms. Regular climbing can improve stamina as well as muscle strength. In addition, all the reaching and stretching for holds improves ﬂexibility and agility.
Each climbing route is like a puzzle, which requires patience, planning and analysis to complete. Beginners will typically work out their ascent as they go up, but with experience they learn to visualise their climb and spot tricky sections before reaching for their first hold.
Over time, regular rock climbing can help develop concentration, determination and problem-solving skills. As you improve, you will naturally want to push yourself further and try harder climbs or climb outdoors.
The amount of goals you can set yourself is limitless. Setting yourself goals and meeting them gives you a great sense of achievement, which in turn can help build everyday self-confidence.
While on one level rock climbing is an individual pursuit, it also has a very social component because you’re never alone (or shouldn’t be). You’ll either be climbing with a group of friends, schoolmates, colleagues or family. You tend to develop strong friendships with your climbing partners due to the level of trust involved and through sharing challenges and experiences.
Anecdotal evidence suggests climbing works well for people with dyspraxia (a developmental co-ordination disorder) because the environment is stable (especially if using a designated climbing wall) and the individual only has to think about how to move themselves in relation to the environment.
The Dyspraxia Foundation says people with dyspraxia often have difficulty planning their movements, which makes it hard when they have to accommodate a changing environment as well as organising themselves, for example in team sports such as football.
Climbing is great for building upper limb strength and stability, something that some people with dyspraxia often lack and which affects functional fine motor skills such as using cutlery, handwriting and so on. Rock climbing can be done when it suits the individual, rather than having to fit in with other team members. This can be useful as some people with dyspraxia get very tired towards the end of the day or week because of the physical effort they put into getting through their day.
Climbing is also a social activity as it has to be done in pairs. This can be great for people with dyspraxia who may struggle to communicate and be sociable in a larger group because of their physical difficulties and, for some people, slow processing speed and communication difficulties.
Evidence shows that physical activity of any kind can help people with depression. Some scientists think that being active can help improve wellbeing because it brings about a sense of greater self-esteem, self-control and the ability to rise to a challenge.
That is certainly the experience of Jake McManus, 41, who has suffered from depression all his life. He says rock climbing has helped him to better manage his condition and to live a near-normal life.
“When you’re on a climb, you’re in the moment, you’re entirely focused on the task at hand, and your mind is clear of all other thoughts,” says Jake. “It’s a wonderful escape.” Apart from the sense of achievement he gets from climbing, the sport has also taught him not to fear failure. “In climbing, failure is the path to improvement,” he says. “With my depression, there were days I feared to leave the house.”
Climbing has created a new dynamic for Jake, involving strong friendships, adventure and travel, healthy living and positive thinking. In a way, climbing has become Jake’s rock, a solid foundation on which he has rebuilt his life. He has set up Climb Out to share his journey and help others get outdoors and "climb out" of their problems.
“It’s natural to be scared of heights,” says Tina Gardner of the BMC. “Instinct tells us that falling from a high place will hurt. Respecting that fear keeps you alive.” She says reviewing all the precautions prior to climbing is a good way to reassure a nervous climber, for example, checking their knot is tied correctly. Gardner says the more you climb, the more confident in your own ability you will become. “You don’t want to lose that fear completely,” she says. “Over time, climbers simply learn to manage it.”
Climbing can be as safe or risky as you like. There are different styles and levels – it’s all about choice and experience. You are very unlikely to get injured climbing on an indoor wall with someone holding the climbing rope below you.
German researchers found that climbing had a lower injury incidence than many mainstream sports such as basketball, sailing or football. Indoor climbing had the fewest injuries per 1,000 hours of participation compared with all the sports studied in the 2010 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine.
Typically, people get their first taste of rock climbing at an indoor climbing wall by tagging along with a mate who’s already into climbing. Many centres run introductory climbing sessions for different age groups, with all equipment provided, including climbing shoes and a harness. You can a find a wall near you on the BMC website.
Joining a climbing club is another common way in and has the advantage of providing you with a pool of potential climbing partners. At some point, you may want to experience climbing outdoors and get your hands on real rock or the crag. The BMC’s Climbing Outside booklet (PDF, 2.1Mb) is written for climbers "stepping out" for the first time. If you want to start outdoors, you can hire an outdoor climbing instructor.
To climb at an indoor wall, all you need are tight-ﬁtting trainers or climbing shoes and comfy, unrestrictive clothes. All other equipment can usually be hired on site. As you progress you’ll probably want your own climbing shoes, harness, chalk bag, belay device and karabiner. Get advice from an expert before going on a shopping spree.
Georgina Chalmers’ festival weekend nearly ended in tragedy when a camping gas canister blew up in front of her, leaving her scarred for life.
She was attempting to attach a pierceable gas canister to her camping stove, but the two devices failed to connect properly and gas began escaping.
The leaking gas connected with the naked flame of a nearby camping stove, sparking an explosion that burned 28% of Georgina’s body.
She was airlifted from the Camp Bestival site in Dorset and spent two weeks in a burns unit “wrapped up like a mummy”, as she puts it.
Now Georgina, 27, from Milton Keynes, wants to use her story to warn people about the risks of using pierceable gas canisters.
“Although I had taken precautions, I didn't fully appreciate the risks of pierceable gas canisters,” she says.
“I don't think they should be on sale. I'm not a reckless person – if I managed to blow myself up, so could anyone.”
Georgina was cooking lunch with friends Felix and Jen at Camp Bestival in July 2013, where they were running a children's craft stall, making art with stickers.
“I was cooking pasta on a camping stove,” she says. “When the gas ran out I reached for a spare canister. It didn't have a safety valve, just a dimpled top that had to be pierced.”
Having read the instructions, Georgina proceeded to slot the blue cartridge into the handheld stove.
“I tried to engage the clips on the stove, but couldn't get it to take,” she says.
The canister had been pierced though and as Georgina grappled with the device, she could hear the hiss of escaping gas.
“I could see the escaping gas changing the colour of the air around it,” she says.
The canister slipped from her hands and fell. Within moments, the gas caught the flame of another cooker about three metres away and ignited into a ball of fire.
“I just had time to leap up, turn and run,” she says. “Witnesses later told me they saw a ball of flame, two metres across, rise into the air. My tent, three metres from the explosion, was in tatters.”
Her screams raised the alarm and assistance was swift. People came running, carrying containers of water.
“They tipped it over my head and soon I was standing in a puddle, which soothed the burnt soles of my feet,” she says.
While Felix suffered minor burns, Georgina was burnt all along her right side and her back, and had to take six weeks off from her job.
“Most of my eyelashes had gone and much of my right eyebrow, along with lots of my hair. My fingers had ballooned to twice their usual size,” she says.
She didn’t need a skin graft, but some burns took up to six weeks to heal and have left her with permanent scars.
"I am always thinking about safety, that's what I do in my job,” says Georgina, a project manager for level crossing safety improvements at Network Rail.
“But this could happen to anyone who uses pierceable canisters without a safety valve," she says.
Iain Geddes of the Camping and Caravanning Club says if you’re not familiar with the appliance, read the instructions fully and, ideally, practise how to use it.
“Pierceable cartridges are a cheap and reliable way of carrying fuel and, like any other gas appliance, can be hazardous if not used correctly,” he says.
Further safety advice can be found on the Camping and Caravanning Club’s website.”
Before starting Couch to 5K (C25K), Loraine Mosley was overweight, out of shape and at times even struggled to lift herself out of the bath.
At risk of developing diabetes, the one-time couch potato seized the opportunity to get fit when a group of workmates challenged each other to do C25K together.
The programme, with its structured runs, got Loraine into the habit of regular exercise, and by the time she graduated, she was feeling a real buzz from running.
Following in the footsteps of many C25K graduates, she tried her local parkrun, initially just to stay active, but she soon became addicted to the weekly 5km runs.
A year and 31 parkruns later, Loraine, from West Sussex, has lost over 20kg (3.1 stones), dropped three dress sizes and rolled back the years – all, she says, thanks to running.
"C25K has helped me enjoy exercise."
I wasn't active at all – I was truly on the couch. Some days, the walk from the front door to the car on the driveway was probably the most activity I got. I went skiing a couple of times a year, but as time went on, I was finding it increasingly difficult. My legs were not strong enough to ski in anything other than perfect conditions, and I was starting to sit out a lot of runs.
I needed to lose weight – I was 95kg (15 stone) – and needed to get fitter. We had a competition in the office, with a few of us starting C25K at the same time. We set a penalty that the first one to drop out had to buy the others a bottle of drink each, but we all made it through the programme. There was no free booze, but I got much healthier, so I think we all won in the end.
I can't say I enjoyed all of the programme. There were times I hated it! After the first run, I had to lie down for half an hour. I couldn't believe how hard it was. Now, I'll go out for an hour's run and feel fine. I am never going to be speedy, but that’s not important to me. C25K has helped me enjoy exercise. Feeling my heart beat faster … I enjoy the feeling. I get a buzz from running that I have never known before.
C25K has changed me enormously. I had impaired glucose tolerance and was on the way to type 2 diabetes. I had grown so large that I had started to struggle getting out of the bath. I couldn't hold a conversation and walk for any distance, and I needed time to get my breath back after walking up stairs. In terms of clothes, I had gone up to a size 20 – and I looked old!
Now my glucose levels are normal, I have had to buy a new wardrobe – I've lost over 20kg and my jeans are now a size 14. I have so much more energy, look years younger and am much less stressed. I have completed a couple of 10km runs and have signed up for my first half marathon in September. I can run upstairs while having a conversation and think nothing of it. I don't worry about getting into and out of the bath – I just enjoy life so much more.
'The variety of shapes and sizes means I have never felt embarrassed about running [parkrun].'
There was lots of talk about parkrun on the C25K community on the HealthUnlocked website. It seemed like a natural progression for many C25K graduates. I didn't go to my first parkrun until I had finished C25K. The first one I did was in August 2013. A friend and I had agreed we would try to run one a month to keep up our running after C25K. Somehow that turned into one a week. Parkrun is addictive!
So far, I have done 31 parkruns. All but one of my parkruns have been at Tilgate parkrun in Crawley, West Sussex. The other one was the Bedford parkrun, when I had to be in the area for another reason – I travelled up early so I could fit in a parkrun. All of the runs are held on a Saturday at 9am, so it’s easy to plan around them.
Yes, my times have improved. My first time was 41 minutes and 45 seconds; my personal best is 33:55, but I know I can do better. My target now is to get to the magic 30!
I generally meet friends there, but I tend to run around alone. We’ll have a chat before and after our runs, but we each run at our own pace. I've actually managed to get my husband along once, although he walked part of the route!
I have made new friends through joining the runs. There is definitely a parkrun community. I would have no qualms at all going along to a new parkrun if I were away from home on a Saturday morning.
It's fun! The fact that it's timed gives you something to aim for. At Tilgate, we don't always take it too seriously: we regularly run in fancy dress! There are always people to encourage you. I love the marshals, who are all volunteers. Seeing people much older and much younger giving it a go takes away my excuses about short legs or being old, and the variety of shapes and sizes means I have never felt embarrassed about running.
I love the atmosphere and the positive encouragement (for everyone, not just the front runners); I love the fact I can't kid myself about the time. It also helps that Tilgate is a great venue – it's beautiful. I also love the fact that now I can do it, whereas for years I wouldn't have had a hope of running that far.
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