The ‘Low Self-Esteem Habit’

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‘Self praise is no praise!’

Many years before I encountered the thinking skills of NLP I lived in Ireland. We youngsters, in that very repressive and very catholic-religious society of half a century ago, accepted the wisdom of our elders.


And the system we had been raised in meant that ‘elders’ could be anyone older than us: teachers, priests, ‘religious brothers’, adult neighbours, police,  or even youngsters in the next school class above us. 

(Click here to go to a two-part article on the Low Self-Confidence Habit’)

The accepted wisdom

One pervasive message that we received frequently was the warning ‘self praise is no praise’!

This came at us from every direction – from parents, neighbours, priests, teachers, and school mates. It was a way of ensuring people didn’t take on ‘airs and graces’ i.e. didn’t get too confident or boastful but knew their place in society. And remained there.

Now when, as a child, you hear rules such as this repeated often enough they become internalised. They become The Truth – not to be challenged nor questioned. They also become our own standards. That’s how it worked for me until I was about 16 and came across ‘positive thinking’ books by authors such as Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale – and Lin Yutang’s though-provoking The Importance of Living. They opened my eyes to what was happening – and they began a journey.

Learning to doubt oneself

Much of our low self esteem is the result of similarly internalised rules-to-live-by:

  • You’re useless – you’ll never amount to anything!
  • Who told you that you could sing?
  • Why can’t you just this once get it right?
  • You’re not going out looking like that – are you?
  • Speak when you’re spoken to – children should be seen and not heard!

The list is endless. And these are just some of the verbalised messages. The list does not include the powerful range of non-verbal messages which we absorb as a result of how we are treated as children and which result in our doubting ourselves – and in our valuing other peoples opinions of ourselves and our performance more highly than our own.

Our short-lived fight back

Of course we don’t passively accept such messages nor such treatment. Initially we rebel or reject. But when you’re a child you don’t have much power and pretty soon you accept the inevitable – they know best and it’s easier to give in.

It’s a bit like the situation of the frisky young puppy who wants to run freely here and there with a zest for life. That doesn’t suit her owners so she has to be taught to walk on a leash. Initially she fights this but after a few weeks she accepts that she doesn’t have the right to do as she pleases… and obediently does what they want her to do: this is how life is – I know my place.

The ‘low self esteem habit’

Most of us go through a similar conditioning process to the puppy. For the first year or so of our lives we’re free and frisky. And then we have to be taught right from wrong. Now, rather than deciding for ourselves we learn that others know best.

So we get into the better to check than risk habit – and go around checking how am I doing, how do I look, do they like me, will this upset them, am I good enough?

We have learned to walk on the leash – we have acquired the low self esteem habit. And unless we do something about it it’s with us for life. It doesn’t fade away as we get older. Acquiring more money doesn’t kill it off. Nor does having a bigger car. Nor medical (or other) drugs. Nor excelling in sport or business. Nor does finding a loving partner or having lots of loving children.

These are compensations rather than cures.

The solution

This begins with clearly recognising that high self esteem is our right.

We are not born with low self esteem. Think about it: a six-month old baby doesn’t need it yet 15 or 50 years later she or he does – how come? Because we learn to have low self esteem. We learn to doubt ourselves and to compare ourselves unfavourably with others. It begins with a conditioning process and then becomes a habit – and soon feels so natural to us that we accept/believe ‘this is how I am’.

Yet it is just a habitual way of thinking. It is just an unuseful mental programme which we picked up along the way. It is just a set of neural associations which we have used so often that they have become quite powerful and feel ‘natural’.

This recognition is not very new, either. About 100 years ago the great American writer William James observed ‘All our life … is but a mass of habits’.

Some action points

So if low self esteem is just a habit how can we replace it with better habits? The following are some starting points. And the good news is that they don’t require effort – just persistence.

It’s a habit: Continually remind yourself that low self esteem habit is just that – a thinking habit which you ‘picked up’ along the way and which is lying on top of your natural ability to feel good about yourself.

Self talk: Pay attention to how your habitual self talk maintains this habit. And now use the puppy analogy to your advantage: when you catch yourself self-undermining pull yourself back: ‘Stop. This is just an old habit – which I don’t need to run anymore!’ (And do remember that while you can train a puppy in a few weeks it takes more persistence with an adult dog…)

Self put-downs: Listen to ways in which you may put yourself down when in conversation with others e.g. ‘Oh, I’m such a fool… I’ve got a head like a sieve… I can never get anything right’ and so on. Persistently give these the puppy treatment, too.

Step out of Comfort: At least every few days do something mildly stretching – something which takes you out of your Comfort Zone and briefly into Stretch Zone. Doing something different is energising – and welcome the initial discomfort.  Check these articles

Praise yourself: Sincerely praise yourself when you stretch yourself and when you pull back a negative self criticism – do this silently and make sure your inner voice tone sounds as if you mean it.

(If you have had some in-depth NLP training, there are some excellent techniques for dealing with the habit including Parts Negotiation and the powerful Reimprinting Method – plus a range of methods using the anchoring process.).

Have goals and milestones

Decide you’re en route to freedom – to being free from an un-useful habit. Recognise that this will take a little time to achieve – but that each little freedom is life enhancing.

Think about how your life will be in 12 months time as a result of your habit-replacing programme. Make this your goal. Now decide where you want to be along the way e.g. in 9 months, 6 months, 3 months, 1 month, 2 weeks. These are your milestones – against which you assess your progress.

Learn from each set-back. Accept that there will be lots and lots of moments when the old habit will kick in – after all it’s been around for a while. Be nice to yourself when you slip up: learn from these moments, so you benefit from them, and then move on.


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