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Escaping the Vicious Cycle of low self-esteem

  • People with high self-esteem tend to keep it that way by blaming external factors for their failures and taking personal credit for their successes.
  • People with low self-esteem tend to keep it that way by blaming themselves for failures and not taking any personal credit for successes. They might attribute their success to luck or to someone else's actions. So despite their "success", their self-esteem and motivation remain low and they are caught in a vicious cycle from which it is difficult to escape.
  • Through experiencing success and taking credit for it, people with low self-esteem will regain some sense of control over their lives again.
  • View this extract from More Than Activities to see how reviewing can contribute to this process and help people to break through this vicious cycle.
  • See Professor Emler's 'Self-esteem: The Costs and Causes of Low Self-Worth' a thorough review of self-esteem research that questions many common assumptions about self-esteem.


Finding exceptions to problems

Another way of breaking through this 'vicious cycle' is to search for a positive base from which to build up confidence, and on which to grow solutions.

One way of finding this positive base is to ask people to recall times when the problem, wasn't a problem or wasn't so much of a problem. By guiding people in this way towards occasions when things weren't so bad, solutions (or part solutions) may well suggest themselves. 'Finding Exceptions' is a variation of the 'Starting from Strengths' philosophy that has now found a home in the world of 'Brief Therapy' (or 'Solution-Focused Therapy'). See 'Appreciating Success: links to related sites'


Scaling: placing problems on a scale

Another useful technique from Brief Therapy is a variation of 'positions' or 'diagonals' in which people place themselves on a line somewhere between two extremes that represent (something like) 'things couldn't get any worse' and 'the best case scenario'.

If the full spectrum is divided into 100ths (rather than 10ths) or if the spectrum is well spread out, then it decreases the chances that anyone will place themselves right at the 'things-couldn't-get-any-worse' end. Assuming that no-one occupies the very end position, you ask people to look at the 'very worst' end and note their distance from it and ask them what they are doing that is keeping/moving them away from that end.

If the 'end' position is firmly occupied, all is not lost! Check that the person has not always been at this position. If that's the case, ask them to move to another point on the spectrum that represents another (better) occasion. When the person moves to a new point, ask them what was 'better' about it.

If the person stays firmly rooted at the 'negative' end you can still try working with positives, by asking them to imagine themselves at a different point and talk about that. (But imagining experiences you haven't had is drifting away from 'learning from experience' - the main focus of this guide.)

A happier route to learning

Do you find that reviews tend to happen when things go wrong? Do you find that reviews normally focus on problems, difficulties, issues, needs, weaknesses, failure and generally negative things? Some people do find such 'failure-focused' sessions to be useful, cleansing and even refreshing - while others simply do not enjoy (or learn from) looking at failure. They may find such reviews to be painful and dispiriting.
If there's a happier route to learning, then why not take it!


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