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Emotional resilience: escaping low self-esteem

by Julian Hall
20 January 2016

In the third installment on emotional health for lawyers, Julian Hall takes a look at the relationship between emotional resilience and self-esteem.

In this series examining aspects of emotional resilience I have already given you an overview of what it means be an emotionally resilient lawyer. I followed that with an article examining our relationship with stress. This time I want to shed some light on an equally important relationship in  terms of emotional resilience, that is the relationship we have with ourselves. I will focus on self-esteem: how it differs from confidence and its interaction with emotional resilience and stress.

I’ll start with the latter part first. Here at Calm HQ, we have had many years of helping individuals and groups explore their resilience and its different component parts. As our work and our understanding has evolved, it has become clear to us that the two major essential component parts of an individual’s emotional resilience are their relationship with stress and their self-esteem. For example, if my sense of self is not strong and I do not really know I am worthy, then my ability to meet life’s challenges head on is limited and my sense of fear - that is  my stress levels - will rise. Equally, if I am stressed and I am finding myself particularly challenged, then my ability to self-regulate and deal with difficult feelings such as fear is limited, and this in turn undermines my sense of self. In my last article I highlighted the five pillars of stress. One of these pillars, ‘seeking the approval of others’, is so closely linked to self-esteem that they can often merge in to one.

Separating self-esteem and confidence

Before we move on to examine self-esteem, I want to clarify its relationship with confidence because the two often get confused. When we work with a group in this area and ask them to define the two, the common answers we receive are as follows.

  • I can fake confidence - I can put on the swagger and go out there to meet the world no matter how I am feeling. Healthy self-esteem cannot be faked.
  • Confidence can be built quickly, often through the ‘fake it until you make it’ process. This isn’t possible with self-esteem.
  • Confidence, just as it can be built quickly, can also be shattered in a single event if we overstep our own capabilities. Healthy self-esteem, however, cannot be shattered so easily. It can be ground down over time, but not quickly.
  • The difference between the two is summed up in the words ‘I am’ and ‘I can’. Self-esteem is about me as a person, whereas confidence is about my capabilities.
  • f I have healthy self-esteem and my confidence is shattered, I have really sound foundations to rebuild it. If I have unhealthy self-esteem and my confidence is shattered, then I am in a dark and difficult place.
  • There are many of us trying to ‘fake it until we make it’ while not dealing with the core challenge causing the need to fake it in the first place. Dealing with unhealthy self-esteem and building my sense of self over time is essential to my emotional health, and the quality of my relationships.
  • If I have healthy sense of self, I know that no matter what happens to me I will always be OK.

The two aspects of self-esteem

I am in danger of over-simplifying an incredibly complex subject, but self-esteem can broadly be split into two areas. The first is our emotional needs. In my opinion, these form the largest part of self-esteem challenges and behavioural issues for most of us - myself included. The next part, though a smaller piece of the jigsaw, is the negative beliefs we carry about ourselves.

1. Our emotional needs

This is our need to be appreciated, respected, listened to, loved, liked and so on. Our list of needs is endless and we add to it as we go through life. Essentially, these are the needs that we somehow grow to think of as other people’s role to meet for us. We measure our self-esteem by whether people like us, listen to us, respect us and appreciate us. Indeed, they are so important to us that we develop behavioural mechanisms for making sure we get our needs met.

Needs-related behaviour could be something as simple - and commonplace - as putting too many hours at the desk because that is how we get our need to be appreciated and respected met. It can arise in needy relationships as our need to have another’s love for us affirmed grows. It can also be found in aggressive or passive aggressive behaviour as we demand respect from others when most would agree it is something that must be earned.

The land of the high-achiever-low-self-esteemer

As I have examined this area over the years, I have come to realise how needy I have been at times in my life and how my low self-esteem has driven me to be ultra competitive and driven to succeed. In other words, the accolades and awards, the pay rises and promotions, the outward signs of success such as the car, job title and large house were all ways of satisfying my emotional needs. The problem with what I refer to as ‘the land of the high achiever-low-self-esteemer’ is that the feedback and ego boost from each achievement fades, and before long I am looking for the next ego hit and so it goes on, unless I call time on it.

The escape

What’s the solution to this? For me, it is about developing a healthy sense of self. It is about understanding and subscribing to the view that it’s my responsibility as an emotionally mature adult to meet my own emotional needs. In other words, respecting myself goes a lot further than craving and working for others respect.

Once I start to meet my own emotional needs, it starts to put my relationships - both personal and professional - into perspective. I start to get a better idea of whether I am working so hard because of the workload or because I imagine it will bring me admiration, respect and kudos. As I start to do this, I begin to realise that while a promotion is nice, it won’t necessarily make me happy. I understand that the big house is lovely, but my family will love me no matter what size of house we live in, and my true friends will like me because I am likable, not because I have a flash car or because I go out of my way to appear to be likeable.

Let me be clear, as a result of this personal development I am no less driven and competitive. But I am able to be happy with myself rather than relying on other people’s view of me to be my measure of happiness.

2. Our negative beliefs about ourselves

The smaller, but no less potent, part of the jigsaw is related to the beliefs we pick up and hold about ourselves as our personalities are forming. Often, but not always, formed in childhood, these negative beliefs can be so toxic that we are afraid to express them for fear of being vulnerable in this competitive society. Again, they can drive behaviours that can be damaging. Common negative beliefs are concepts such as: I am lazy, stupid, a failure, worthless, ugly, uncaring, and so on. The list is endless.

Classically, the way we deal with these is to bury them deep down and create a set of behaviours that seeks to prove the belief wrong. Thus the one that has a belief they are lazy becomes the hardest worker in the building. The one that believes they are ugly takes immense care over their appearance. The one who believes they are stupid accumulates qualifications and certificates as proof of the opposite. Worse still, there are those of us that, once we have the label, deep down inside give up the fight against it and just live the label.

These beliefs come from the myriad of negative messages we are exposed to in our formative years ranging from clumsy interventions from parents, to league tables at school, and competitive sibling and peer relationships. And then we are exposed to the onslaught of marketing and social media. It is a wonder that we all are not in trouble with our sense of self!

The good news

The good news is that once we start to notice our negative beliefs it is a relatively simple process to repair the damage and move on. It is simple but it does require self discipline, commitment and it takes a little time. It’s worth it in the end.

Why take action?

The level of personal development I have described above is challenging to most of us. Why would we want to open ourselves up to that level of soul searching and hard development?

For me, once I am in a healthy state I have clear perspective on my behaviours, my work and my relationships. I am able to understand that I love my wife because I love her, not because I need her to love me. That I work hard because I get a sense of satisfaction and because there is work to do, not because I think I will get respect from others. In fact, I come to understand whether or not I am dedicating myself to a job I actually enjoy, or whether it is connected to the transient happiness in the shape of the ‘stuff’ it buys me that I am attached to.

By taking responsibility for my self esteem, if I want to work in a high-pressure, stressful environment I can do it in a healthy way, with enjoyment, a sense of fulfilment and knowing it is my healthy choice to do so.

About the author - Julian Hall

Julian Hall

Julian Hall is founder director of Calm People, who are stress, conflict and anger management specialists. To find out more about their emotional resilience and their executive resilience programmes visit the site. If you prefer to watch and listen to content, you could visit the media section at where various webinars are available including one entitled ‘Taking the Stress out of Law’.


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