How Self-Esteem Affects Social Anxiety Disorder

Self-esteem can be built through experiences.
Pixabay / avi_acl

Self-esteem is known to play a role in social anxiety disorder (SAD). While lowered self-esteem may put you at risk of later social anxiety, having an anxiety disorder can also make you feel worse about yourself. In this way, these two afflictions interact to continue a negative cycle.

If you wish to overcome your social anxiety, start by taking a good hard look at how you view yourself.

Low self-esteem can create anxiety and loneliness, which only reinforces your negative self-image.

Core Beliefs and Self-Esteem

If you live with SAD, you likely have core beliefs about yourself such as "I cannot control my anxiety around people," and "I do not have adequate skills to cope with social and performance situations." As you can see, these core beliefs help to maintain your anxiety, and may be rooted in low self-esteem.

While most people have transient feelings of making mistakes, they usually bounce back. On the other hand, if you have low self-esteem, how you feel in a particular situation may determine how you feel about yourself overall. Your beliefs about yourself are dependent on the moment—so any misstep can send you spiraling into negativity.

In contrast, people with healthy self-esteem are able to accurately assess themselves, their strengths, and their weaknesses, and still believe that they are worthwhile people.

Origins of Low Self-Esteem

If you have low self-esteem, you might wonder how it developed. Or, perhaps you have a good idea when you started to feel this way. Experiences that can lead to lowered self-esteem include the following events during childhood and later life:

  • Criticism from parents
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Neglect or being ignored
  • Bullying or teasing
  • Ridicule by peers
  • Unrealistic expectations or impossibly high standards of others

On the other hand, people who grow up being heard, respected, loved, celebrated, and accepted are less likely to develop a poor self-image. Of course, many people with challenging upbringings can have good self-esteem, and even those with loving parents and good experiences with peers may develop self-esteem problems. This emphasizes that low self-esteem is not something you have to live with.

Your Inner Voice

What does your inner voice say to you? This is one way to evaluate your self-esteem. If that voice in your head is accepting and reassuring, then your self-esteem is likely healthy. On the other hand, if you say things to yourself that are harshly critical or belittling, then you may suffer from low self-esteem.

In a 2006 study published in Behavioral Research and Therapy, it was shown that people who were highly socially anxious were less likely to associate positive words with themselves than were people who were not socially anxious. Similarly, a 2004 study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry showed that self-esteem was lower among those with social phobia compared to those without the disorder.

Even more importantly, a 2011 study published in Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy showed that people with social anxiety have "negative social self-esteem" and actually seek out and prefer negative social feedback through a process called "self-verification."

What this means is that for some people with SAD, those negative voices in your head telling you that you are no good in social and performance situations are actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you think them, the more you seek out confirmation in the world around you that they are true.

In other words, you stop looking for evidence that conflicts with your beliefs about yourself.

You stop looking to discount that voice in your head that tells you that you are not good enough. Instead, you feed that voice what it wants to hear, and it continues to grow stronger. To silence the voice, you need to first acknowledge that it is there.

Cycle of Low Self-Esteem

If you live with social anxiety disorder, you likely have unrealistic social standards and trouble choosing goals that are attainable. For example, you may believe that everyone must like you and that you must never say or do the wrong thing.

In social and performance situations that you find challenging, you are likely to shift your attention inward toward your anxiety, view yourself negatively, and overestimate the negative consequences of making mistakes.

You probably then fall back on strategies that you feel have worked for you in the past, such as avoiding situations or using safety behaviors. Then, when it's all over, you probably repeat in your head everything you did wrong, over, and over again. In this way, low self-esteem and social anxiety perpetuate each other in a vicious cycle. While it may feel safer to stay home from that party or avoid a meeting at work, how does it make you feel about yourself as a person?

Boosting Self-Esteem and Lowering Social Anxiety

If you have low self-esteem, it's not a life sentence. Even if you've been held back in your life because of your low self-esteem, you can begin to make small changes that will improve your outlook on yourself—which can only have positive outcomes in terms of your social anxiety.

While treatment such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is advised to manage symptoms of SAD, and may help your self-esteem as well, you can also do things on your own to help boost your ability to accurately view and accept who you are:

  • Challenge that inner voice: Get in the habit of listening to what you say to yourself. Then, when you are critical, try to acknowledge what you did right instead of beating yourself up over what you did wrong.
  • Be compassionate: Treat yourself as well as you would treat a close friend or family member. Remember what we already said? If you are heard, respected, loved, celebrated, and accepted you are more likely to develop healthy self-esteem. When you speak to yourself, ask yourself is it True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind (THINK)? If not, find something else to say.

  • Stay in the present: See past your mistakes. One mistake doesn't mean a lifetime of failure. See past transient situations such as a person frowning at you. It may have nothing to do with you. Why not ask instead how you can help or if something is wrong? Don't look too far into the future and expect things to go badly. None of us know or can predict what is going to happen tomorrow, a week from now, or a year from now.

  • Forgive yourself. Most importantly, forgive yourself for anything that's been holding you back. This is your chance to wipe the slate clean. Know that you are human and will not do everything perfectly. Accept bad emotions as they come, but don't let them sweep you away in their current.

A Word From Verywell

If you find yourself living with low self-esteem and social anxiety that is difficult to overcome on your own, consider reaching out to a friend, family member, doctor, or other person in the community to explain how you've been feeling.

Sometimes feelings of low self-esteem and anxiety are so severe that they require professional help, in the form of therapy and/or medication. There is no shame in reaching out for help. Rather, reaching out for help may allow you to move forward and help others in the same position as you.

Sources:

Hofmann SG. Cognitive factors that maintain social anxiety disorder: a comprehensive model and its treatment implicationsCogn Behav Ther. 2007;36(4):193-209.

Izgiç F, Akyüz G, Doğan O, Kuğu N. Social phobia among university students and its relation to self-esteem and body image. Can J Psychiatry. 2004;49(9):630-634.

Tanner RJ, Stopa L, De Houwer J. Implicit views of the self in social anxietyBehav Res Ther. 2006;44(10):1397-1409.

University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center. Self Esteem.

Valentiner DP, Skowronski JJ, McGrath PB, Smith SA, Renner KA. Self-verification and social anxiety: preference for negative social feedback and low social self-esteemBehav Cogn Psychother. 2011;39(5):601-617.