The Paradox of Low Self-Esteem: Why We Focus More on Ourselves When Our Self-Worth is Lacking

A common goal people turn to counseling for is to work on their self-esteem.

As a counselor, I have found many people struggle to like themselves. It is a sad truth that as a species we are very critical of ourselves (and often in turn of others). Time and time again, I have seen clients with SO MUCH GOING FOR THEMSELVES struggle with a sense of self-loathing or low self-worth.

The odd thing I have discovered it that when people struggle with low self-esteem, they often become semi-obsessed with themselves. By this I mean their main focus is a self-focus. They repeatedly ruminate over things related to themselves: WHY did I do THAT?! Why did I say THAT?! What was I THINKING?! and so on and so forth. A person with low self-esteem may spend hours worrying about things they said and questioning if they offended anyone. They seek reassurance and habitually misinterpret other people’s words and actions as they relate to THEM. The less we like ourselves the more we focus on ourselves and others’ perceptions of us.

An interesting paradox seemingly occurs when you don’t like yourself – the more you dislike yourself, the more you focus on every aspect of yourself with an unrelenting stream of negative thoughts.  Seems rather counter intuitive, doesn’t it?  I don’t like myself, so therefore I’m going to focus on myself to the extreme?

The point right now is that not liking yourself has some pretty awful consequences.

If You Do Not Like Yourself…

1. You Will Not treat yourself well

Treating yourself well is multifaceted – it applies to all of life.  Here are a handful of examples of treating yourself well:

  • Investing in yourself— education, starting a business, exercise, eating well, saving for your future, self-care
  • Actively pursuing your goals and making progress in your life (FOLLOWING THROUGH)
  • Reflecting on your life
  • Productively spending your time
  • Being a lifelong learner
  • Taking care of your physically and mental health-routine doctor’s visits, counseling, mindfulness practice
  • Having self-compassion
  • Not allowing others to mistreat you

Examples of not investing in yourself – you are afraid to take risks, you play small and stay put in your comfort zone; you abuse yourself with food, drugs, alcohol; entertaining yourself all day with low consciousness level entertainment (TV, Video games, mindlessly sitting on your phone, hours on social media, etc.), carelessness with your health, procrastinating, using others,  accepting your life as is, and being passive overall.

2. You Perceive Yourself As Inferior. OR AS SUPERIOR. (2 sides of same coin)

If you don’t like yourself, it is because you believe other people are better in some way.  Or you perceive yourself with a false sense of superiority. As Adler famously said the superior complex and inferior complex are tied together.

Mental health requires the recognition in many ways we are average—but there are certain aspects of ourselves that may be above average (or below average). If you think of yourself as above average or below average across the board, this is reflective of something deeper going on.

3. You ARE CYNICAL. OF YOURSELF and others.

There is no positive spin in the mind of those who dislike themselves.  Cynicism is a way of life for these folks.  Life has no silver lining if you don’t like the person you are showing up as.


If you don’t believe you have value, you’ll seek to get validation somewhere else, and that is where your focus will be.  This leads you to WONDER what everyone else thinks of you—hence why you often ruminate over what others’ said, did, or did not say or do as a reflection of your self-worth.  As such, you’ll be so desperately self-absorbed in your rumination of what other people think of you that you begin to manipulate people into giving you validation (fishing for compliments, boasting excessively, etc.). Thus how you are self-focused—even though it is through the eyes of others and what THEY think of YOU.

The problem with this line of thinking is it gives away your power to others – if you look to your mother to validate your success in life and she tells you that you should have went into business like your sister, and you didn’t think much of your success to begin with, your mom has now just dealt you a devastating blow to your self-esteem.  You’ll not only believe your mom, but you’ll take it a step further by attaching your value to your career.  This is because you’re looking for something outside of yourself – anything and anyone – that can tell you how valuable or not you are. This is a distorted thinking in a nutshell.

You become self-absorbed when you’re focused on everything in your life as how it relates back to yourself.  You look to others to provide this information to you, hoping that it is positive.  But even when it is positive, you’re not convinced.  The negative feedback you receive carries a lot more weight than the positive – because you’d already like yourself if you believed the positive feedback.  Or wouldn’t need positive feedback in the first place!


The first step in getting out of a bad situation is understanding it.  Counseling can be a great first step to developing an authentic sense of self-worth because we explore the root causes and explore how you got to where you are in your life’s journey.

Force yourself to invest in yourself. This includes developing a strong sense of self-worth and good mental & emotional health. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

Taking action first is one of two ways that people can change – it causes a change in perception through experience.  The other way is a paradigm shift in one’s perception of reality by enhanced understanding (which is how CBT-cognitive behavior therapy- can help). Seeking professional help is a great idea – they’ve dealt with this issue before. A qualified mental health professional can help you overcome the self-esteem issues that have been plaguing you and hindering your growth.

When You Like Yourself…

Life is full of possibilities.  Sure, you have struggles and problems, but you believe you can overcome them instead of accepting them as permanent and impossible to overcome.  You are able to acknowledge the good in others without feeling threatened by it because you are comfortable in your own skin. Instead of looking for validation, you can GIVE validation–to yourself and others. You can be a positive force of change in your life and the lives of those around you.

Don’t wait. Today is as good of a day as any to begin.

If you are struggling to cope with your self-esteem, counseling can help.

Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC

Theodorou therapy, LLC

590 Franklin Ave.

Suite 2

Nutley, NJ 07110


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