When you make a mistake or get criticized by someone, do you ever find yourself irrationally overcome by anxiety and unable to think about anything else? If this sounds like you, your anxiety could be the result of a "self-esteem attack" — a type of anxiety attack. None of us have bulletproof self-esteem. We all have weakness and at some point, we all get self-conscious about something. For people who experience self-esteem attacks, however, things are taken to a whole new level.
For a "normal" person, a mistake won't take down their whole day. If they mess up or someone criticizes something they do, it might hurt their feelings a little, but it doesn't stop them from functioning as they normally would. They simply move on with life. For a person having a self-esteem attack, though, even the tiniest mistake can swallow them whole. They didn't just make a mistake; they are a mistake. This person can't understand that someone else's negative opinions of them are theirs and theirs only; they internalize every last drop of it and assume they themselves must be the problem.
This may sound like a person who simply worries too much or needs to stop being so insecure; but the river runs deeper than that.
The Self-Esteem Institute explains that self-esteem attacks can lead to depression, anxiety, feelings of devastation, and prolonged periods of self-loathing. The person might experience an elevated heart rate and reddened face. Some people isolate themselves afterward or avoid certain situations out of fear of looking stupid. They may withdraw and refrain from speaking. They stay away from people to avoid the pain of rejection and steer clear of any environment where they suspect they might be deemed inadequate. It can be utterly debilitating.
Where does all of this stem from? When we're young, we create ideas surrounding whether we are adequate or inadequate in this world, explains Marilyn J. Sorensen, Ph.D. "Children who are continually criticized, severely punished, neglected, abandoned, or in other ways abused or mistreated get the message that they do not 'fit' in the world — that they are inadequate, inferior or unworthy." This is where self-esteem begins. People with low self-esteem are hyper-sensitive and scared of many situations, terrified of messing up or looking like a fool. Echoing what we said earlier about how people who suffer from self-esteem attacks believe that rather than making a mistake, they are the mistake, Sorensen points out a similar thought: while guilt is the feeling of doing something wrong, "shame is the feeling of being something wrong."
"When a person experiences shame, they feel 'there is something basically wrong with me.'"
Ah, shame. There is much to be said about this feeling. According to psychologist Michael Lewis, Ph.D., shame is the "quintessential human emotion." While it doesn't have to be a bad thing, when shame is at the center of a person's self-image or sense of worth, much can go wrong. Problems dealing with shame can play a part in eating disorders, social phobias, substance abuse, road rage, and many of personal and social problems — including self-esteem.
If you're experiencing a self-esteem attack, try as best you can to take a step back and gain a little perspective. Is this really as bad as it seems? Does one person's opinion rule your life and dictate how you feel? Find a loved one whom you trust or some kind of professional to lean on for support, and remember that you're never alone.