What Not to Say to People With Low Self-Esteem (and What to Say Instead)

What Not to Say to People With Low Self-Esteem (and What to Say Instead)


Some things not to say to those of us who tend to hate ourselves — and why, and what you might tell or ask us instead.

Now that the thick, dank clouds of stigma that long swamped anything involving mental health are at long last burning off, we can finally feel freer-than-ever to talk about what truly troubles us.

Freer-than-ever doesn't mean totally, blissfully free. In these early, not-quite-walking-on-eggshells days, we're still blundering through wisps of ignorance, denial, fear and shame. But it's a start.

Now that we can discuss these topics more and more openly, it's all too easy for others, even those who love us, to broach the topic of our self-hatred with curious, even caring questions and statements that they think will work as icebreakers — but which often have the exact opposite effect, acting instead as anti-icebreakers that freeze us into self-hating silence.

Hoping to bring the antifreeze and keep those dialogues alive, I've compiled a list of conversation tips, a few things not to say to those of us who tend to hate ourselves — and why, and what you might tell or ask us instead.

  • "Those things that happened to you which you say lowered your self-esteem don't sound all that traumatic to me." I view self-loathing as a manifestation of PTSD. Whether that trauma took the form of bullying, abandonment, physical or emotional or verbal abuse or something so seemingly slight as a single word or sidelong glance, trauma cannot be quantified like cuts of meat. Any experience can be defined as traumatic if it terrified or humiliated someone into feeling worthless or helpless. Being told our trauma doesn't sound traumatic makes us feel like weaklings, liars and drama queens — which freezes us into defensive, self-hating silence. Being offered even noncommittally validating statements or questions such as "That must have really scared you" or "What happened after that?" helps us feel like wise, observant, valiant narrators instead of doomed victims.
  • "Jeffrey Dahmer didn't have low self-esteem. You're not a serial killer, so why do you?" This makes perfect sense on paper and is a prime example of statements that really "should" help us, yet usually don't. That's because, for people with low self-esteem, comparisons are crushing. Tell us that anyone else — a magnate, a movie star, even a murderer — is or says or does anything "better" or healthier or more "normal" than we are, say or do, and we'll use this revelation as further fuel for self-blame: In some ways, I'm worse than a murderer! Instead of such observations, consider telling us about talented, accomplished, much-loved people — Edith Wharton, say, or John Lennon or Kate Winslet — who have had low self-esteem. Hearing about them, we'll feel a rush of compassion which — with a flash of self-awareness, maybe kindled by you — we might gently redirect toward ourselves.
  • "But we've been over this before. How much reassurance do you really need? Are you fishing for compliments?" Short answer: constant reassurance, until we recover well enough to reassure ourselves. And no, we are not fishing for compliments. If anything about us is good or nice or attractive or otherwise complimentary, we really do not know. Annoying as all get-out for you, all those millions of times we beg you to tell us whether we ran fast enough, attained good enough grades or look fat in these pants. But you know how they say love is blind? Hatred is, too, and perhaps self-hatred the blindest of all. Praising us is not (as a significant other of mine used to say) like giving drugs to an addict. It's like handing bricks to someone building a house. And rather than overcompensate by offering lavish praise we won't believe, keep it simple and true. Even a basic "Nice work" will do.

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