Healthy interactions impact both our physical and mental health positively. However, some people struggle to sustain connections with others due to an unstable sense of self, their negative evaluation and judgment of themselves coming in the way of their ability to nurture deep and warm interactions.
Human Interactions Benefit Our Health
Research has shown that having good friends improves both physical and mental health , whether or not you’re going through tough times. We all have a need for belonging and connection, support and mutual understanding, to know that we are valued and to feel like we are worth interacting with and being responded to. In her book Treating People Well with fellow social secretary Jeremy Bernard, Lea Berman, social secretary to President Bush, writes that “in the same way that each unpleasant exchange we have in the course of a day dampens our mood, every affirming interaction builds up and reinforces a positive sense of self” . Furthermore, physiologically-speaking, the presence of an empathetic person who is able to sense and respond to our internal experience and emotions as we express them (a process called “attunement”) actually eases our nervous system, helping intense emotions feel less intense . On a similar note, healthy friendships and social support systems are known to make a person more resilient in the face of anxiety and depression, as we tend to have a better outlook of our challenges when we feel loved and supported . There is no denying that the quality of our interactions with others affects how at ease we feel every day.
Even the key to a long and fulfilling life is meaningful social connection: in other words, satisfying relationships. This is because positive interactions with others give us better perspectives of life, which in turn protects our emotional well-being . Dr. William Glasser, the founder of choice theory and reality therapy, believes that all long-lasting psychological problems are relationship problems , and that what most human beings want are better relationships.
The Struggle of Connecting with Others For Those With Low Self-Esteem
As outlined above, connections are necessary for well-being. That being said, the act of building and sustaining them can difficult for those who:
- Haven’t been socialized to feel that the core of who they are is likable & acceptable by others
- Can’t picture themselves loving and being loved
- Haven’t been mentally set up to feel rewarded by back-and-forth interactions
- Haven’t learned to trust their senses and what they’re telling them about what they need from others and what others need from them (the simple comfort of their presence!)
- Essentially, the act of building and sustaining healthy connections can be difficult for those who have low self-esteem.
To put it simply, those who developed a low self-esteem from going through years of adverse childhood and adolescent experiences will suffer from the effects of low self-esteem, including feelings of anxiety, insecurity, hopelessness, and a lack of trust towards themselves and other people . As a result, the way they think about themselves is limited and they judge themselves and what they do harshly, downplaying any positive qualities they have or the good things they have done. They also can’t help comparing themselves to others, and are more prone to feeling like they need to do things perfectly or like they shouldn’t do anything at all (they become discouraged).
That’s why in social interactions, those with low self-esteem are more likely to make a critical judgment of what they’re like and how they did in conversations, leading to even more feelings of anxiety during interactions, which can make interacting with others feel unrewarding, this in turn becoming yet another opportunity for them to criticize themselves. As the vicious cycle of low self-esteem and social anxiety repeats, they might distance themselves more often from going out to meet other people.
The point is that social interactions can feel pointless if this vicious cycle of low self-esteem, social anxiety, and withdrawal isn’t broken. Because then, instead of enthusiastically initiating outings and taking an interest in the opinions, preferences, and lives of others, those with low self-esteem will unconsciously and strongly hold on to the belief that they are different from others in a way where they’ll never be worthy of connection, lacking faith in the possibility of self and other within the context of a stable, dependable, nourishing, and warm relationship that feels safe.
Finally, if you think you have low self-esteem and are worried about your struggle to approach and connect with people, here are some tips for connecting with others:
- Stop blaming yourself for not meeting the standard that you’ve created for yourself in your mind. Manage the expectations you have for yourself not just when it comes to achievements at work but also when it comes to other areas of your life, including social interactions.
- Know that it’s okay to feel anxious around people. The key is learning to tolerate that feeling and knowing how to turn it into a less threatening feeling so that it doesn’t stop you from doing what you want to do, in this case, enjoying the company of other people.
- Clearly list down every threat you anticipate in any upcoming interactions, followed by specifying what you can do to manage anxious feelings that come up. Moreover, learn to differentiate between real and perceived threats.
- Ask yourself if there is good evidence behind your anxious thoughts e.g. does feeling nervous really make me unlikable? Is the way people react towards me suitable proof that I am unlovable? Am I really different from everybody else in a bad way, what’s the evidence for that if so? Is someone’s disinterest or dislike of me suitable evidence that I’m bad and not worthy of other people’s friendship?
- Remind yourself to take a couple of deep and conscious breaths with long exhales whenever you realize you’re about to feel uncomfortable around people.
- More helpful questions you can ask yourself: Do I really need every single human being to like me in order to feel confident in making a few friends? Do I need people to treat me a certain way (my ideal) in order to enjoy the company of others? Does my urge to leave everyone and spend time by myself serve my bigger goal of building connections with others? What may make me continue to interact with others even when I’m feeling very nervous and judged (this will strengthen you by reminding you about your purpose for connecting with others)? What can I tell myself to quieten and challenge the self-defeating voices that enter my head when I’m around people? What could I do that would make me feel better about myself and my ability to interact with another person, before, during, and after the interaction?
- Seek the expertise of a mental health professional: Sign up for a session of psychotherapy and see what it can do for you. If you’re still not sure what psychotherapy is, why it matters, and what it can do for you, feel free to read this article.
If we’re forced to go about life without much self-esteem, we will unconsciously anticipate threats such as shaming, criticism, and rejection because they are familiar. We might also assume the worst in others: that they might be out to get us or that they like having us around just so they can feel great about themselves. In addition, we may constantly question why they choose to interact with us and impulsively push them away out of insecurity and resentment, our genuine suspicion & our determined anger that is in truth directed towards people from the past who left us feeling alone, unwanted, and worthless.
Luckily, now we’re aware of the benefits of positive interactions and understand how self-esteem struggles hold us back from enjoying the company of others. Let’s use this to overcome any struggles we may have in connecting with others. Take a leap of faith and put in effort towards meeting and interacting with people (using the tips mentioned above), and before you know it you’ll be pleasantly surprised at your increased well-being from being able to be at ease around people. On a different but relevant note, never once doubt your lovability just because you struggle to practice self-love.
 Berman, L., & Bernard, J. (2018). Treating people well: The extraordinary power of civility at work and in life. Scribner
Written by :
Lifelong Learner and Mental Health Counselor
Alumni of Boston University, USA, and University of Malaya, Malaysia