A lot of my clients tell me that they have lousy self-esteem...when someone gives them a compliment, they can't let it in. Most of us have troubles with self-esteem (myself included), so let's look at what it is and how we can cultivate it.

Self-esteem is how we "esteem" ourselves: what we think about ourselves. No one thinks they're fabulous 24/7, but, how do you feel about yourself most of the time? Do you usually think you're okay, sometimes really good, other times, not so great? If so, you're normal. Most people have frequent fluctuations in their self-esteem. If your self-esteem is messed up, it's hard for your brain to allow positive, kind and loving experiences to sink in.

Here are my top three symptoms of poor self-esteem:

1. You don't believe that anything positive about you is true (denial)

2. You don't trust what people say to you (mistrust/invalidation)

3. You think everyone wants something from you (paranoia)

These are useful things to know about yourself. Try not to judge yourself, just observe what you do. And please don't beat yourself up for doing this (that always slows down the change process): just notice what you do to sabotage your self-esteem. Observe it as neutrally as possible. Once you see what you do, you can begin to change it with some introspection. Ask yourself questions like:

1. Have I always been this way?

2. Was I ever able to trust people?

3. Did I used to allow myself to receive praise from others?

Do a little detective work: go back in your life and see where any cognitive distortions may have originated.

1. Who said what to you and when?

2. Who hurt you/betrayed you/disappointed you/used you?

3. Do you want to continue through life not trusting people? (sorry, rhetorical question).

Part of freeing yourself from past conditioning is to see where all this crap started. It helps to identify how the innocent, trusting child you started out as (yes, even you hyper-cynical folks) somehow got turned around. For many of my clients, this is their "aha" moment: they see that something (or a series of events) happened that really changed who they were. They gave up being trusting and open; and replaced it with defenses to prevent ever being hurt again. This is what is known as the "adaptive self": it's what we did to survive, to get through tough times.

However, as adults, it doesn't serve us to continue this way. I'm not encouraging anyone to be stupid and gullible. It's good to have a healthy dose of skepticism, but it's not helpful to be so over-defended that you don't let anyone into your heart. This is often why low self-esteem is correlated with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Are you willing to let people get to know you? Or do you give off a "leave me alone" vibe that would intimidate even Brad or Angelina? While poor self-esteem isn't necessarily linked to emotional, physical or sexual abuse, some studies show that when adults don't remember large chunks of their childhood, there is usually a good reason. Often, our mind "protects" us against remembering something unpleasant or painful. While this doesn't mean you were abused, it's likely that something bad happened (you were made fun of by someone, your parents were divorcing, you had a crush on some same-sex hottie at school and felt miserable because you couldn't express it) and perhaps it's too painful to remember.

If your self-esteem isn't where you'd like it to be, I encourage you to do some introspective detective work to see why. Then you can begin to address any cognitive distortions (inaccurate ways you talk/think about yourself) so you can begin the change process. Self-esteem isn't fixed, it's malleable. Admittedly, it takes time and energy to shift it...but it's an awfully good investment in yourself.

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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