Many people never like the reflection they see in the mirror. They see no beauty or charm, only faults, flaws, uncertainties, regrets, and failures. They feel no confidence or happiness, only embarrassment, shame, and sometimes, even anger. These are people with low self-esteem. And if you have a friend or family member who is like them, chances are you are often having troubles reaching out to them, especially when they need you the most.

You are not alone.

Recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people with low self-esteem may be resistant to their friends’ efforts to help them feel better about themselves, particularly a strategy called “positive reframing”, which is a recasting of a situation in a positive light.

Dealing with people who have low self-esteem can be really difficult. Saying things like “life is good, why are you frowning?!” or “Cheer up mate!” may not ease the negative emotions they feel, but may even aggravate them. That’s because these people prefer to interact with those who see them as they seem themselves. Highlighting their positive attributes could just make them feel like you don’t understand them and aren’t really serious about helping them feel better.

Choosing the right words can also be a roller coaster ride. People with low self-esteem are vulnerable and sensitive. That is, they often magnify small negative statements you throw to them, and forget about the hundreds of good things you’ve said about them. They internalise those statements and view them as harsh criticisms than people who have a higher sense of themselves.

Good for you who have high self-esteem. Dealing with life’s difficulties may not be that hard for you. But for a person who struggles with self-esteem, even the pettiest issue, like speaking in front of others, meeting new people, or applying for a job can cause them to feel hopeless, and ultimately, depressed.

Helping Someone with Low Self-Esteem

So how do you help someone with low self-esteem? What’s the best way to approach them without aggravating their feelings? How do you find the right words to say?

Sometimes, it may not involve saying much at all. Often, the best strategy is to just be with them and make them feel that they are not alone. This includes letting them talk and lead the conversation. Having someone there to listen to them brings a lot of comfort to a person with low self-esteem. Plus, if they open topics which you have a similar experience, you can tell them you relate with them, and then share how you managed to go through. Just hearing your story may give them the courage and strength to overcome their own set of challenges.

There’s nothing wrong about complimenting. In fact, it helps too. Praising someone is a great strategy to boost their self-esteem and make them feel better. But when making compliments, make sure it’s genuine and sincere. Your friend or loved one should feel that the praise is really something true and positive, and you’re not just saying it.

Try to find out what they are struggling with. There are many reasons why people might feel inferior. It could be due to traumatic childhood experiences, social fear, loneliness, physical disabilities, etc. When you know where they are coming from, you will find it easier to relate to them and choose appropriate responses when dealing with them.

If that person’s lack of self-esteem streams down from not being able to accomplish something, focus on helping them in this area. Maybe you can ask your friend or loved one to engage in an activity that is slightly above their ability level, and help them all through the way to complete it. Even small achievements and accomplishments can make big wonders in their self-esteem.

And most of all, it is crucial to acknowledge the difficult situation your friend or loved one is in. And convey to them that it is okay to experience negative emotions (even those with high self-esteem are vulnerable to experiencing such). Try to encourage them to seek therapy. There are several treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and psychotherapy, which have been proven to help people boost their self-esteem.

You can’t just ‘catch a grenade’ for your friend, partner or loved one. You may, but that doesn’t guarantee that they will have stronger self-esteem and be able to overcome future challenges. Remember that it is not your job to make bad things go away. However, you can show great support by just being there for them – ready to listen, show compassion, understand them, and accept them for who they are.

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