Low Self-Esteem: How to Forgive and Move Forward explained by Robert Enright, Ph. D

Mr. Enright is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and studies the science of forgiveness. He has implemented programs on this subject around the globe. He has written 7 books (Exploring Forgiveness, Helping Clients Forgive, Forgiveness Is a Choice,  Rising Above the Storm Clouds, The Forgiving Life, 8 Keys to Forgiveness, and Forgiveness Therapy) and is a frequent contributor to other sources. Check out the article that this interview is based on here.

What inspired you to focus on the field that you are in and specifically on the science of forgiveness?

“I was hired in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study moral development, a research field that goes back to about 1892 and centers primarily on how children and adolescents learn to be fair or just.  I, like so many others, followed this tradition until I grew dissatisfied with it.  The questions being asked did not seem to be helping people in any deep way. So, I began to ask myself, “What in the area of moral development could make a major impact on the lives of people?”  I thought, not of themes of justice, but the reverse: themes of injustice.  So, I asked: “How can people heal from the effects of injustice?” and the idea of forgiveness came up for me.  I hypothesized in 1985 that learning to forgive might counter the effects of injustice such as unhealthy anger, anxiety, and depression.  Our research lab at the university was the first to scientifically evaluate these effects of forgiving.  This led to the development and scientific test of Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education.  It has been an amazing experience, to test effects of forgiving and to find rather dramatic healing results.”

How can one recognize that they are being treated in a way that causes negative self-esteem?

“We all have a sense of right and wrong and so when you feel that you are being treated less-than-fairly, please take seriously that impression that something is wrong. Try to ask yourself: “Is this unjust treatment?  Am I starting to believe that it is all right for me to be treated unjustly?”  Sometimes, the source of low self-esteem is our not living up to our own expectations.  If this is the case, try to adjust your expectations to more reasonable levels if you are asking too much of yourself.  If you are not meeting your own reasonable expectations, then try to grow in self-discipline and perseverance.”


What do you recommend doing to combat being treated unfairly if one notices it?

“If the source is other people’s unjust treatment, then get tough-minded and call it what it is: unjust.  Resist the lie that you deserve to be treated unfairly.

If the source is your own unrealistic expectations, try for enough humility to realize that you are asking too much of yourself and dial down the expectations.  

If the  source is your lack of discipline in meeting reasonable expectations, then strive for a bolder lifestyle in which you stand up strong to those expectations.

The practice of forgiving others when they are unfair will help you to overcome anger and lower self-esteem.

The practice of forgiving yourself when you let yourself down will be a protection for your self-esteem.”


If you can’t recognize at the time, what exactly should a person look at in retrospect to peg as the source of their negative self-esteem?

“You might want to do a life-review and ask: “Has someone in the past been cruel to me and have I bought into the distortion of who I really am?”  There may be more than one person.  If so, try to forgive each one and take your time on this.  Try to see the person with a wider-angled lens than just the injustice against you.  Try to see the other’s humanity, the other’s built-in worth.  Try to see the other’s struggles, weaknesses, and inner wounds from others.  Wounded people wound other people.

If you are letting yourself down, still start with others.  Have others hurt you deeply so that your own sense of discipline and perseverance are weakened?  If so, try to forgive those who have hurt you and then try forgiving yourself.  See yourself as human, as possessing inherent or built-in worth.  Love yourself, not because of your own disappointments with yourself, but in spite of these.”


Can you offer any explanation to the behavior of the people who cause bad self-esteem?

“People who cause bad self-esteem so often themselves are angry, hurt, and not very impressed even with themselves.  Try to see this.  Their low-self esteem should not be transferred to you.  You do not deserve this.  Stand in the truth: “I do not deserve to believe the lie of what a wounded person said or did to me.  I can forgive and stand in the pain.  I am stronger than I thought.””


If you feel that someone is causing negative self-esteem for you or someone else, how should one explain the problem?

“One can explain the problem to the other after working through some of the anger so that you approach the other in a quieter, perhaps more successful way.  You can, with respect for the humanity of the other, ask for fairness.  You can request help from others on this, from those who have some influence over the other so that this person will listen.”


How can one deal with negative self-esteem that cannot be traced to a source or are traced to a broad source like the media?

“Media can at times get imbalanced and give us messages that are not true:  You are not athletic enough or attractive enough or wealthy enough.  All of these are lies and in too many cases are a power-play to get you to buy a product, for example, or to adopt a lifestyle that they value, but you may not.  Try to see the power-plays and do not give into them.  Power-grabs ultimately are devoid of power.  Those advocating for manipulating you have little to offer you in the long run.  What they are selling, if they are trying for a power-grab, is not worth any price.  Resist unhealthy  messages that are being peddled for their own sake, not for yours.”


What are ways to rationalize the opinion that being treated badly is one’s fault?

“First, realize that it is very easy to give into the lie: Resist this by focusing on what the other did or is doing.  Can you see how the other’s behavior is not reasonable, not fair?  As you see this, it is easier to accept this:  “It really isn’t my fault and I have to be careful with this so that I do not fall into the lie.””


Are there any useful methods or tips that you can give on separating someone’s or everyone else’s opinions from one’s own self-worth?

“You are more, much more, than anyone’s judgement of you.  When you sense wrong in another’s judgement, please realize that so often judgements are very subjective.  Resist living your life by other’s subjective opinions.  Ask instead: “What is the right thing to do, what is the right way to live regardless of how many negative subjective opinions are thrown my way?””


Revenge is often a strong instinct to deal with anguish that you feel was caused by other people. In addition to saying “I am someone who can endure pain and not return pain to the other,” like you suggested in your article, are there any supplementary methods to help the cement the idea?

“You can make a commitment to stand in the pain for now and not thrown that pain back to the one who hurt you or onto others.  As you bear the pain of the injustice against you, still strive for fairness, but as you stand in the pain, you resist revenge, which could lead to your having to forgive yourself for being harsh to those who are harsh to you.”


What are some other methods of combating bad self-esteem, especially for teens and young adults?

“Try to remember a time when someone loved you unconditionally, without asking something of you in return.  Recall how the other was thinking about you and how they were feeling.  Recall your reaction and how you were feeling. This is the real you.  Keep that memory close to your heart.  It is a form of strengthening when others treat you badly.”


What are some tips to make sure that a person themselves is not creating a negative self-dialogue for someone else?

“Are you asking this: How can someone avoid an inner dialogue that is constantly condemning another person? If you are constantly carrying on an inner conversation with yourself about the negative attributes of another, try to broaden the inner conversation to these kinds of thoughts: “Is the other person more than these behaviors that I find annoying or unjust?  Who is this person beyond those behaviors?  Might this person be struggling with some important issue in life of which I am unaware?  Has this person been hurt by others in the past and so is walking around with a wounded heart?  Who is this person when I ask these questions?”

“You seem hurting to me.  Are you?  Maybe I can help.  Would you like to talk about it?”  The point is to see if the other trusts you enough to share their broken heart with you and this can take time.  Respect the fact that time may have to unfold before the friend is ready to talk.  When it is time to talk, acknowledge the broken heart and try to see the source: another’s unjust treatment, one’s own unrealistic expectations for the self, or having let oneself down by not persevering in what is important.  From there, the other might eventually, but only when ready, consider forgiving another or forgiving oneself, depending on the source of the low self-esteem.”


Do you see a wholesome identity as an end goal or as something that must be chipped away at?

A wholesome identity is built brick-by-brick, slowly and with some work.  Knowing that you can see injustice, see the worth in others and in the self, and standing in the pain all take time to develop.  One needs to be gentle and patient with oneself in this time of growth.


Moving forward, how can one make sure that they don’t slip back into the habit of negative-self esteem?

“Practice seeing the worth in others as a daily practice.  For example, you are in the grocery store and the cashier is being very slow.  Can you see that this person may be carrying a great weight inside?  Can you see this person’s inner wounds?  As another example, try to see that each of your friends is in a struggle of some kind because life itself is a struggle.  As you practice seeing this inherent worth in everyday situations, then it becomes easier to apply this directly and deeply to oneself: “I am a person of great worth and no one can take this from me.””




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  1. Very great article. Articles like these speak to me because I’m at first hand, a very critical person. I have been bullied in the past, I struggle with low self-esteem/ confidence, and I know how it feels to have a questioned judgement. I feel it all the time by friends, ex’s, that maybe I’m just being too sensitive. But in reality, they have been treating me less just then what I deserve. I try to tell myself this all the time, and that’s what you have to do. If you struggle with similar things, just remember your judgement isn’t wrong. The feelings you feel, really aren’t just impulse. They should show you something.

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Low Self-Esteem: How to Forgive and Move Forward explained by Robert Enright, Ph. D