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Wellness > Mental Health

An Expert Shares 4 Ways To Help A Friend With Low Self-Esteem

The transition between high school and university can be a humbling experience for some. Realizing that excelling in high school doesn’t guarantee success in university could challenge the very foundations of one’s perceived potential. The pressure intensifies when juxtaposed with the curated successes showcased on social media, thus making it common to struggle, and have friends who struggle, with their self-esteem.

Although we all cope in our own ways, some may resort to finding solace in our friends. When a friend opens up about struggling with low self-esteem, it requires a thoughtful approach to ensure we contribute in a positive manner, steering clear of actions that might worsen their situation or even enable negative thoughts. Despite our well-intentioned support, it’s essential to recognize that our words can inadvertently harm rather than heal if done carelessly or with ignorance. To figure out how to navigate this complicated dynamic, I spoke to Dr. Krista Kircanski, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, on how to aid a friend with low self-esteem.

Be honest with your concerns.

Expressing genuine concern is a cornerstone of supporting a friend dealing with low self-esteem. It’s vital to approach the conversation with sincerity, acknowledging the importance of their well-being. By being honest about your concerns, you create a space for open communication and demonstrate that your intentions are rooted in care and friendship.

“I would probably start by saying something like, ‘I’ve been worried about you and noticed that you’ve been having a hard time. Is anything going on?’” says Dr. Kircanski. Starting with personal concern and ending with an open-ended question is a good first step in what could be a rather tough conversation. “Notice that I didn’t bring up low self-esteem or focus on their actions,” she notes. 

By providing your friend with a safe space to articulate their feelings in their own words, devoid of assumptions or judgments, it opens the possibility for them to respond more comfortably. Sometimes being too direct may lead to a defensive response. Conversations like this necessitate delicacy. You could guide them through opening up but it’s their choice on whether or not they want to be vulnerable.

Encourage your friend to seek professional help.

Being the sole support system for a friend, while stemming from a place of care, can inadvertently create an unhealthy dynamic for everyone involved. It’s essential to recognize the limitations of friendship when it comes to addressing signs of mental health issues like low self-esteem. Your role as a friend should complement, not replace, the expertise of professional help.

“We are ultimately only responsible for trying to resolve our own problems, and sometimes the best thing we can do is point someone in the right direction, but it is up to them to follow through on it,” says Dr. Kircanski. Relying solely on a friendship to navigate issues that may indicate signs of anxiety and depression might place undue pressure on both parties, potentially leading to a strained friendship.

In a scenario in which a friend comes to you directly asking for help, the immediate response should be to suggest college mental health sources. “A great resource for most college students are student counseling centers, most of which offer crisis intervention services or short-term therapy, or can provide referrals to local in-network therapists for longer-term treatment,” she suggests. It may also help to share personal anecdotes about your issues or even your own experiences with therapy. The stigma against asking for professional help can influence young adults when considering treatment. Sharing your positive experiences with therapy might urge your friend to explore this option, too.

Avoid giving them Direct advice.

In helping a friend who has low self-esteem, it is important to understand productive conversations. “If I were to tell someone, ‘You really need to go to therapy to work on your low self-esteem’ they may become defensive, feel ashamed, or their opinions about therapy may become more negative, all of which could become further barriers to help-seeking,” Dr. Kircanski advises.

Finding the difference between validating someone’s feelings and enabling that mindset is a slippery slope. If you think you don’t have the skills to differentiate the two, it might be an easy out to completely remove yourself from emotionally supporting a friend by directly telling them that they need to go to a therapist for their problems. Lecturing them with advice could just be detrimental to your friendship and hinder their journey to seek professional help.

“Knowing therapy is an option is helpful, but ultimately it is up to each person to decide if it is the right time for them to try it,” she says. Motivation for change is pivotal for effective therapy. It’s crucial for people to feel empowered in deciding to seek help rather than feeling compelled. While introducing therapy as an option is informative, the final decision rests on the person to decide if they want the services that you’ve suggested.

understand the importance of boundaries.

The process of bettering one’s self-esteem is a rocky road for both parties. Aside from attaining professional help, consistent support from your end is integral in their process. “If they ask you for help in specific ways, such as encouraging them to make social plans or try new activities, that is absolutely something you can help them with,” says Dr. Kircanski. People experiencing low self-esteem to an extreme could develop anxiety and depression. They can then resort to avoidance and social isolation as coping mechanisms. As a supportive friend, it involves being attuned to these behaviors and offering encouragement, while also understanding that the initiative to step outside their comfort zone ultimately rests with your friend.

As friends, we understand that we have a personal responsibility to those in our circles who are having a rough time. Understand that low self-esteem isn’t just going away after a single serious conversation. The process of unlearning such a mindset takes however long it needs to. The best thing you could do as a friend is be a supportive figure and listen when they want to be heard.

Krissie Cruz is a National Writer for the Wellness department and a contributor to the Her Campus McMaster chapter. She writes a slew of topics but primarily focuses on all things culture, wellness and life. Aside from Her Campus, Krissie is currently a fourth-year political science student with a specialization in public law and judicial studies. She also has a minor in philosophy and an interest in applied social sciences research. Although her initial dream was to pursue law, her passion for writing has led her to a future in the publishing industry. Despite a shift in interests, politics and social justice hold a special place in her heart. In her free time, she spends hours binge-reading, taking film photography, and curating oddly specific Spotify playlists. She’s an active participant in the queer Toronto space by attending events and if her schedule allows it, volunteering for Pride Toronto.