Psychology Essay

What can counselling psychology contribute to working with clients who have low self-esteem?


Low self-esteem is one of the issues that are at the heart of the field of counselling psychology. People with low self-esteem face numerous challenges in life. They feel insecure, awkward, shy, and unhappy. They also tend to be socially withdrawn, socially inept, and have a negative attitude towards life. This negative attitude greatly influences them towards becoming underachievers. They are always reluctant to take risks for fear of criticism. According to Coopersmith (1967), the tendency by people with low self-esteem to lack self-confidence, good communication skills, and positive self-image, makes them vulnerable to the problem of depression, hence the need for counselling.

            Principles of counselling psychology provide a framework for assisting people with low self-esteem. To start with, this discipline emphasizes on the view of self-esteem as a continuum comprising of low, medium, and high levels of self-esteem. In empirical research, there is a tendency to denote these levels using numbers. Counselling psychologists argue that both low and high levels of self-esteem can cause social and emotional harm to the individual. The aim of this paper is to examine the various ways in which counselling psychology can contribute to efforts to work with clients who have low self-esteem.

Research trends in self-esteem

            In counselling psychology, a lot of emphasis is on the need for individuals to maintain a medium-level of self-esteem, which is the median point of the low and high ends of the self-esteem continuum. Individuals whose self-esteem is at the median point are considered more dominant as far as social relationships are concerned. This continuum-based approach is best illustrated in the Curvilinear model of self-esteem. According to this model, the greatest achievements are possible in the point of medium self-esteem. This explains the rationale for ensuring that individuals maintain a medium level of self-esteem.

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            Individuals with low self-esteem differ from those with high self-esteem in many ways. For instance, a person with low self-esteem focuses on avoiding mistakes in life while one with high self-esteem focuses primarily on growth and achievement. According to Silverstone & Salsali (2003), there is a correlation between low self-esteem and the frequency of negative outcomes. It is therefore important for counselling psychologists to discourage individuals with low self-esteem from focusing too much on the avoidance of mistakes in life. This is because everyone always makes mistakes regardless of his or her status in life.

            Another major problem that people with low self-esteem face is the tendency to exaggerate events and viewing them from a prism of negativity (Rosenberg & Owen, 2001). For example, a non-critical comment may be interpreted by an individual with low self-esteem as being critical. This triggers social anxiety as well as a lack of interpersonal confidence. This makes it extremely difficult for social interaction with such people to be maintained. Ultimately, the inability to express oneself adequately to other individuals and groups yields negative attitudes towards society.

            Counselling psychology can contribute to the wellbeing of adults in just the same way as that of children. According to Rosenberg & Owen (2001), self-esteem during childhood tends to be relatively higher than in adults. However, some individual differences occur with regard to the tendency by some children to go through situations that subject them to low self-esteem. For example, in many instances, low self-esteem among children occurs because of withdrawal of affection by parents and physical punishment. Counselling psychologists are normally keen to investigate child-parent relationships to determine the probable causes of low self-esteem.

            According to Nassar-McMillan (1997), one of the common goals of school and community counsellors is to foster self-esteem. This is particularly the case for counsellors working with at-risk populations. Nassar-McMillan (1997) recommends that counsellors should use adventure-based counselling approaches to promote self-esteem among both children and adolescents. This approach is in most cases promoted in the context of an autonomous area of psychology known as positive psychology. In positive psychology, focus is on psychological heal, well-being, personal development, meaning-making procedures, and work-life balance. In this field, counselling psychologists carry out studies to identify elements contributing to individual advancement. It is assumed that individual advancement ordinarily comes with a more meaningful and happier life.

            According to Wisch & Mahalik (1995), many research findings suggest that a positive attitude towards reality can assist individuals and groups in a very significant way in their endeavours to function in an efficient manner, such that a balance between social and natural environment is maintained. These findings have been derived through a systematic study of the behaviour, thought, and emotion of human beings. In this context, many efforts have been made to emphasize the importance of adopting a positive attitude towards life as one of the best ways of enhancing one’s self-esteem.

            The issue of positive life outcomes is also addressed by Lopez (2006) in his study of counselling psychology. According to Lopez, we live in a complex world where positive focus is critical to the establishment of a high level of self-esteem among individuals. These findings are indicative of a thematic trend that has emerged during the past four decades (Lopez, 2006). The idea of strength-based work continues to inform the professional decisions of many counsellors who set out to work with clients with low self-esteem.

            In recent times, the concept of client-centred counselling has also emerged (Butler, 2010). According to Butler (2010) people with low self-esteem tend to be unable to draw out clear differences between ideal concepts and self-concepts. To remedy this problem, the counsellor should seek to change the relationship between ideal concepts and self-concepts (Butler, 2010). In Butler’s view, client-centred counselling leads to a reduction of self-ideal discrepancies. For the counselling psychologist, the process of enhancing one’s level of self-esteem involves a lot of adjustment.

            For a client to reconcile between self-concepts and ideal concepts, self-acceptance is necessary. Counsellors must therefore work towards encouraging clients to embrace the value of self-acceptance. According to Ishiyama (1987), lack of self-acceptance is one of the problems faced by shy clients. Ishiyama (1987) highlights the importance of the so-called Morita Therapy, which aims at encouraging shy clients to accept the value of social anxiety as a tool for self-actualization instead of viewing it as an abnormal phenomenon. Whenever they view it as abnormal, they become preoccupied with futile attempts to control symptoms of anxiety. The objective, in this case, is to challenge the client to re-evaluate his maladaptive cognitive process and his behavioural passivity that always tends to be unproductive. The Morita-based counselling approach makes the use of confrontational, didactic, and supportive messages. Clients are encouraged to adopt the technique of positive reinterpretation.

            Many adaptations of Morita therapy have been made in counselling psychology. For example, France (1995) provides an analysis of letter therapy, which was adopted from Morita therapy. The objective of this approach is to enhance counselling intervention. This approach is useful for both children and adults alike, with the aim being to enhance their self-esteem. The concept of conditional positive regard is important especially in situations where positive attention is expected from significant others. For example, when parents make the child feel that he is of great value by acting in a certain way, this increases his self-esteem.

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            Children whose self-esteem is low are compelled to rely on coping strategies such as quitting, bullying, avoiding, and cheating (Harter, 1993). Unfortunately, these strategies are counterproductive. Although every child displays this behaviour at one time or the other, low self-esteem tends to be strongly indicated whenever these behaviours occur regularly. Such children will tend to be shy, withdrawn, and incapable of having fun. Although they may have many friends, they may easily yield to group pressure and easily end up being bullied. At school, they tend to refrain from trying out new things and giving up easily for fear of failure.

According to Abraham (1988), children with low self-esteem are prone to self-defeating behaviours that end up being counterproductive to their wellbeing. For counselling psychologists, one of the main objectives is to look for creative ways through which desirable action is facilitated. At the same time, efforts are routinely made to reduce self-preoccupations. In this approach, the counsellor confronts and opposes the assumption by the client that the best way to implement necessary action is by removing and resisting imperfect psychological conditions and unwanted feelings. This way, the child is discouraged from embracing mood-governed actions because of their role in contributing to inaction.

A similar challenge is posed by teenagers with low self-esteem. According to Leary (1995), self-esteem tends to decline during adolescence especially among girls. Researchers attribute this decline to concerns about body image and other problems commonly associated with puberty. Robins & Potter (2002) supports this argument by pointing out that a gender gap seems to emerge during adolescence, with boys having relatively higher self-esteem than boys.   

In the counselling psychology literature, a lot of focus is on determining how self-esteem is related to behavioural and emotional problems (Mruk, 1995). In other words, focus is on the various psychological problems that trigger this problem. Consequently, most efforts to assist clients with low self-esteem are influenced by the findings identified in this literature. One of the findings described in this literature is the sociometer model of individual self-esteem. This model is based on the view that the behavioural basis of low self-esteem is best understood as reactions to real, imagined, or anticipated rejection as opposed to the wide-ranging consequences of low level of self-esteem per se. Some of the behaviours discussed in this model include aggression, irresponsible sexual behaviour, substance abuse, eating disorders, membership in different deviant groups, and aggression.

Most of the choices made by counsellors are largely informed by the awareness of the fact that low self-esteem is one of the strongest predictors of behavioural and emotional problems. There is ample evidence to support this observation, given that individuals with low self-esteem are generally more lonely, anxious, shy, unhappy, and jealous. They also tend to be very assertive and rarely enjoy close friendships. Furthermore, they are likely to engage in behaviour that endangers them as well as those people close to them. Counsellors, therefore, lookout for these behaviours in their assessment of the client’s level of self-esteem.

Use of self-concept approach in counselling psychology

Recent practice in counselling psychology emphasizes on the importance of self-concept in determining one’s self-esteem. According to Gecas, & Schwalbe (1983), people with a negative self-concept tend to have low self-esteem. Gecas, & Schwalbe (1983) argue that our self-concepts tend to take shape as reflections of the evaluations and reflections of other people in our environment. Sociological theory is dominated by the socialization approach, whereby significant others and reference groups act as a “mirror” used for reflecting an image of the self. This approach has also formed the basis for discussions for different theories of deviance.

However, the “mirror” approach presents only one side of the picture as far as the issue of self-esteem is concerned (McManus, 2009). According to McManus (2009), the other side is characterized by the notion of self-evaluation and self-concept based on the efficacious action of the individual. In the “mirror” approach, focus is on external sources of information such as the real or imagined opinions of others. This external source acts as the locus of substance for the formation of an individual’s self-concept.

In counselling psychology, attempts are normally made to reject the external source as a source of the individual’s self-concept. Clients are encouraged to focus on their own autonomous, efficacious actions. They are encouraged to recognize a self that is constructed out of the individual’s experiential locus as opposed to the real or imagined perceptions of other people. Clients are subjected to activities that act as a causal agency as well as a platform for point out the efficacy of various consequences. A client is requested to either adopt or reject a behavioural or emotional attribute depending on the efficacy of its outcome.

The self-concept of an individual is normally explained in terms of various psychological aspects, including agency, sense of control, and self-efficacy. Individuals with no sense of control tend to have low self-esteem. The notion of “learned helplessness” best explains this position. To deal with this problem, some counsellors develop programs that enable clients to increase their sense of being the “source” rather than the “pawn” (Viktor, 1982). The same idea is normally promoted in research on intrinsic motivation, whereby the beneficial effects of mastery and a sense of urgency are highlighted (Rosenberg, 1976).

Use of reflected appraisals to promote self-esteem

            Research on counselling psychology has also greatly emphasized the importance of using reflected appraisals to promote clients’ self-esteem. In this context, the main source of information about one’s self-concept is efficacious action, which is different from self-esteem that is modelled around others’ opinions. Self-esteem that emerges from reflected appraisals and efficacious actions is commonly referred to as “inner self-esteem” (Rosenberg, 1979). In contrast, “outer self-esteem” is esteem that is based on the opinions of others (Rosenberg, 1979).

            In some cases, an overlap may occur between the different sources of self-esteem. For example, people tend to shower praises on someone on the basis of his or her accomplishments. The individual then uses these appraisals as evidence of their own competence. However, through an analysis of the features of different contexts in which self-esteem is derived, a psychologist is able to determine, in an analytical manner, the operative process that is predominantly operative. This is an important undertaking in establishing a relationship between social structure and efficacy-based esteem.

            The context of action also determines how one’s self-esteem is affected. This information is also crucial for counsellors working with clients who have low esteem. This implies that one of the basic conditions for the improvement of one’s self-esteem is a transformation of the social environment in which he or she lives. Priority should be given to those activities that are perceived to be of utmost importance to the client. Changing these activities greatly increases the chances of improving the client’s self-esteem.

            Furthermore, counsellors can work towards ensuring that clients are given greater autonomy in engaging in those activities that they like. Constraints on the autonomy of the individual may make him or her feel despised, leading to lower self-esteem. At the same time, individuals with low esteem should be made to feel that their circumstances have been changed primarily because of their individual efforts. This enables to get the feeling that they have adequate control over their lives.

            Counsellors are also interested in understanding the resources available to the client for use in the goal of producing the intended outcomes. The possibility of an efficacious action may be very remote if the necessary resources are not provided. To rule out the issue of resources as a possible cause of low self-esteem, counsellors recommend that the individuals should be given access to certain necessities and comfort in life. The objective of this move is to promote the individual’s capacity for mobilizing these resources. An improvement in one’s ability to mobilize these resources is normally an indication that that self-esteem is improving.  

Importance of the concept of action in promoting the self-concept approach

When counsellors are advising clients on how to enhance their self-esteem, they put a lot of emphasis on the context in which they undertake various actions. In the efficacy-based conception of self-esteem, psychologists rely on the nature of social contexts in which clients participate in various activities aimed at improving their wellbeing. This context influences how various practical activities are organized. An action may become efficacious as far as the formation of self-esteem is concerned if the client’s social context exposes him to a considerable degree of autonomy. Moreover, the social context should exert a reasonable amount of control for purposes of directing the client’s actions in a certain way. Psychologies have in recent years been putting a lot of emphasis on these factors as a way of contributing to the wellbeing of low-esteem clients.

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Additionally, the issue of the capacity of the actions of the client to bring about the intended effects continues to feature prominently in the literature on counselling psychology. This capacity is influenced by both symbolic and material aspects of the client’s actions. For counsellors, a major challenge is to enlighten the low-esteem individuals on the importance of these symbolic and material aspects.


In conclusion, the literature on counselling psychology contains a lot of information that can be of great help to people with low self- esteem. This paper has put a lot of emphasis on the importance of self-concept as one of the ideas that counselling psychologists can build on to enhance self-esteem among their clients. The counsellors can also encourage clients to engage in reflected appraisals as a way of evaluating the extent to which their actions, behaviours, and attitudes promote their self-esteem. Finally, the theme of client-centred counselling can also positively contribute to the work of counsellors as they endeavour to help their clients overcome the problem of low self-esteem.


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