Woman holding up her hand refusing to accept praise symbolizing low self-esteem

Finding ikigai with my low self-esteem

posted in: folktale | 0

They say everyone has ikigai. It is something you live for, something you believe in. It is a Japanese concept that I grew up with quite naturally, being that I am from Japan. Despite that, I found myself wondering if I could find mine. 

My biggest obstacle was my own self. I would dwell on negative thoughts and question how I could even begin to follow my passion in life when I doubted myself so often. 

I had (have) a bad habit of saying things like, “No, I can’t do that. No, I can’t  be like that.” It was an easy scapegoat to use as it took absolutely no energy to do nothing. But after a while, I began to regret it. I would get a pathetic sense of being lost. Then I would continue further down the hole and succumb to beliefs like, “Why can’t I be like that?” I suspect that it was a sign of my low self-esteem. 

With such low self-esteem, I tended to think that I was worth less than others. A wave of negative emotions used to overcome me from time to time.

I knew that saying “I can’t” had an adverse impact on my self-esteem. It reinforced a certain belief that I was not capable or competent enough to achieve my goals. When I repeatedly said “I can’t” in response to challenges or opportunities, it led to feelings of helplessness, self-doubt, and a lack of confidence in my own abilities. Nonetheless, I did it anyway.

Repeatedly telling myself that I was not capable of achieving something also created a self-fulfilling prophecy, where I was less likely to try and take risks, leading to missed opportunities and a sense of failure. This further eroded my self-esteem and made it more difficult to overcome future challenges. Yet, somehow I had difficulty just flipping a switch to change my thoughts.

View of an ocean at the end of a pier symbolizing self reflection
Image by Kenrick Mills

Acknowledge that there is a problem

On the other hand, there was a silver lining, I acknowledged my problem. Because I was aware of it, I was able to lift myself up and motivate myself to try harder. After all, don’t they say that being aware is the first step in recovery?

I started by addressing my own negativity and tried to use self-affirmation to pick myself up. When I had negative thoughts or when I felt that I was not particularly good at something, I repeated to myself, “I can” or “I will try” to help build my confidence and self-efficacy. I decided to approach challenges with a more positive and proactive mindset, which can lead to greater success and a more positive sense of self-worth.

But for me, that was not enough. I realized that if I was to ever really find my ikigai, I would need to go deeper for change. To improve my self-esteem and change my negative thinking habits, I felt that I needed to let go of the bad habits that have been ingrained in me.

From an early age, I was taught that I should not cause trouble for others and should always act with consideration for their feelings. I also learned that it’s good to follow the directions of the adults around me.

While humility and cooperativeness are virtues of the Japanese culture, when taken to extremes, they can lead to an excessive concern with public appearances and a desire to always be seen as a good person by others.

I often found myself suppressing my own desires and intentions to avoid disturbing the harmony of the group or standing up for others. Not causing trouble for others is one thing, but shying away from others is different. Following directions is good, but not when my best interest is at stake.

Surely, this was a factor in the decline of my self-esteem. It made it difficult for me to evaluate my own actions and behavior, leaving me feeling anxious as if I didn’t have someone else’s standards.

Woman meditating and self-reflecting at the Grand Canyon
Image by Matteo Di Iorio


So, I spent a lot of time thinking. I invested time into learning more about myself and what makes me tick. Call it a psychological journey into my own mind. Through such self-reflection, I was able to identify a few bad habits that resulted in lower self-esteem. These are small points, but when addressed they can accumulate into something bigger and possibly have a large impact on my well-being.

Here are three things that I decided to stop doing.

1. Asking for something I don’t have

For example, at work, I often found myself thinking that I could do my best if only I had a more understanding boss, or that I would be more effective if I had a better idea. I sometimes even wished I had better charisma, personality, and looks.

I suppose it’s normal to want things we don’t have, but when we focus solely on what we lack, we deny ourselves the chance to appreciate what we have in the present moment. By telling myself that I wasn’t blessed with a good boss, or that I don’t look good, I was actually blaming myself for not having those things.

This kind of behavior significantly lowered my self-esteem, so I stopped doing it. When I focus too much on what I don’t have, I tend to unconsciously search for my own shortcomings, lose confidence, and fall into a negative cycle of constant despair because I lack self-confidence. Instead, I now try to be grateful for what I do have and remind myself that I am fine just as I am. By doing so, I can improve my self-affirmation and boost my confidence.

2. Being too humble

As I mentioned earlier, humility is a virtue in Japan, but being too humble lowers my self-esteem. At the office, I often participate in various company meetings. Perhaps because I am concerned about what others might think, I often go out of my way to make all of the meeting preparations including booking the room, sending invites, creating agendas, and taking and sharing the minutes – even though it is not my responsibility. It is a nice thing to do, I know.

However, when my boss says, “Thank you,” or “You’re very considerate,” I sometimes find myself responding too humbly, saying things like “No, no, no, it’s no problem” or “Anyone can do that.” Worse, I sometimes believe that I am nothing special for doing it.

Being too humble can be an act of demeaning my very existence. If someone goes to any length to give me warm words, I should welcome the praise rather than reject it. This in turn acknowledges their gratitude, while boosting my self-esteem. I am needed after all. The important thing is to say, “Thank you very much” instead of “No, no, no.” It’s even better if I express myself more positively by saying, “Thank you. I’m glad.”

3. Having bad posture

I didn’t realize how poor my posture was until I heard how having a bad posture can make you feel unenergetic and contribute to a tense state. Poor posture can have a negative impact on one’s self-esteem. When someone consistently slouches or hunches over, it can communicate a lack of confidence, low energy, and a lack of engagement with the world around them.

Over time, poor posture can become a habit, and this can reinforce a negative self-image. The person may begin to see themselves as weak or unattractive, which can lead to feelings of self-doubt and a lack of confidence. Additionally, poor posture can lead to physical discomforts, such as back pain and stiffness, which can further exacerbate negative feelings and make it more difficult to engage in activities that would otherwise help to build self-esteem, such as exercise or socializing.

Improving posture, on the other hand, can have a positive impact on self-esteem. Good posture communicates confidence, energy, and engagement with the world around you, which can lead to a more positive self-image. Additionally, improving posture can lead to physical benefits, such as reduced pain and discomfort, which can make it easier to engage in activities that help to build self-esteem.

A road running through the mountains symbolizing a journey to find ikigai
Image by Matt Howard

My journey is still just beginning, but I am sure that I want to break these bad habits. In my diary, I log my experiences to examine how they may influence my way of thinking. By doing this, I can identify where I need to make more changes and improve my self-esteem in the long run. For the time being I am focused on appreciation and gratefulness, accepting praise, and making a conscious effort to stick my chest out, breathe deeply, and smile.

I may not have found my ikigai just yet, but I think I am on the right path.

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