Overcoming a low self-esteem is as you said a big task, involving many aspects of personality.
I can only give you an outline of my thinking about self-esteem problems.
At the very core of the self is the biological self. That means that there are biological factors that inevitably affect one's personality. An obvious example is one's gender. Being a man, has inescapable consequences on our behaviour, because for one, our sex drive is determined by the amount of testosterone we produce. It is well known that there are vast differences in testosterone concentrations between males and females.
There are other biological influences on our behaviour, such as whether we find ourselves being addicted to drugs or alcohol, or whether we are suffering from insomnia, anxiety attacks and phobias. Although many 'experts' claim these to be 'mental' problems, I tend to think these are primarily biological problems, because studies have shown that most alcoholics and drug addicts etc have insulin resistance (hypoglycemia) over which they would have very little conscious or mental control. These underlying biological abnormalities need to be treated biologically FIRST, before we start to consider psychological aspects of personality by means of psychotherapy. I usually start off treating these underlying biological abnormalities by nutritional means, without recourse to drugs if at all possible. Hence I like to work with doctors who are familiar with clinical nutrition.
This is of course a vast topic requiring basic knowledge of the biochemistry of behaviour and clinical nutrition, but fortunately such knowledge allows us to gain control over the biological self. I consider this aspect of personality to be a matter of science, and not my personal opinion only.
The next layer of personality are traditionally seen as the ‘psychological’ aspect of personality.
The study of human behaviour - psychology - is perhaps not as precise as in pure science. In clinical nutrition, for example, the subject of study is usually measurable. If you lack vitamin B6, which can be measured, it could explain depression, because scientists have worked out that vitamin B6 is required in the synthesis of serotonin. Therefore, vitamin B6 deficiency needs to be considered as one cause of depression in clinical nutrition.
In psychology, on the other hand, we are dealing with behaviour which can only be measured by means of ‘operational’ terms. If we want to measure the effects of sugar on the behaviour of prisoners, we could design an experiment comparing one group of prisoners in one goal consuming normal amounts of sugar, with another group of prisoners consuming no sugar at all over a three months period. The hypothesis is that sugar consumption affects aggressive behaviour. One such study did found a significant difference in behaviour.
Here the behaviour could be measured in terms of number of punishments meted out by prison officers. These prison officers are not to know which group consumes sugar. Thus in psychology we measure behaviour indirectly. Sometimes psychologists have to be more rigorously scientific than their brothers in the ‘hard’ sciences, because the object of study is by inference, rather than by direct observation. Psychologists need to define their terms very clearly and precisely, again in ‘operational’ terms.
In the area of psychotherapy, the scientific foundation becomes even more blurred, as is shown by the various schools of psychotherapy. There appears to be a great reliance on theory and hypotheses, making psychotherapy look more like an art than a science. Nevertheless, psychotherapy, although very reliant on theories, nevertheless may be judged according to scientific methods. One psychotherapeutic approach that has been found by studies to be more successful than others is Rational Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (RCBT).
The concept in RCBT is that beliefs and attitudes may determine the way we react to objects in the environment. A person believing that ‘women cannot be trusted’ will act in a different way from a man who has different expectations of women, when their wives come home late.
The limitation of RCBT is that therapists often overlook the biological aspects of behaviour or mistake biological symptoms for causes of mental illness, in my opinion.
Discussing the self-esteem problem from a psychological point of view, I see (and this is an assumption, of course) the self-image to be at the core of one’s personality.
The self-image is nothing more or less, than an automatic internal statement of the kind of “I am....”, where the adjective is either positive or negative. I teach the concept of Transactional Analysis (TA) to help clients understand the notion of the self-image.
A therapist would be interested in the negative adjective and how this is created, perpetuated and how it affects our social interactions with other people. People with a negative self-image are more likely to invite negative feed back from other people and thus create a self-fulfilling prophesy. This approach is a ‘here-and-now’ approach in contrast to psychoanalysis, that looks at the history of the person to find out how a negative self-image has been acquired. This approach falls within the category of RCBT, although somewhat different in some respects.
I have summarized this approach elsewhere at:
http://www.allexperts.com/answerq.asp?Q ... rtID=56932
The upshot is that a negative self-image can be got rid of by a series or mental exercises as explained in our self-help PSYCHOTHERAPY course. The course also include Assertiveness training and Values Clarification (about motivation).
Overcoming a low self-esteem may turn out to be more complex than meet the eye, BUT provided you are motivated and willing to learn, read, and to allow time for seeds of thoughts to blossom, it can be overcome either by yourself or with the help of a counsellor.
This is one approach at least.