As a psychotherapist, I'm fascinated by how easy it is to get caught up in negative, self-perpetuating cycles. And once you start on that downward spiral, breaking free is difficult.

On a small scale, you might get trapped in a "bad mood" cycle. Let's say you have a hard day at the office and you're in a bad mood. When you come home, you complain about your job to your partner and spend the evening sitting on the couch. Your actions keep you stuck in a bad mood.

On a larger scale, maybe you've always been convinced you're not good enough to be successful. So you never apply for promotions and don't take risks where you might fail. Consequently, you stay stuck and your belief that you're not good enough is reinforced.

A new research study revealed how people with low self-esteem get caught up in a negative cycle that inadvertently backfires. To protect what little self-worth they have, they behave in a way that actually encourages people to treat them poorly.

Research on Low Self-Esteem

A 2018 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, revealed that individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to seek indirect support--like sulking, whining, or displaying sadness in an effort to get support.

Ironically, those strategies tend to backfire and are more likely to prompt a negative reaction from their partners.

When their bids to get support aren't effective, individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to believe their partners are unresponsive to their needs.

Researchers concluded that the individuals with low self-esteem were trying to protect themselves from outright rejection due to their fears that they couldn't handle being brushed off by their partners. Saying, "I really need your support right now," for example, might lead to a flat out rejection.

But, their attempts to show they wanted attention--without asking--led to greater negative interactions and further undermined the feelings of acceptance that they desperately craved.

How This Might Play Out in the Workplace

While the researchers in the study examined the self-perpetuating cycles low self-esteem can create in personal relationships, I suspect similar patterns might be found in the workplace.

An individual with low self-esteem might not address an issue with a co-worker directly. Instead, they may resort to more passive-aggressive tactics, like spreading gossip, in an effort to gain support from others.

Gossiping may help them gain a little validation but it won't help them create authentic, healthy relationships. Consequently, their behavior may lead to increased problems with co-workers which may reinforce their beliefs that they aren't good enough.

Or, imagine how someone with low self-esteem might respond when they're overlooked for a promotion. Rather than ask their boss what they can do to improve, they may try to pretend as if they don't care that they didn't get promoted.

The "I-didn't-really-want-that-job-anyway" attitude may help them save face, but it may also prevent them from being promoted in the future. Consequently, their concerns over not being good enough to be promoted may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How to Repair Low Self-Esteem

If you have low self-esteem it's important to recognize the ways in which you might be inadvertently sabotaging yourself. Some of your short-term strategies that are meant to protect you from pain may actually cause you more distress in the long-term.

 Once you recognize the problem, however, you can takes steps to create positive change and banish the belief that you're not good enough.

If you notice someone around you is struggling with self-esteem issues, be patient.  Consider how their responses stem from their fear of being rejected. While you can't make someone feel better about themselves, you can work on doing your part to help them feel supported.