Low self-esteem and the instant-gratification cycle

I recently learned about the relationship between low self-esteem and the instant gratification cycle. It helped me understand why many people who have low self-esteem fall into addictive behavioral cycles. It all comes down to someone’s current state, self-esteem, ideal state, and self-concept. There may be concepts here that are new or that we may have different definitions of, so how about we start with a definition of terms?

Definition of terms

I will break this section into two. The terms that describe where you are right now and where you want to be in the future.

1. Where you are right now.

  1. Self-esteem–Your self-esteem is how you feel about yourself today. Your self-esteem is affected by the difference between your current state and your ideal state. When you feel you are far from your ideal state, you may feel inadequate.
  2. Current state–This is your current reality

N/B Your perception of today is how you judge your current reality. Sometimes this perception may not be a rational assessment of your current state because it is colored by how you want your life to be and may not take into account how far you have already come.

2. Where you want to be

  1. Self-concept – This is the version of you you think you want to be, ought to be, or should be.
  2. Ideal state – this is what you want your reality to look like in the future.

N/B – Everyone should have a future vision, i.e., how you want to perceive your future self in the ideal state. Many people never get to their ideal self because they are always looking forward to getting, being, and doing and don’t take time to appreciate how far they have come. Otherwise, they are so focused on looking at their past, what they liked or didn’t like about it, that they never create a template for what they want for themselves in the future.

The instant gratification cycle

When someone says they have low self-esteem, they are really saying that when they compare where they currently are and where they want to be (their current state to their ideal state), they realize they are not there yet. In most cases, what people do when they have low self-esteem is to look for activities that make them feel good in the short term to mask the ‘bad’ feeling.

Some people will do ‘harmless’ things to make themselves feel good in the short term. For example, they will watch their favorite movie or series, read a book, watch a YouTube video or do a self-care activity. These activities are relatively harmless compared to those who choose to mask their pain by doing things that could harm them, like using drugs or putting themselves in danger for the adrenaline.

In the long run, both activities are harmful because their effects last the short term. Because you will need to repeat the action over and over again, it could lead to addiction. 

In this case, you enter the never-ending, self-perpetuating cycle of instant gratification. Some people call the cycle of looking for happiness outside yourself the happiness trap. You do something to feel good; the good feeling lasts a few moments, then you need to do it again to feel good. As you can imagine, you will never get satisfied, and when you compare yourself to your future self, you will still be falling short.

The solution to having low self-esteem

If you want to do something that will make you feel good in the short term and whose effects will last longer than those from instant gratification, the solution is to focus on activities that move you forward. The solution for low self-esteem is not mindless activities that give you happiness in the short term. It is mindful activities to help you make progress towards your ideal state.

This brings on the be-do-have vs. the have-do-be argument, but that’s a topic for a later date. The point here is that you will start to feel good about yourself (the opposite of low self-esteem) when you see that you are making progress towards your future vision. For example, if you are overweight, the solution is not to watch videos on making healthy meals. The solution is to cook more nutritious foods and exercising more (taking action to lose weight).

To build your self-esteem, you want to move closer to your ideal state

Step-by-step solution to build up low self-esteem

If you want to get the most out of this approach, the best thing to do is do a self-assessment. There are many self-assessment models online, but here is a simple step-by-step assessment process you can easily apply.

Step 1: Divide your life into sections, e.g., career, finances, family, relationships, health, spirituality, etc. Aim for ten areas at most.

Step 2: Rate your current performance on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being the least like your ideal state

Step 3: Ask yourself what one action you might take to move you forward in the sections you feel need improving.

Step 4: Examine your steps for congruency. For example, you may commit to working more hours on your personal projects, which may interfere with your social life. Sometimes, improvement in one section will mean that another area may temporarily suffer.

Steps 5: Commit to taking action regularly

Bonus step: Commit to tracking your progress so that you can appraise your progress in the future. Sometimes we look back at our actions only from the aspect of what we didn’t do or what we didn’t do well. It’s best to make a balanced evaluation that acknowledges your wins as well.

p/s: Use tracking to create awareness, know where things are working, and design next steps that might work not for self-flagellation or self-criticism but.

p/p/s: don’t take on too much at a time as you risk getting overwhelmed.


One of the best solutions for low self-esteem is to make progress towards your ideal self. Instant gratification may feel good in the short term, but it is like eating highly processed carbs. You will feel good now and empty later. Commit today to make progress towards your goals. Remember that you may not get to embody your ideal self fully, but as the Chinese proverb goes:

The problem isn’t going slowly; the problem is standing still.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top