What is Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem reflects what we think about ourselves. It means we “esteem” and have a good opinion about ourselves. Self-esteem has a significant prospective impact on our life experiences and not the reverse. In other words, high and low self-esteem aren’t dependent on our success or failure. (1)
Self-esteem is one of the most studied topics. The latest research supports the premise that healthy self-esteem benefits relationships, school, work, mental health, physical health, and lessens antisocial behavior. This is true across all ages, genders, and ethnicities. (2)
Self-esteem affects how we think, feel, and behave. It impacts our relationships with others and our relationship with ourselves. We feel confident about our appearance, our intelligence, personality, and our abilities and don’t worry about what other people think of us. It shows the degree to which we have self-respect and believe we deserve respect from others.
It is defined by Nathaniel Branden as a feeling of confidence and worth:
“Confidence in our ability to think and to cope with the challenges of life; confidence in our right to be happy, the feeling of being worthy, deserving, and entitled to assert our needs and wants and to enjoy the fruits of our efforts.” (3)
Healthy self-esteem is a realistic assessment and acceptance of our strengths and limitations. It doesn’t mean we’re conceited, but that we respect and accept ourselves, warts and all. Having too high self-esteem that doesn’t accurately reflect reality isn’t healthy. It’s inflated and common among people with narcissistic tendencies. Bragging and arrogance reveal impaired rather than healthy self-esteem.
Self-esteem can fluctuate. When we’re ill or suffer a loss, such as unemployment or a divorce, we can feel down about ourselves. However, people with healthy self-esteem are resilient and rebound to think positively about themselves and their future. On the other hand, low self-esteem can make it hard to cope with life’s challenges and is a risk factor in depression. (4)
Self-esteem influences just about every facet of our lives. It informs self-care and the way we allow others to treat us and talk to us. Self-esteem affects how we value and communicate our needs, thoughts, and feelings and underpins personal integrity and our ability to pursue goals. It determines our sense of well-being, how we parent, our success in the workplace, and relationship satisfaction. In fact, it’s predictive of marital longevity. (5)
Origins of Self-Esteem
Healthy self-esteem is learned. Positive reinforcement during the developing years is the strongest marker for positive self-worth later on in life. Particularly in the early formative years, our thoughts and feelings, role models, and how people react to us influences our self-esteem. Although it’s affected by life experiences, including at school, it’s largely determined through childhood interactions with people closest to us, whose opinion matters most, such as our parents, siblings, friends, and teachers. There are many causes for low self-esteem, including neglectful, abusive, controlling, or judgmental parenting, bullying by peers, or even mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. It can stem from underlying shame if we didn’t feel unconditionally loved and valued by a parent.(6)
Signs and Symptoms of Low Self-Esteem
With low self-esteem, we don’t value our own opinions, needs, and ideas as much as those of other people. We’re self-critical and focus on our perceived weaknesses and flaws, yet ignore or dismiss our strengths, skill, and success. We negatively compare ourselves to others who we think are more attractive, capable or successful. We have difficulty accepting negative feedback and may be risk-averse due to our fear of failing.
The following symptoms are treatable with self-esteem therapy:
- Feeling worthless or that your life is meaningless
- Feeling incompetent or inferior
- Feeling unloved or generally unwanted or disliked
- Needing others’ approval and opinions
- Anxiety about being disliked or rejected
- Frequent or irrational feelings of guilt
- Self-criticalness or criticalness of others
- Self-doubt and indecision
- Fear of making mistakes
- Self-destructive behavior
- Deference to others
- Comparing yourself to others
- Discounting your needs, feelings, and wants
- Staying in relationships where your investment or love isn’t reciprocated
- Defensiveness and hypersensitivity to criticism or negative feedback
- Discomfort with compliments
- Difficulty speaking up, sharing opinions, or setting limits with people
- Frequent negative thoughts and emotions
- Being drawn to destructive relationships
- Difficulty trusting yourself
- Fear of intimacy
- Envy of others
- Difficulty starting and completing tasks or pursuing goals
- Distorted views of yourself and others
- Lack of agency – a feeling of “I can’t” instead of “I can”
Feeling disconnected from others lowers our self-esteem. One-fifth of Americans reported that their self-esteem was negatively impacted during the pandemic. Many turned to overeating or alcohol and drugs, which compounds the problem. Isolation, depression and anxiety, financial and health losses, disruption of employment and education, and lack of social activities all contributed to lowering self-esteem for many individuals. Post-pandemic presents the challenge of rebuilding confidence and self-esteem. Follow these tips:
Eat a balanced, healthy diet.
Exercise regularly to build strength and endurance.
Get sufficient sleep.
Stay connected to friends and family.
Recharge your social life through meet-ups and groups or taking a class.
Avoid alcohol and drugs.
Go slow to not overwhelm, fatigue, or disappoint yourself due to unrealistic expectations.
Treatment for Low Self-Esteem
Therapy and changing our beliefs, behavior, and how we think about ourselves can raise our self-esteem. Since many people have struggled with self-esteem issues from early childhood until the present, it’s often necessary to seek therapy for this condition as it’s one that most people aren’t often able to treat on their own. Left untreated, this could lead to serious mental health issues and even self-harm. If your relationship is suffering, improving your self-esteem increases relationship satisfaction for both you and your partner. (7) Often, when only one person enters therapy, the relationship changes for the better, and happiness increases for the couple.
Having a supportive and caring therapist to guide you to a more realistic sense of self, as well as encourage and help you to take risks and focus on the positives to overcome the grip that low self self-esteem can have.
The therapy to treat self-worth issues is often coined “person-centered” or “person-centric,” meaning that you work from the inside out. Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in the treatment of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. (8) It helps you recognize the cause and monitor negative beliefs, doubt, and anxiety in order to alleviate painful feelings and enables you to take constructive action.
Once you recognize things that trigger low self-esteem, such as the way you look in a bathing suit, or how you feel when you assumed people were talking about you, you can begin to reassure yourself that your limits are self-imposed. The trapped feeling that people with self-esteem issues regularly face can be ameliorated by learning to evaluate the situation and changing negative thoughts. Taking a new and objective view of oneself and the situation is the key to overcoming the powerful psycho-dynamic that is low self-esteem.
Help for Low Self-Esteem
In addition to seeking individual psychotherapy and/or cognitive-behavioral group therapy, there are things you can do on your own to improve your self-esteem, such as:
- Monitor your negative self-talk
- Learn mindfulness meditation
- Take an assertiveness class
- Take risks to develop your skills and improve your performance
- Make gratitude lists
Find a Therapist: If you are ready to get help from a mental health professional visit the TherapyTribe directory to search thousands of therapists and find a therapist specializing in self-esteem counseling in your area.
(1) Orth U1, Robins RW, Widaman KF. “Life-span development of self-esteem and its effects on important life outcomes.” J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012 Jun;102(6):1271-88. doi: 10.1037/a0025558. Epub 2011 Sep 26.
(2) Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2022). Is high self-esteem beneficial? Revisiting a classic question. American Psychologist, 77(1), 5–17. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000922
(3) Brandon, Nathaniel. (1992). The Power of Self-Esteem. Health Communications, Inc. Deerfield Beach, Florida.
(4) Orth U1, Robins RW, Trzesniewski KH, Maes J, Schmitt M. “Low self-esteem is a risk factor for depressive symptoms from young adulthood to old age.” Abnorm Psychol. 2009 Aug;118(3):472-8. doi: 10.1037/a0015922.
(5) Lavner, J. A., Bradbury, T. N., & Karney, B. R. (2012). “Incremental change or initial differences? Testing two models of marital deterioration.” Journal of Family Psychology, 26, 606–616.
(6) Erol, Ruth Yasemin; Orth, Ulrich, “Development of self-esteem and relationship satisfaction in couples: Two longitudinal studies.” Developmental Psychology,” 2014, Vol. 50, No. 9, 2291–2303.
(7) Lancer, Darlene. (2014) Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Hazelden Publishing, Center City: MN.
(8) Fennell M.J.V. (2005) Low Self-Esteem. In: Freeman A., Felgoise S.H., Nezu C.M., Nezu A.M., Reinecke M.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Cognitive Behavior Therapy. pp 236-240, Springer, Boston, MA