Cowritten by Arasteh Gatchpazian and Tchiki Davis, Ph.D.
Self-esteem represents the foundation that supports the relationship you have with yourself. It carries over into every aspect of life. Let’s start with a simple definition: Most psychological theories agree that self-esteem refers to your evaluation of yourself (Mruk, 1995). Self-esteem can also be thought of as how much you like, approve of, or value yourself. Self-esteem can be applied to you globally (e.g., “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself”; Rosenberg et al., 1995) or to specific domains of your life (e.g., “I am good at my job and I’m proud of that”). Research shows that although self-esteem is relatively stable over one’s life, it is by no means fixed or unchangeable (Orth & Robins, 2014).
What Is Low Self-Esteem?
Having low self-esteem corresponds to negative evaluations of yourself. Put differently, if you have low self-esteem, you generally don’t hold yourself in a positive light.
You tend to be more critical of yourself. You might get stuck in loops of negative self-talk, telling yourself things like, “I’m worthless,” “I could never succeed at this,” or “I’m not smart enough.” This can bring up feelings of anxiety, sadness, or hopelessness.
Self-esteem develops over your lifespan. It is thought that the beliefs you hold about yourself play a role in developing low self-esteem. The stronger the beliefs, the harder it may be to break the negative thought patterns that are associated with low self-esteem.
The following beliefs tend to characterize low self-esteem:
- Worthlessness: “I’m worthless”
- Inadequacy: “I am not good enough”
- Pessimism: “I don’t have a bright future”
- Failure: “I fail at everything I do”
- Negative traits: “I am boring”; “I am ugly”
Signs of low self-esteem might include:
- Being self-critical
- Being sensitive to criticism from others
- Focusing on failures
- Socially withdrawing
- Being pessimistic
What Causes Low Self-Esteem?
Although a variety of factors play a role in self-esteem, a few may make it more likely for it to develop:
- Early childhood experiences. Experiences of abuse, neglect, or bullying at a young age powerfully shape self-esteem. A child who goes through these traumatic experiences can form the belief that they are a bad person who deserved this treatment.
- Expectations of others. If you feel that you failed to meet the expectations of others (e.g., parents’ standards), this can maintain the belief that you are a failure. It’s important to remember that these expectations may not have been realistic in the first place.
- Peer groups. During adolescence, the pressure to fit in is very high. Since this is a time where your identity is forming, not fitting in or feeling left out can impact self-esteem.
- Lack of warmth or love. Although negative traumatic experiences play a large role in low self-esteem, it is possible that not having positive experiences can also play a role. If you don’t receive affection or encouragement, especially at a young age, it is possible to form the belief that you’re not good enough.
How to Build Self-Esteem
1. Live consciously. Self-esteem is rooted in one's ability to live consciously and focus on what is happening in the current moment, without ruminating on the past or overthinking the future.
2. Practice self-acceptance. This involves accepting yourself unconditionally and showing yourself compassion across different situations (e.g., when you make a mistake).
3. Practice self-responsibility. When you practice self-responsibility, you recognize that you are in charge of your choices and behaviors. Because of this, you can’t blame others for your own choices and can’t expect others to make choices for you. At the end of the day, you are in charge.
4. Practice assertiveness. It is important to honor your needs in an appropriate way by practicing self-assertiveness. It’s okay to put yourself first and let this be known to people in your life.
5. Live purposefully. Having a sense of purpose is the antidote to feeling worthless. When you live purposefully, you have goals that you want to achieve and make a plan to do it. You live life with these goals in mind.
6. Live with integrity. This pillar of self-esteem focuses on your moral compass. When you lead a life with personal integrity, you act in line with your values and live an authentic life (Branden, 1995).
If you have low self-esteem, it can be hard to shift your mindset. But there are ways to start viewing yourself in a more positive light and as a result, improve your life.
Adapted from an article published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.
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Branden, N. (1995). The six pillars of self-esteem. Bantam Doubleday.
Mruk, C. (1995). Self-Esteem: Research, Theory, and Practice. Springer.
Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2014). The development of self-esteem. Current directions in psychological science, 23(5), 381-387.
Rosenberg, M., Schooler, C., Schoenbach, C., & Rosenberg, F. (1995). Global self-esteem and specific self-esteem: Different concepts, different outcomes. American Sociological Review, 141-156.