What Is Self-Esteem? A Comprehensive Guide
Self-esteem is the ruling view you have of yourself. This includes your beliefs about your inner qualities (values, morals, ethics) and how you think others see you.
Self-esteem is not always rooted in reality, though, and someone can develop low self-esteem even when they are highly functional and greatly skilled. Understanding this mysterious emotional currency might be the key to unlocking your own self worth.
Why some people have low self-esteem
We are not born with low self-esteem issues or with problems seeing our true self worth. When we are babies, we demand what we need without thinking of whether we deserve it.
We develop self-esteem problems as we absorb negative and low energies from people around us including parents, teachers or mentors, and coaches or friends. We learn to have low self-esteem by internalizing the attitudes of other people’s low self-esteem in our childhood years and by comparing ourselves.
For example, if a parent is always dieting to lose an extra few pounds, chances are you’re going to be hyper-focused on your own weight and may have already attached your sense of self worth to what’s on the scale or on your plate. Such low self-esteem can drive unhealthy dieting behaviors that lead to deadly eating disorders.
Low self-esteem can also develop or be further validated in unhealthy romantic relationships and by being the victim of bullying. Unfortunately, it can become a cycle where people with low self-esteem are more likely to be targeted by bullies. Sadly, being bullied only further confirms their beliefs about their low self-worth.
Self-esteem does not equal arrogance
Having a healthy self-esteem means seeing yourself in a generally positive way and thinking good thoughts about yourself. It’s about having a stable sense of your capabilities and a deep trust in yourself to guide you down the right path (at least most of the time).
You don’t always need to feel good about yourself to have good self-esteem, and you can expect stumbles or roadblocks in your journey to disrupt your sense of self-esteem from time to time. In this article, we’re talking about more than fleeting feelings. Self-esteem is the core of what lies underneath those fleeting feelings and your reactions to certain events and situations.
Arrogance, on the other hand, refers to having a big ego or being overly confident and unreasonably boastful about your qualities (regardless of their actual quality). It is actually more commonly associated with someone having low self-esteem.
As it goes, people with healthy self-esteem don’t need to boast about themselves to others. People with low self-esteem will tell you how much everyone loves them, what a great job they do at work, and how amazing they are at pretty everything under the sun even though they really wonder if it’s true. People may see them as obnoxious or “full of themselves.”
Do you have a healthy self-esteem?
It’s impossible to be objective with yourself (no matter how hard you try), so it can be extremely helpful to have someone in your life who you can talk to honestly about your self-esteem levels.
What do they notice? Your friends and family are great people to ask, if you’re comfortable and trust their perspective. You can also ask your therapist or counselor, but truth be told: If you have to ask someone else if you have low self-esteem, that’s a pretty strong sign you do have low esteem.
Self-esteem is generally talked about as either high, low, or somewhere in the middle. Where does your gut tell you your self-esteem sits?
If you’re not sure, do you see yourself in any of the following? These are the kinds of thought patterns that chip away at your self-esteem:
You see people or situations as either all good or all bad (also called either-or thinking).
You see your flaws first when thinking about things you’ve done and accomplished.
You downplay your accomplishments with “but” statements that assume you should have been able to do it anyway so no praise is really required.
You engage in negative self-talk either internally (this is your inner critic) or aloud to others (e.g. “I’m so annoying, I know”).
You assume the worst case scenario even when there’s no valid reason that such a thing would happen (e.g. If your spouse is late from work you assume they are cheating even though they have never cheated).
How people contribute to your low self-esteem
It’s nice to have people who want the best for you, but someone commenting on the ways you can improve your self-esteem is actually harmful for your self-esteem. Do you have someone in your life who is repeatedly “suggesting” ways you can improve your life without you asking? Perhaps you grew up with a narcissistic mother or narcissistic father and you have learned to believe deep down that you are not worthy of unconditional love because you are not good enough.
Growing up with a narcissist is also linked to:
- Damaged sense of boundaries (and how to use them)
- Inability to fully communicate your true self to others
- Having “walls up” that prevent others from getting too close
- Being overly sensitive
- Feeling as though you are not lovable
- Feeling as though you are only lovable if you people please or peace keep
- Fearing speaking up, leading groups, and taking charge
- Needing excessive reassurance from others (to the point where it feels codependent)
- Working to the point of burnout to prove worth
- Always moving the measure stick of what is considered “good”
Another type of person that can damage your self-worth and confidence is the charming or narcissist partner. This is the type of person who treats you, in the beginning, like you’re perfect and the world revolves around you. It’s flattering, sure, but this is not how to improve your self-esteem.
Once they “win you over,” they reveal their true motives, which are all about controlling, manipulating, and keeping you in a state of self-doubt. This is so you will not leave and you will eventually no longer question their authority. You may even crave their authority because you’ve lost the ability to make choices for yourself.
Unfortunately, toxic and unhealthy partners can take advantage of people with low self-esteem because they know they can get away with it for quite some time, if not ever. This may lead to repeat behaviors like lying, cheating, stealing, as well as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
If you feel as though you lost your self-esteem in the relationship, consider it a massive red flag and talk to someone about how to improve your self-esteem. Improving your self-esteem can help you gain the courage to leave and build a new life.
The alternative is that the more you lose, the more control your partner gains by default. Your independence and identity can become easily compromised in such a situation. Sooner than later, you can find yourself accepting behaviors you’d never otherwise accept if you hadn’t already grown accustomed to the self-esteem crushing comments and behaviors over time.
The pitfalls of low self-esteem
Having low self-esteem can seriously limit and damage relationships and opportunities. When you are unsure about yourself, you are looking for external validations to provide that assurance that you belong. You’ll be attracted to whoever shows you the slightest attention.
So what’s at stake is that being stripped of your self-esteem leaves you in a vulnerable and dangerous place. You may look for these things in unhealthy places like:
- Toxic romantic relationships (especially where the power dynamic is skewed in the other person’s favor)
- Domestic abuse situations (may be attracted to the narcissist and charmer archetype)
- Drugs and alcohol to escape reality and feel a sense of temporary confidence
- Unhealthy obsessions or addictions involving food, sex, internet, gaming, or gambling
When you don’t believe in your self worth, you’re also much less likely to advocate for yourself. After all, why would you cheer for a losing team? If you have an inner critic and low self-esteem, you have already learned or decided that you are not worth the effort to have, be, or do better.
In this low self-esteem state, you can forgo life changes like:
- Asking someone on a date
- Applying to college or university
- Requesting more money at your next promotion
- Knowing your true self and desires
- Making time to exercise or see a doctor
- Taking a new job or having a child
- Trips, vacations, or chances for travel
- Leaving environments that make you sick
Benefits of a better self-esteem
People with a healthy level of self esteem present themselves with a casual confidence and are not shy about sharing ideas, including constructive criticisms of others. They also take care of themselves without second-guessing or apologizing. They are the people we say seem “sure of themselves.”
Having self-esteem means you’re more likely to:
- Have a positive outlook on life
- Think highly of others and speak positively about others
- Be someone others want to be around
- Have emotional resiliency or strength in the face of adversity
- Be better equipped with the tools to deal with life’s challenges
- Be a supportive friend
- Live a generally healthy lifestyle
- Believe you’re worth investing in
- Go after your goals and chase your dreams
- See success because you won’t stop at anything less
- Have healthy relationships
- Trust your intuition
Conquering poor confidence, low self-esteem, and self-doubt
While it would be great to know exactly where your low self-esteem comes from, the truth is that it’s from a combination of factors including the self-esteem levels of the people directly closest to your development but also who you choose to keep close as you age. Consider internalized beliefs like poor confidence, low self-esteem, and self-doubt as highly contagious.
You can change the way you view yourself but to do so requires absolute honesty and some effort.
Evaluate the people in your life: Are they negative or constantly bringing bad vibes or are they helping at improving your self-esteem? Even if their feelings are not directed toward you, that energy (positive or negative) will eventually spread. Choose wisely.
Change the way you see yourself: If it’s too challenging to show yourself self compassion right away, picture yourself as your child self (inner child) or another child.
Avoid comparisons with other people: Keep your self-esteem away from other people’s journeys and social media reels.
Combating negative thoughts to improve self-esteem
If you’re starting to think you may have low self-esteem, you can work on the way you talk to yourself to start improving your self-esteem now. In other words, you can tame your inner critic. When you turn off negative self-talk, you open the floor to positive reinforcements and access the courage to show different sides of yourself.
When you notice your inner critic acting up, ask yourself:
- Would you talk this way to someone you love?
- Would you treat a child this way?
- What do you need right now?
- How can I support a more positive solution?
This is not a one-time exercise for people with low self-esteem. Starting to ask yourself these questions is the beginning of expanding your emotional literacy or emotional awareness and shifting perspectives you may have had for decades.
Cliches exist for a reason: They’re often true. When it comes to building self-esteem with the goal of improving self-esteem over time, the old “Fake it until you make it” is excellent advice.
So despite how you feel about yourself right now, you need to be your biggest fan.
It isn’t going to feel good at first, though. If you regularly self criticize, you can expect some backlash. Keep going until it becomes less and less. With some practice and persistence, and maybe even a few awkward laughs in the mirror, you will win this internal struggle to see your self worth.
Some ideas to build self-esteem include:
- Unfollow social media accounts that are self-esteem suckers (you know which ones make you feel lower or bad about yourself after scrolling)
- Surround yourself with people who love themselves (or are trying to)
- Set small, attainable goals so you have things to accomplish
- Write a list of your talents, skills, and achievements for moments of self-doubt
- Get in touch with your spiritual or religious side (this can be great for building a sense of self-worth and higher purpose)
- Listen to guided meditations that focus on concepts like confidence, boundaries, and goal setting
- Start assessing the people who you talk to most and listen to their overall tone with the intention of moving forward with a positive network of people
- Remember that people are not perfect and what’s most important is that you’re trying
- Let yourself have some time of self-doubt (but keep it short) so you can release these feelings
- Try to challenge yourself in safe settings like work or school (you never know what you can accomplish until you try and you learn the most by failing, anyway)
- Keep houseplants or a small garden so you can see success and how valuable you are over time (as they grow, so does your confidence)
How to build self-esteem with counseling
In serious cases of low or even non-existent self-esteem, you may want to call in a professional who is trained in a form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy or a trauma specialist who is trained in eye movement and desensitization reprocessing.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of well-recognized therapy that has been proven effective in treating mental health problems related to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, alcohol and drug use, and marital problems.
CBT can help people with low self-esteem understand their thought patterns and how those patterns are contributing to problems (ie. how their thinking patterns are unhelpful). At this point the work begins to develop healthier coping skills and relieve symptoms associated with low self-esteem. This process, over time, can help you develop a deeper sense of your own capabilities (outside previously limited beliefs).
Eye movement and desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) may be able to help by letting you access times you felt low self-esteem or times that hurt your self-esteem and desensitizing your reactions while reprocessing your response to those memories in the future. This includes situations where you felt helpless and experienced trauma.
Destabilizing these underlying core beliefs about your value or worth or goodness is necessary in breaking down the unhealthy thoughts contributing to low self-esteem so you can see your true potential. EMDR doesn’t undo trauma, but it makes it much easier to live with.
How talking to a mental health professional helps improve self-esteem
Good mental health is important, and professionals doing psychotherapy with clients do not pass judgement or give corrections. This encourages their client to speak openly and without worry which is the best for getting at the roots of your real self-esteem problems.
When your counselor doesn’t abandon you, use your words against you, or ridicule you like you may have previously experienced in life, you are able to see a different kind of caring is possible. This is the kind of caring that feeds positive self-esteem rather than diminishes its existence.
This is particularly impactful in situations where family and friends may not be the most supportive (which may be a contributing factor behind the low self-esteem). Having that backing from someone else you have come to trust gives you the sense that it matters that you’re working on healing. You matter.
Your past doesn’t seal your future
While it’s true that trauma can change the way you see yourself, it’s just as much the case that your mind can be changed again.
You have the power to shape a new self perception fueled by loving kindness instead of that inner critic’s voice. It will take some work but your entire life – from your relationships to your body image to your work habits – will be touched with the kind of power that only comes from someone believing in themselves. This is the hardest part, the biggest hurdle, the greatest leap, and so many people don’t take it because of low self worth.
You don’t have to let the past determine how you feel about yourself today and tomorrow. With some lifestyle changes and support, you can improve your self-esteem and see how everything else changes as a result. Have that faith and trust the process.