What is Self-Esteem and Low Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem is a person’s overall sense of self-worth or personal value. It entails self-evaluation and one’s beliefs and judgments about him or herself. When you have healthy self-esteem, you feel positive about yourself and are better able to cope with life’s inevitable ups and downs.
Low or unhealthy self-esteem occurs when a person feels badly about him or herself and lacks confidence. People with unhealthy self-esteem are more self- critical and often see themselves through a negative lens. While we all have times when we lack confidence, low self-esteem is a more pervasive experience of feeling poorly about yourself and can have harmful effects on your psychological well-being and functioning. When our self-esteem is low, we feel less able to manage life’s inevitable stressors and do not experience much joy in life.
Self-Esteem versus Self-Image:
Self-esteem and self-image are related but distinct concepts. Self-image is more commonly used to describe what we see when we look in the mirror. In other words, your self-image is how you picture yourself in your head. Your self-image can certainly impact your self-esteem, which is the overall sense of how you feel about yourself. Often, individuals with low self-esteem have a negative self-image. Individuals with a positive self-image generally feel good about themselves. They see themselves as desirable, have an image of themselves as smart, healthy, and happy. A person with a negative self-image, however, tends to see him or herself as unattractive, stupid, unhealthy, unhappy, or nowhere close to an ideal version of him or herself.
What Causes Low Self-Esteem?
Some personality types or temperaments are more prone to negative thinking or being more pessimistic. Other personality types set impossibly high standards that may lead to the individual never feeling “good enough.” Often, low self-esteem begins in childhood from parents, peers, or even the media sending negative messages that suggest (true or perceived) that you are not good enough. Additionally, significant life events, such as an illness or injury, can occur that leaves a lasting negative impact on one’s self-image leading to lower self-esteem. Past traumatic experiences may also impact one’s self-esteem and self-image.
How Does Low Self-Esteem Impact Your Thinking?
People with low self-esteem often are more pessimistic and feel awkward and unlovable. If you have low self-esteem, you may experience events as being more negative than the reality of the situation or interpret non-critical comments as critical. You may be more hyper alert to signs of rejection and see rejection even where there isn’t any. You may be more troubled when you do not perform as expected or believe you have “failed” in some way.
How Does Low Self-Esteem Impact Your Behaviors?
Individuals with low self-esteem often do not pursue meaningful activities or engage in activities that boost a sense of self-worth. Because they may feel inferior to others, they may not take the initiative to set and pursue personal goals, or they may insert less effort into their education and careers. If you have low self-esteem, you may shy away from social activities, avoid trying something new, and avoid things that feel challenging. You may not attempt to make more meaningful friendships or seek out respectful and fulfilling romantic relationships. You may also accept poor treatment from family, romantic partners, friends, and even coworkers.
While avoiding situations that challenge you may help you cope with negative feelings and anxiety in the short run, in the long run, this reinforces low self-esteem beliefs that can further harm your mental well-being and quality of life.
It is no wonder then that low self-esteem has been correlated with a number of negative outcomes such as clinical depression and social anxiety. At times, individuals with low self-esteem develop unhealthy coping skills to manage negative thinking and emotions such as smoking, alcohol misuse, and stress eating.
Can You Overcome Low Self-Esteem and Poor Self-Image?
Absolutely. Self-esteem is your subjective evaluation of yourself and it can be changed. However, you have to be willing to challenge the negative feelings and judgments you have toward yourself. For many people, this is more challenging than it seems because these thoughts are often automatic and occur outside of our conscious awareness. When working on self-esteem, it is important to work on reducing the critical inner voice and negative self-statements impacting your image of yourself. The other key is to develop more self-compassion. This reflects a steady attitude of acceptance and kindness to oneself and treating yourself as you would a friend. These skills can be developed through working with a psychotherapist.
When working with a therapist, in addition to learning how to challenge your critical thinking and develop self-compassion, your therapist will help you determine additional treatment goals that can enhance self-esteem, such as how to build more positive and healthy relationships, how to successfully challenge yourself and engage more in life, and how to be more assertive.