Estimated reading time: 30 minutes
Table of Contents
What Is Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem is a person’s overall subjective evaluation of their own worth and value as a human being. It reflects how a person feels about themselves and their abilities, and can have a significant impact on their thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
Higher self-esteem typically involves feeling confident, capable, and worthy, while low self-esteem involves feeling insecure, self-doubtful, and unworthy. Self-esteem can be influenced by a range of factors, including past experiences, relationships, physical appearance, social comparison, and personal beliefs.
Having a healthy level of self-esteem is important for mental and emotional well-being, as it can affect how a person views themselves and interacts with the world around them. It can influence a person’s decision-making, motivation, relationships, and overall life satisfaction.
It’s important to note that self-esteem is not something that is innate or fixed. Rather, it is a dynamic and fluid concept that can change and evolve throughout a person’s life. It is shaped by a wide range of internal and external factors, such as early life experiences, personal beliefs and values, social and cultural influences, and ongoing interactions with the environment.
11 Signs of Healthy Self-Esteem
- You trust your ability to make decisions.
- You value yourself as a human being.
- You are honest with yourself about your strengths, abilities, and limitations.
- You take the time you need to nurture your physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being.
- You are realistic in expectations of yourself; You set goals that are challenging but achievable, given your abilities, resources, and circumstances.
- You are able to acknowledge your limitations, mistakes & ongoing goals you want to work on without being overtaken by shame and self-blame
- You feel able to step out of your comfort zone and try new & challenging things
- You are open to receiving feedback and criticism without feeling defensive or threatened.
- You’re able to form secure and genuine relationships and let go of unhealthy ones.
- You can assert and express your needs and opinions without feeling guilty or anxious.
- You are able to set and maintain healthy boundaries in relationships.
What is low Self-Esteem?
Low self-esteem refers to a negative perception of oneself, which can include feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and self-doubt. People with low self-esteem often struggle to recognize their own value and worth as individuals, and may have a negative view of their own abilities and accomplishments.
7 Signs of low Self-Esteem
1. Negative Self-Talk
You engage in negative self-talk, such as criticizing yourself, doubting your abilities, or focusing on your flaws and weaknesses. For example:
“Something is wrong with me.”
“I don’t know why people like me.”
“I don’t want to take up people’s space and time.”
“I feel broken.”
You set impossibly high standards for yourself, which can lead to constant feelings of failure and self-doubt
You engage in self-destructive behaviors or make decisions against your best interests. Here are some common ways people self-sabotage:
You are held back or slowed down by indecision. It’s hard to make decisions because you doubt yourself and your judgment.
When faced with challenges, you easily feel overwhelmed and defeated. So you give up or take long breaks that negatively impact your confidence in your ability to attain things you want.
You avoid social situations or opportunities for fear of being judged or rejected by others. OR, as a defense mechanism, you may find that you’re overly critical or judgmental of others like your partner or friends.
You put all your relationships and lose yourself as a result because their being with you makes you feel a sense of self-worth
You define your self-worth and identity by your work and accomplishments. You feel that your job title, salary, or productivity determine your value as a person. You may feel anxious or inadequate if you are not constantly working or achieving. You turn to work as a way to validate your worth and distract yourself from negative self-talk or feelings of inadequacy. You might also use work as a way to avoid handling personal or relationship issues.
7. Lack of assertiveness:
You struggle to assert your needs and opinions in relationships or social situations. For example,
You put up with situations in work, friendships, or relationships that you aren’t comfortable with
Or, You don’t voice your needs or thoughts because you don’t feel they are valid- this could lead to poor boundaries or social anxiety.
Two Common Myths about Self-Esteem
Myth #1: I can fix my low self-esteem by thinking positively and focusing on the good things.
Truth: Recognizing the positive aspects of yourself and your life and taking steps to strengthen those can bolster self-esteem. However, when someone focuses on the positive as a means to distract themselves from, minimize, or ignore what’s bothering them inside, they are using a defense mechanism called denial.
Positive thinking alone often fails to address the underlying root causes of negative self-perceptions. For example, a person who experienced childhood trauma or abuse may struggle with feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, and simply telling them to “think positively” may not address the deep-seated emotional wounds at the root of their low self-esteem.
Additionally, positive thinking can sometimes be ineffective or even harmful if it is not accompanied by action and effort. Simply repeating positive affirmations or visualizing success is not enough to overcome deeply ingrained negative beliefs and habits.
A more balanced and realistic approach to self-esteem involves developing a sense of inner worth and self-acceptance, even in the face of challenges and setbacks. This often involves a combination of positive thinking, self-reflection, personal growth, and seeking support from trusted friends, family, or mental health professionals.
Myth #2: I will have healthy self-esteem when I get a promotion, enter a relationship, physically look a certain way, etc.
Truth: Self-esteem is influenced by many factors, including personal achievements and relationships, but it is not necessarily dependent on these external factors and achievements.
For example, a person who achieves a high level of success in their career may experience a boost in their self-esteem, but if they have underlying feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness, their self-esteem may remain low despite their achievements. Similarly, a person who enters a new relationship may feel more confident and valued. However, if they struggle with low self-esteem, they may still have doubts and insecurities about themselves or the relationship.
The development of a healthy level of self-esteem is an intentional process that typically happens over time and involves a combination of internal and external factors. In this journey, a person can work to develop a more positive and realistic view of themselves by addressing past traumas or inner child wounds their low self-esteem can stem from, challenging negative self-talk, setting and achieving realistic goals, cultivating supportive relationships, and engaging in self-care practices. Journaling, introspection, therapy and other forms of mental health support can also be helpful in promoting healthy self-esteem.
Why do I have low self-esteem? 6 factors & Influences
Here are four common factors that impact and shape self-esteem. 1. Childhood upbringing 2. Bullying and harassment 3. Unresolved trauma 4. Marginalization and discrimination due to sociocultural location and economic status 5. Social, Cultural, and Community Values 6. Neurodivergence
Low self-esteem can be rooted in your early childhood experiences. How do our childhood experiences affect our development of self-esteem?
A child’s self-esteem and sense of identity is formed through a process of internalizing the attitudes and values of important caregivers and role models. These experiences can shape a person’s sense of self and their beliefs about their worthiness and value as a person.
Low self-esteem is a complex and deeply rooted issue that may require exploring and resolving your early childhood experiences and unconscious patterns of behavior in order to achieve lasting change.
Here is one example of how childhood experiences contribute to low self-esteem.
A person who was repeatedly told that they are too sensitive, weak, thin, tall, or not smart enough, you name it by caregiver(s), may come to believe that they are inherently flawed or unworthy, leading to feelings of low self-esteem.
Similarly, a person whose emotional or physical needs were neglected or ignored by caregivers may receive the message, through these actions/inactions, that their needs don’t matter and that they are not valued.
In another example, a person grew up in an enmeshed family. Enmeshment refers to a situation in which family members become too emotionally involved with each other, often blurring boundaries and limiting individual autonomy.
Because of this enmeshed family system, they may struggle to develop their own identity and personal boundaries. They may feel that their worth depends on others and that their needs and desires are less important than those of others. They may think that they are responsible for that other’s emotional well-being and feel guilty or ashamed if they do not meet the needs of others, leading to a sense of self-blame and low self-esteem.
Additionally, a person constantly seeking validation and approval from others may feel that they are not good enough on their own. They may have difficulty setting boundaries and asserting themselves, which can lead to a sense of powerlessness and low self-worth.
Bullying & Harassment
Bullying and harassment can have a profound and lasting impact on a person’s self-esteem. One way in which bullying affects self-esteem is through the repeated negative messages that victims are subjected to. Bullies often target their victims with hurtful comments and criticism about their appearance, abilities, or worth. Over time, these messages can seep into the victim’s psyche, causing them to internalize these negative beliefs about themselves and erode their self-esteem.
Victims of bullying may find themselves ostracized from social activities and excluded from peer groups. This social exclusion can create feelings of loneliness and a sense of being rejected, further diminishing their self-esteem.
The shame and embarrassment experienced by victims of bullying can also take a toll on their self-esteem. Being targeted by bullies can make individuals feel humiliated and unworthy, leading to a negative self-image and a diminished sense of self-worth.
Additionally, prolonged exposure to bullying can result in a sense of learned helplessness. When victims feel powerless to stop the bullying and perceive themselves as unable to change their circumstances, they may develop a belief that they have no control over their lives. This learned helplessness can deeply impact their self-esteem, as they may feel hopeless and powerless in various aspects of their lives.
If you have experience trauma and abuse – emotional, sexual, physical, or complex trauma– it can profoundly impact your self-worth and self-esteem. Trauma often leads to various psychological challenges that affect how someone perceive themselves and their interactions with others.
One common effect of trauma is self-blame. Even when a person had no control over the traumatic event, they may feel responsible and harbor feelings of shame, guilt, and diminished self-worth. These emotions can make them believe they are unworthy of social connection and support.
Fear and anxiety are prevalent in the aftermath of trauma. These intense emotions can disrupt daily functioning and contribute to a negative self-image, ultimately impacting self-esteem. Trauma survivors may struggle with negative self-talk, criticizing themselves and reinforcing beliefs of weakness or inadequacy, further eroding their self-esteem and trust in their judgment.
Social isolation can arise as a result of trauma. This isolation intensifies feelings of loneliness and exacerbates self-esteem issues. The fear of being judged by others or difficulty expressing emotions can lead survivors to withdraw from social activities and relationships.
Setting boundaries becomes challenging for trauma survivors. They may struggle to establish healthy limits, which can hinder their ability to maintain relationships and contribute to social isolation. Betrayal trauma, experienced when trust is shattered by someone close, can profoundly impact a person’s ability to trust others and themselves, fostering a pervasive sense of worthlessness.
Moreover, trauma survivors may feel like a burden to others, making it difficult for them to seek help and support. This self-perception contributes to a sense of isolation and further impedes the improvement of self-esteem. The experience of trauma can also create a learned sense of helplessness, where individuals feel powerless and struggle to trust themselves and others.
Traumatic and painful experiences can disrupt our sense of safety and stability and our ability to trust others or ourselves. They can make us prone to feelings of shame, guilt, isolation, or hypervigilance. These ways of living and being can be all that someone knows. It may be hard to even imagine or know that life can be different. However, it’s important to remember that it is possible to move forward from past traumas through emotional healing and therapy.
Marginalization and discrimination due to sociocultural location and economic status
If you’ve been on the receiving end of discrimination, you may have internalized some negative, untrue messages about your potential and whether you “belong.” Your social location, based on multiple intersecting factors such as race, gender, sexuality, or disability, can impact your sense of self-worth.
Marginalized individuals who face discrimination or oppression based on their social identity can sometimes internalize negative messages about themselves and develop low self-esteem. People who come from cultural backgrounds that are stigmatized or marginalized may face negative stereotypes or discrimination, which can impact their sense of self-worth.
A person’s economic status, or their level of income, job security, and financial resources, can also impact their self-esteem. Individuals who struggle with poverty or financial instability may feel a sense of shame or inadequacy related to their economic status, which can contribute to low self-esteem.
A person who grew up poor but later became wealthy may still struggle with low self-esteem due to the lasting effects of their childhood experiences and societal pressures related to social status. The person may have internalized feelings of shame, inadequacy, or a belief that they do not belong in their current social and economic status. They may also struggle with guilt and a fear of losing their newfound wealth, leading to a sense of unworthiness or impostor syndrome. Additionally, the person may have experienced discrimination or negative stereotypes related to their socioeconomic background, leading to a sense of invalidation and lack of acceptance in certain social circles. All of these factors can contribute to low self-esteem, even in a person who is currently financially successful.
If any of this sounds familiar, multicultural therapy with a culturally responsive therapist may be a safe space to work through and process these complex feelings and experiences.
Social, Cultural, and Community Values
Cultural values and expectations can also impact self-esteem because they influence the standards and ideals individuals internalize and strive to meet. Cultural values and expectations can both positively and negatively influence self-esteem. While some cultural factors may contribute to low self-esteem, others can foster a positive sense of self.
The influence of layers of cultural values can intersect with various aspects of a person’s identity, such as race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. This intersectionality adds complexity to the ways in which cultural factors shape self-esteem. It’s crucial to recognize that the experience of cultural influence is not uniform for everyone. That being said, here are some ways in which our intersecting social, cultural, and community values can impact our self-esteem.
Cultural beauty ideals often emphasize specific physical attributes, such as body shape, size, and appearance. When someone does not fit these standards, they may develop negative body image and experience lower self-esteem.
Achievement, success, material possession
Some cultures place a high value on academic or career achievements as a measure of self-worth. If a person feels unable to meet these expectations or experience setbacks, they may perceive themselves as failures, leading to a decline in self-esteem.
Here are some examples:
- A culture that prioritizes academic achievement may lead individuals to feel inadequate or unintelligent if they do not excel academically.
- A culture that values financial success may lead individuals to feel inferior or inadequate if they do not achieve financial stability or success.
- A culture that stigmatizes certain occupations or professions may lead individuals to feel inferior or unworthy if they work in those fields.
Cultural expectations around gender roles and behaviors can affect self-esteem. For example, in cultures that prioritize traditional gender roles, individuals who do not conform to these norms may experience social judgment and feel a sense of inadequacy. Or, a culture that prioritizes masculinity and toughness may lead someone to feel weak or inferior if they do not conform to those ideals.
Cultural norms & stereotypes
Prevalent stereotypes and norms within a culture can influence self-esteem. When individuals belong to a group that is negatively stereotyped or when they deviate from what are considered the “norms”, they may internalize those stereotypes, experience social pressure, and develop a diminished sense of self-worth. Here are some examples:
- A culture that stigmatizes mental health conditions may lead someone to feel ashamed or guilty if they struggle with mental health issues.
- A culture that stigmatizes non-traditional relationships (e.g. LGBTQ+ relationships) may lead someone to feel ashamed or inferior if they are not heterosexual or cisgender.
- A culture that prioritizes conformity and obedience may lead individuals to feel ashamed or guilty if they express dissenting opinions or challenge authority figures.
Collectivism vs. individualism
Cultural values related to collectivism (emphasizing group harmony and interdependence) or individualism (prioritizing personal goals and achievements) can impact self-esteem. In collectivist cultures, individuals may derive self-esteem from their relationships and social connections. In contrast, in individualistic cultures, self-esteem may be linked to personal accomplishments and independence.
Cultural messages about worthiness
Cultural narratives and messages about who is deemed valuable or worthy can profoundly impact self-esteem. If individuals perceive that their culture devalues certain characteristics or identities they possess, they may internalize feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy.
Discrimination and marginalization
Experiences of discrimination or marginalization based on cultural background, ethnicity, race, or other identities can significantly impact self-esteem. Systemic biases and prejudices can lead individuals to question their value and worth in society, resulting in lower self-esteem.
It is vital to approach the impact of cultural values and expectations on self-esteem with sensitivity and an awareness of intersectionality. Recognizing the diverse experiences and challenges faced by people from different cultural backgrounds and intersecting identities allows for a more comprehensive understanding of how culture influences self-esteem.
Promoting cultural inclusivity, challenging stereotypes, fostering diversity, and recognizing the value of diverse identities can help create a more supportive and empowering cultural environment that enhances self-esteem for everyone, regardless of their intersecting identities.
Neurodivergence, which encompasses the natural variations in brain development, can significantly impact an someone’s self-esteem. The challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals in areas such as communication, social interaction, and sensory processing contribute to feelings of low self-esteem.
Several factors contribute to this phenomenon. People with neurodivergent brains can feel like outsiders or struggle to fit in with their peers due to their differences. They may receive negative feedback or criticism for behaviors associated with their neurodivergence or be subjected to social stigma and negative stereotypes, affecting their self-perception. Difficulties with executive functioning, social cues, academic performance, and social exclusion by peers all compound these feelings of inadequacy and isolation.
Moreover, they may experience shame, embarrassment, and difficulty accepting and embracing their differences. The constant need to explain or justify their behaviors and differences can be emotionally draining, eroding their self-confidence. Internalized ableism, the belief that they are not “normal” or “good enough” due to their neurodivergence, can deeply affect their self-perception. The constant battle against the challenges imposed by their neurodivergence can leave them feeling overwhelmed and hinder their self-esteem.
Creating inclusive environments, providing necessary accommodations, challenging stereotypes, and promoting self-acceptance are essential steps toward cultivating positive self-esteem for neurodivergent individuals.
A note on undiagnosed ADD and ADHD in childhood & low self-esteem
Undiagnosed ADD (Attention-Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) in childhood can have a profound impact on a person’s self-esteem in adulthood. Here’s an explanation of how this can occur:
Struggling to meet expectations:
Undiagnosed ADHD often leads to difficulties in focusing, organizing tasks, and completing assignments. As a child, individuals may consistently fall short of meeting academic, social, or personal expectations, despite their efforts. This repeated experience of underachievement can contribute to feelings of incompetence and inadequacy, eroding self-esteem.
Negative feedback and criticism:
Children with undiagnosed ADHD may receive negative feedback and criticism from parents, teachers, and peers due to their behavior or academic performance. This can lead to internalizing these negative messages and developing a negative self-image. They may believe they are lazy, unintelligent, or incapable, which can deeply impact self-esteem in adulthood.
Social difficulties and rejection:
ADHD symptoms, such as impulsivity, hyperactivity, and difficulty with social cues, can lead to challenges in forming and maintaining relationships. Children with undiagnosed ADHD may struggle with social interactions, interrupt others, or have difficulty waiting their turn. These difficulties can result in social rejection, isolation, and feelings of not fitting in, which can negatively impact self-esteem and self-worth into adulthood.
Internalized beliefs and self-blame:
Without an understanding of their ADHD, children may internalize the negative feedback and experiences they encounter. They may attribute their struggles solely to personal flaws rather than recognizing them as symptoms of a neurodevelopmental condition. This can lead to self-blame, feelings of incompetence, and a pervasive sense of low self-esteem that persists into adulthood.
Comparison with peers:
Children with undiagnosed ADHD often observe their peers performing tasks more effortlessly and achieving success in various domains. This constant comparison can intensify feelings of inadequacy and foster a belief that they are fundamentally flawed or inferior. These negative self-perceptions can persist into adulthood, impacting overall self-esteem.
Lack of support and understanding:
When ADHD goes undiagnosed, individuals may not receive the necessary support and accommodations to manage their symptoms effectively. Without appropriate interventions, they may continue to face academic and occupational challenges. This ongoing struggle can reinforce a sense of incompetence and contribute to low self-esteem as they grow older.
It’s important to note that the impact of undiagnosed ADHD on self-esteem can vary among individuals, and some may develop coping strategies or find success in certain areas despite their challenges. However, for many people, undiagnosed ADHD in childhood can significantly contribute to feelings of low self-esteem in adulthood, emphasizing the importance of timely identification, support, and interventions to mitigate these negative effects.
What next? A note from Us
There are so many multifaceted reasons behind low self-esteem. Understanding your multitude of experiences, influences, and personal narratives that impact your self-esteem can empower you in your journey towards a healthier sense of self-worth. Understanding the root causes of low self-esteem empowers us to challenge and rewrite our internal narratives, replacing self-doubt with self-compassion, and self-criticism with self-acceptance. If you struggle with your self-esteem, consider working with a therapist to guide you in this journey. Building your self-esteem takes time and effort, but it can powerfully impact your life and relationships.