What is Low Self-Esteem?

Your self-esteem is the opinion you hold of yourself. When you have healthy self-esteem, you tend to think positively about yourself, and optimistically about life in general. When you encounter challenges, you feel confident that you will be up to the task. People with healthy self-esteem know that they are valuable and will be able to name at least some of their positive characteristics such as “I am a good friend”, “I am kind”, “I am honest”, or “I am a good parent”.

When you have low self-esteem, you tend to see yourself, the world, and your future more negatively and critically. When you encounter challenges, you doubt whether you will be able to rise to them, and you might avoid them. You might talk to yourself harshly in your mind, such as telling yourself “You’re stupid”, “You’ll never manage this”, or “I don’t amount to anything”. Individuals with low self-esteem often feel anxious, sad, overwhelmed, or unmotivated.

Nobody is born with low self-esteem – it develops as a result of experiences throughout our lives. At the center of low self-esteem are the internalized beliefs and opinions we hold about ourselves.

Longterm Effects of Low-Self-Esteem
The cycle of self-criticism can sap a person’s joy in life. They may stop doing hobbies they once enjoyed for fear of judgment. Feelings of anger, guilt, or sadness may keep them from enjoying what activities they do try.

Self-doubt can interfere with productivity at work or school. A person may worry so much about others’ opinions that they don’t focus on the task at hand. They may avoid taking risks or making goals out of a certainty they will fail. A person with low self-esteem may lack resilience in the face of a challenge.

Self-esteem issues can also impact one’s social life. Someone with low self-esteem may believe they are unworthy of love. They may try to “earn” the love of others and accept negative treatment. Others may bully and criticize others to compensate for their own insecurities. A fear of rejection can prevent people from seeking relationships at all. Social isolation can further feed into a negative self-image.

Forms of Low Self-Esteem
Imposter Syndrome: A person uses accomplishments or false confidence to mask their insecurities. They fear failure will reveal their true, flawed self. The person may use perfectionism or procrastination to deal with this anxiety.

Rebellion: A person pretends they don’t care what others think of them. Their feelings of inferiority may manifest as anger or blame. They may act out by defying authority, confrontations, or breaking laws.

Victimhood: A person believes they are helpless in the face of challenges. They may use self-pity to avoid changing their situation. They often rely on others to save or guide them.

What Causes Low Self-Esteem?
Negative early experiences are very important for the development of low self-esteem. Some of the factors that make it more likely that a person will develop low self-esteem include:

  • Early experiences including punishment, neglect, or abuse.
  • Children who suffer these kinds of experiences often form the belief that they are bad and must have deserved the punishment. Shame is often a companion of low self-esteem.
  • Failing to meet other people’s expectations. People may feel that they are not good enough because they failed to meet someone else’s expectations – this might have meant your parents’ unrealistic standards – note that this does not mean that the expectations were fair or balanced in the first place.
  • Failing to meet the standards of the peer group. Being different or the ‘odd one out’ during adolescence, when identity is forming, can powerfully impact self-esteem.
  • Not receiving enough warmth, affection, praise, love, or encouragement.

It is possible to develop low self-esteem even without overt negative experiences, but just through a deficit of enough positive ones. Without enough reinforcement that they are good, special, or loved, children can form the impression that they are ‘not good enough’.

What Keeps Low Self-Esteem Going?
Dr. Melanie Fennell, clinical psychologist, developed a cognitive behavioral model of how low self-esteem is maintained. Fennell’s model posits that throughout life, people form negative beliefs about the self, called the ‘bottom line’. The bottom line is a description of self and might be summarized as something like “I’m worthless” or “I’m no good”. For a person with low self-esteem, the bottom line is always there, dormant, but becomes activated in particular situations. When it is activated you are more likely to use some maladaptive strategies:

  • Speaking to yourself in a critical way. Often intended as a way to motivate yourself, more often this ends up paralyzing you, and it reinforces your bottom line.
  • Setting inflexible rules about how you should be. People may set personal rules that are not very flexible, and breaking the rules can lead to more self-criticism.
  • Making anxious predictions about what might happen. When people don’t see themselves as competent and capable, the world often feels full of danger. The anxious mind tries to help by predicting potential threats, but this just makes us feel even more incapable.
  • Avoidance and escape.  Avoidance is the hallmark of anxiety. People with low self-esteem often refuse to put themselves in positions where things could go poorly and their failures would be potentially exposed. By not taking a chance, they remain ‘safe,’ but their capabilities remain untested.

Psychological treatments for low self-esteem
A number of psychological treatments have been developed which directly target low self-esteem. These include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Mindfulness, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Strategies include:

  • Testing your anxious predictions, approaching situations that you have been avoiding, reducing your safety behaviors (behavioral experiments)
  • Identifying and challenging your self-criticism (thought records)
  • Retraining yourself to focus on the positive (self-statements)
  • Challenging your bottom line and building a new one. If your bottom line is “I’m a failure” then you are much more likely to pay attention to your struggles than your successes
  • Using mindfulness strategies to calm the anxious mind
  • People with low self-esteem often have a harsh and critical inner voice.
  • One way of overcoming low self-esteem is to change the way we speak to ourselves, or to have a different relationship with your inner voice (self-talk)
  • Embracing all aspects of the self without judgment (self-compassion)

Also see Brain Lies: Internalized Negative Thoughts.

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