Self-esteem is the degree to which we feel confident, consider ourselves valuable, and respect ourselves, and this greatly affects our well-being. Self-esteem exists on a continuum, from high to low, and low self-esteem is associated with self-doubt, self-criticism, social isolation, suppressed anger, and shame. Low self-esteem is also a symptom of several mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression.
One of the most common features of low self-esteem is negative self-talk. People with low self-esteem regard themselves critically and may feel a perpetual sense of failure or lack of accomplishment. Feelings of low self-esteem are perpetuated by constantly comparing themselves to others and criticizing themselves. These negative messages are rarely true, but the thought patterns may be so ingrained in a person’s behavior that he or she does not recognize the frequency with which they occur. Upon examination, people often admit that the negative messages are inaccurate and that they would never say such things to another person.
Low self-esteem is also closely associated with the following conditions and experiences:
- Social anxiety
- General anxiety
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
Self-esteem is learned in childhood, and certain experiences may interfere with its development, such as being subject to criticism or abuse from parents and caretakers; missing out on experiences that would foster a sense of confidence and purpose; receiving little or no positive reinforcement for accomplishments; being stigmatized for unusual appearance or behaviors, or for one’s race, class, or social identity; or having a learning disability or physical impairment.
In adulthood, even a well-developed self-esteem can be challenged by sudden life changes or perceived failures, such as losing a job or changing jobs, ending an intimate relationship, having legal or financial troubles, struggling with addiction or substance abuse, having children with emotional troubles, physical health concerns, or a host of other events that might cause us to question our worth or value. Therapy can help put such events in perspective and enhance strengths to increase resilience, social support, and hope.
Therapy sessions frequently address issues like low self-esteem and help people to gain a stronger sense of self. People with low self-esteem may work with therapists on becoming more assertive, confident, and self-aware. Finding a sense of accomplishment is a huge boost to self-esteem, and therapy can help people identify specific activities that boost confidence and competence. In addition, many therapists focus on helping people develop self-compassion so that they can develop more realistic, achievable goals for themselves and treat themselves with the same kindness and encouragement they would offer others.
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- Midlife challenges to self-esteem: Roger, 42, is having difficulty in many areas of life: work, marriage, and socially. He is sleeping poorly, and he is irritable and his friends and family are complaining about it. He recently found his first bald spot. He isn’t making enough money to pay for his younger son’s college tuition. Roger begins to reveal a damaged sense of self-esteem. Through individual and family therapy, Roger regains a sense of his core values—family, honesty, humor, and education—and restores a sense of who he is: a competent, honest, loving person.
- Young adult experiences of unworthiness: Jodi, 22, is extremely depressed. She has a sense of herself as worthless. Therapy reveals a tremendous longing for male approval, stemming from a stormy relationship with her father, a loving but irresponsible figure. Jodi’s work in therapy helps her understand her emotions not as a product of her own intrinsic “badness,” but a natural response to a chaotic childhood. She is then able to begin rationally evaluating her own strengths and weaknesses and to clarify her own values and needs, upon which she constructs a positive, adult sense of self.
What does healthy self-esteem mean to you? Do you have a personal story about overcoming low self-esteem or maintaining strong self-esteem? If so, you are invited to submit unpublished written personal stories about mental health topics, including self-esteem, to GoodTherapy.org's Share Your Story. Stories that are chosen to be featured will be published on The Good Therapy Blog.
- Building Self-esteem: A Self-Help Guide. (n.d.) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA-3715/SMA-3715.pdf
- Duru, E., & Balkis, M. (2014). The roles of academic procrastination tendency on the relationships among self doubt, self esteem and academic achievement. Egitim Ve Bilim, 39 (173) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1521720023?accountid=1229
- Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.wwnorton.com/college/psych/psychsci/media/rosenberg.htm
Last updated: 07-03-2015