Signs of Low Self-Esteem, Part I: Five Signs (and What to Do About Them)

Man leaning against wallLow self-esteem can’t be hidden for long. It tends to show itself through thoughts, words, and behavior.

Since some behaviors are simply learned, and may have little to do with one’s level of self-esteem, it’s best to look at the overall picture rather than focusing on just one piece of information.

With that in mind, here are some signs that, taken as part of a larger pattern, may be an indication of low self-esteem. Please note that this is not a comprehensive list.

1. Thinking that “other people treat me badly because I deserve it.”

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • An acquaintance ends a conversation with you by walking away without saying goodbye.
  • Someone who said they would call you, doesn’t.
  • A coworker invites everyone in the office to a party, except you.

In each of these scenarios, the other person is being rude. If your tendency in these situations is to feel bad about yourself, that is a strong indicator of low self-esteem.

Practice focusing on the other person’s behavior, and trying to evaluate it objectively. Are they being appropriate? Kind? Reasonable?

2. Disliking people in general

Babies are born with a natural interest and trust in other people—you were born that way, too. If you now feel like people are not your thing, it’s almost certainly because of painful experiences that taught you that other people can be mean and hurtful. Even if you’re no longer in touch with the pain of the past, even if you don’t even remember those experiences, your sense of self and your own worth were undoubtedly shaped by the same experiences that created your dislike of people. Unfortunately, dislike and distrust of people make it hard to cultivate the very experiences that would prove people to be better than you expect, perpetuating a vicious circle.

Pick someone in your life who feels safe enough, and try opening up a little more than you ordinarily would.

3. Under- or overachievement

Overachievement is an attempt to bolster low self-esteem with impressive deeds when deep down, you don’t feel like the person you are is “enough” to be acceptable to others. Only more accomplishments can give an overachiever the feeling of being okay as a human being—at least, that is their hope.

Overachievers can benefit from allowing themselves to “slack off” and learning to tolerate the feelings that arise in the absence of productivity.

On the other side of the coin, your self-esteem might be so injured that you don’t dare attempt to achieve anything. As an underachiever, you may feel that if you should fail, it will only prove what you secretly already suspect: that you are woefully inadequate to the tasks of normal living. It’s better not to try, and instead enjoy the thought of having “potential,” than to attempt to achieve something and fail in front of everyone.

Underachievers can pay attention to feelings of fear of failure and practice making small attempts at doable activities, such as baby steps toward a larger goal.

4. Perfectionism

It’s long been known that perfectionists often experience low self-esteem.

For perfectionists, only something done perfectly is good enough to be acceptable to others. Ninety-nine percent success is the same as failure; only 100% is good enough (barely). Perfectionist might think they create their standards—that is, they may believe they’re  trying to please only themselves—but too-high standards are always based on early perceptions of what others expect from us.

Perfectionism is cured by doing things imperfectly on purpose. It may help to use a shame tactic: imagine that because of your perfectionism, everyone knows you’re insecure. It might help you to let go of it a little.

5. Alienation

Feeling somehow “different” and alienated from the rest of the human race is one of the most discouraging experiences one can have. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s one of the most common reasons people seek therapy.

This sense of alienation often results from emotional neglect when a person was young. Many of us who received the food, clothing, and shelter we needed for survival did not receive as much accurate empathy as we needed in order to understand ourselves as people.

Sometimes our caregivers were sick, depressed, or even deceased, and we were left alone too often. Sometimes they were there with a vengeance, sowing fear and discord. We didn’t get the opportunities we needed to bond with other people. Bonding creates a sense of security and connection that everyone—kids, adolescents, adults, seniors—needs in order to thrive. If you feel like an alien, know that you are not alone. You are a normal human being reacting in a normal way to the abnormal situation of emotional isolation.

Read and learn as much as you can about emotions, for these play an important role in the formation of relationships with both yourself and others. Practice self-acceptance: if you don’t, you will never feel accepted by others. If you can, find a therapist you feel comfortable with. A therapist can serve as a compassionate guide while you work on reintegrating yourself into the human race—where you very much belong.

© Copyright 2010 by By Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Perry

    Perry

    March 17th, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    The best thing to do would be to tell yourself that no matter what, you are an important person and that is why you have been created by God in the first place…He has created each one of us for a reason and the reason for your creation is not ordinary!

  • McCullum

    McCullum

    March 17th, 2010 at 2:53 AM

    Low self-esteem often leads to submissive and introvert person who are easy to be trambled upon by others and this leads to a further degradation of self esteem and hence the cycle continues. The best thing to do if you rae feeling that way is to seek help and neutralize it as soon as you can because that will not let you be a victim to other people’s tactics.

  • Bethany

    Bethany

    March 17th, 2010 at 4:53 AM

    think I work with a crowd of people just like this

  • Steve M Nash

    Steve M Nash

    March 22nd, 2010 at 7:56 AM

    This is a great list of low self esteem signs, thanks so much for sharing them!

    I think I suffer from so-called perfectionism, which is really my reluctance to get involved and by doing so maybe make a mistake or two. And the truth is, none of us learn or grow by not making mistakes.

    Thanks again,
    Steve

    PS I’ve started my own list of low self esteem signs on my website too! It makes for scary, but necessary reading…

  • Nat.

    Nat.

    February 3rd, 2015 at 4:39 AM

    I’ve been bullied from 3rd grade till 10th grade, I am now a senior in high school. and I believe that this bullying trauma made me think that there’s something wrong with me that made all these people agree on bullying me.it just left me hurt and unable to let it go. As a result, this made me feel inferior to people I just knew, so it left me unable to communicate and establish healthy relationships with new people in new communities. I am actually a pretty girl, I grew up in a healthy home with loving parents whom I consider them.perfect. so i dont think i had a bad upbringing or an unattractive physical appearance. I keep questioning what did i do for these people to hate on me? so i keep blaming myself. Any solutions/opinions?

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