Self-esteem is the opinion you have of yourself. When you have healthy self-esteem, you tend to think positively about yourself, and optimistically about life in general. People with healthy self-esteem know that they are valuable, and will be able to name at least some of their positive qualities, such as “I am a good friend”, “I am kind”, “I am honest”, or “I am a good father”.
When you have low self-esteem, you tend to see yourself, the world, and your future more negatively and critically. You might feel anxious, sad, low, or unmotivated. When you encounter challenges, you may doubt whether you will be able to rise to them. You might talk to yourself harshly in your mind, telling yourself things like “You’re stupid”, “You’ll never manage this”, or “I don’t amount to anything”.
Your self-esteem affects how you live your life, but it is fragile. If you have low self-esteem, you might be always trying to please other people, or go ‘above and beyond’ at work or with your friends and family. As long as you keep meeting these standards you may feel OK, but there will inevitably be times when it’s not possible to do so, and this can quickly leave you feeling low and anxious.
Self-esteem exists on a spectrum. Some people with low self-esteem find that it only affects them with certain people, or in certain situations. Other people find that their self-esteem colors everything they do.
At the center of low self-esteem are the negative beliefs and opinions you hold about yourself. Nobody is born with beliefs like this – they develop as a result of the experiences you have throughout your life. How other people treat you, particularly when you are growing up, can greatly affect upon how you see yourself. Experiences that make you more likely to develop low self-esteem include:
- Experiences such as punishment, abuse, or neglect. Punishment, abuse, and neglect are very powerful experiences. Children who experience them often jump to the mistaken conclusion that they are bad and must have deserved what happened to them.
- Insufficient warmth, affection, praise, love, or encouragement. You might not remember anything overtly traumatic happening, and wonder why you feel the way you do about yourself. It is possible to develop low self-esteem without specific negative experiences, but simply 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.
- Failure to meet other people’s expectations. You might feel that you are not good enough because you didn’t meet someone else’s expectations. These might have been your parent’s standards, or some other authority figure. For many people with low self-esteem, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the standards were fair or balanced in the first place – the part that ‘sticks’ is them not meeting these standards.
- Inability to fit in with your peer group. Belonging to a ‘group’ or a ‘tribe’ is important – it’s one of our survival needs. Being different or the ‘odd one out’, especially during adolescence when you are forming your identity, can powerfully impact your sense of self.
A number of psychological treatments have been developed which directly target low self-esteem or self-criticism. These include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), competitive memory training (COMET), and compassion focused therapy (CFT). There is evidence that they are effective forms of treatment . There is also some overlap with psychological treatments for depression.
Ingredients of effective CBT for low self-esteem include:
- Identifying your core beliefs
- Identifying your rules for living
- Developing healthier (more flexible) rules and beliefs
- Testing your negative predictions using behavioral experiments
- Facing your fears and confronting anxiety-provoking situations
- Replacing self-criticism with self-compassion
- Living in line with your new core beliefs