What is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is the term used to describe how good someone feels about who they are. Some people refer to this phenomenon as self-worth as well. Self-esteem plays a vital role in everyday life.

It not only colors people’s thoughts but their actions as well. For example, people who believe they are not good enough to get promotions may never seek them, even if they are objectively qualified for the jobs.

In fact, the famous Maslow’s hierarchy of needs asserts that self-esteem is one of the driving forces behind all human behavior. According to this theory, a person can only reach self-actualization when he or she has adequate food, safety, love, and self-esteem.

A person’s self-esteem can vary throughout his or her lifetime. However, someone’s self-esteem does not typically change from day to day because the person’s internal dialogue shapes the feelings of worth.

Many behavioral health professionals consider it a personality trait. Instead, people who want to change their self-perception need to work on their inner dialogue. Over time, therapy and diligent work can allow patients who make this change.

Self-esteem can be either too low or too high to be healthy. When people have low self-worth, they may suffer from depression. When people have unusually high self-esteem, it can be a sign of narcissistic personality disorder. This disorder causes tension in personal relationships.


Self-Esteem vs. Self-Image

Although self-image and self-esteem closely relate to one another, they have a few key differences. Understanding what each of these terms means and how they affect one another can be an excellent first step to finding a healthy balance.

Self-image is the way a person perceives his or herself. It is an internal evaluation of the person’s deeds, thoughts, looks, abilities, and accomplishments. For example, someone with a healthy self-image may think, “I am kind, beautiful, and well-positioned in my career.”

Self-image also includes how people believe others see them. Someone with great self-image may think, “Because I am outgoing and kind, people like to be around me.”

Self-esteem is how a person feels about their self-image. The person in the examples above may have healthy self-esteem because of the positive self-image. He or she may think, “I like who I am.”

When someone has low self-esteem, it may be because the person has a negative self-image. While these two ideas are closely linked, the symptoms vary in meaningful ways.


Signs of Low Self-Esteem & Negative Self-Image

The signs of low self-esteem and negative self-image can be difficult for patients to see in themselves. Sometimes, they have felt this way for so long that they believe it is normal. However, everyone can benefit from evaluating their self-esteem and self-images from time to time.

When people picture a person with low self-esteem or negative self-image, they may see someone who tries to make themselves small. Maybe they see someone who looks in the mirror and cries, or someone who avoids others as much as possible.

Although people with low self-esteem may act this way, they can also fake confidence. A patient with negative self-image may try hard to project an image of someone confident and proud. Sometimes, this overcorrection comes in the form of putting down others, which is destructive.

Sometimes, mental illnesses can manifest because of low self-esteem or negative self-image. Someone with low self-esteem may develop social anxiety or depression. Meanwhile, patients with eating disorders often have distorted self-images.

People with either of these conditions may:

  • Find themselves doubting their abilities
  • Feel ashamed of themselves
  • Believe things will not go their way
  • Blame others for their problems
  • Have trouble setting or keeping boundaries
  • Withdraw from social activities
  • Hurt others to make themselves feel better
  • Deflect compliments

Low self-esteem can also cause physical symptoms. These signs may be part of a mental illness associated with low self-esteem or from the feelings themselves.

Some common physical signs include:

  • Frequent stomach aches with no other obvious causes
  • Headaches
  • Slouching and back pain that poor posture may cause
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue

What Causes Low Self-Esteem?

Each case of low self-esteem has different roots. It may be the result of a single traumatic event, the build-up of several smaller things over time, or someone’s natural disposition. Of course, a combination of several problems can also cause low self-esteem.

People can often discover the causes of their low self-esteem through therapy, specifically psychoanalysis. Together with their mental health teams, people can slowly uncover the difficulties that lead them to feel the way that they do.

When patients discover what caused them to feel so awful about themselves, they also realize that it’s not because the thoughts were correct. For example, a patient may connect a past trauma to why he feels like he is a bad person (negative self-image) and unworthy of love (low self-esteem.) When he knows that the trauma is the cause, he can understand that the negative self-image had no basis in truth. He may actually be a good person who deserves love.

Some common triggers of low self-esteem include:

  • Teachers or parents who didn’t approve of the patient
  • Distant parents or guardians
  • Sexual abuse
  • Divorces in which the parents put each other down
  • Bullying, especially without help from parents
  • Emotional abuse
  • Struggling in school
  • Physical abuse
  • Guilt or shame from a set of religious beliefs
  • Unrealistic beauty standards in the media
  • Setting unrealistic goals, or being a perfectionist

How to Build Self-Esteem & a Positive Self-Image

People who struggle with low self-esteem or negative self-image can indeed change. It may take time and plenty of effort, but the following strategies can help.

Take Away the Power of Thoughts

People of all kinds tend to believe whatever we think. Someone may think she is ugly, so she then finds it to be true. Patients with low self-esteem can try recognizing thoughts for what they really are: just thoughts. They are not absolute truths.

Patients can practice this by simply naming thoughts when they come up. Every time the individual thinks something negative, she says, “That’s just a thought.” It may seem simple, but over time, it takes the sting out of these ideas.

Turn the Tables

Once a patient can recognize negative thoughts for what they are, he can start to turn them around. Some examples are:

  • “I’m ugly!” — “I love my eyes.”
  • “I’m a burden to my loved ones.” — “I’m grateful for the things my loved ones do for me.”
  • “I’m not worth loving.” — “The people who love me know that I’m worthy of it.”
  • “I am not good enough.” — “I’m doing my best every day.”

Don’t Compare to Others

Some cases of low self-esteem come from comparing ourselves to others. Someone may think they are not successful because their house isn’t as big as the one next door. Social media does not help either.

Patients with low self-esteem must remember that they do not know what other people deal with. Maybe the neighbor had a head start with help from his parents. Maybe the Instagram icon struggles with depression. Patients must remember that they are comparing their full footage to someone’s highlight reel.

Therapy can help patients put these methods and more into practice.


Self-Esteem Therapy

Therapists and counselors can help clients with low self-esteem through psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Together, the patient and the professional identify the root causes of the self-esteem issues. This puts the patient’s feelings into perspective so that she can start healing.

The therapist may then use one or a few types of therapy to help the client build positive self-image and health self-esteem. For example, they may use cognitive behavioral therapy to change the way the patient thinks and reacts to those thoughts.

Therapists then assign “homework” for patients to work on in between sessions. They may want the patients to complete journals of their feelings, for example.

Opening Up to a Therapist

Self-esteem therapy works on another level as well. When people start therapy, they may feel reluctant to open up about their feelings, especially when the low self-esteem follows years of rejection. However, when they do open up to the mental health professionals, they find warmth and reassurance.

When therapists see the things that patients hide and do not react negatively, it gives the clients some sense of how skewed their thinking may have been. They may have been afraid that nobody would like them, but the therapists prove that this is simply not true. It’s like a form of exposure therapy.

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