Self-esteem: Definition, techniques for improvement
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/13/2022
Self-esteem is a person’s perception or belief in their own worth or value. Self-esteem is related to and made up of a number of concepts regarding our self-perception:
- Self-acceptance: Your ability to accept yourself as you are
- Self-compassion: Your ability to treat yourself with kindness and to offer yourself grace and forgiveness in the face of difficulty
- Self-respect: Your belief that you have and deserve dignity and respect
- Self-worth: Your understanding of your value (synonymous with self-esteem)
- Self-image: Your perception of your physical body as well as your overall sense of self
- Self-confidence: Your ability to act and behave in ways that are in line with your sense of self
It’s important to note that all aspects of the self rely on self-perception—that is, what you think and believe about yourself. Your self-perception may be informed by objective fact or other people’s perception of you, but at the end of the day, it is a subjective concept dependent on your personality, health, family, history, and current reality.
There are three levels of self-esteem: low, healthy, and excessive. Your level of self-esteem will likely change as you age. Although you may be born with certain personality traits that influence your level of self-esteem, environmental factors can also have an effect. That’s because the manner in which you were raised, the behaviors that were modeled for you, and the experiences you’ve encountered all shape your sense of identity.
Low self-esteem is characterized by feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. People with low self-esteem try not to attract too much attention to themselves. They may speak softly or attempt to physically take up less space through their posture and body language. They also have difficulty accepting compliments and prioritizing their own needs.
Individuals with low self-esteem often struggle with perfectionism. This need to be perfect makes them critical and judgmental of themselves. Because they doubt their own abilities, they are afraid to try new things and often avoid tasks that could result in failure.
Low self-esteem often develops in childhood, as children are highly dependent on their environment for their initial sense of identity and belonging. If your family, school, or community pushes a narrative that you somehow don’t measure up, you may internalize that and carry it with you through childhood and into adulthood.
Other factors that contribute to low self-esteem include:
- Genetics: If someone in your family struggles with low self-esteem due to certain personality traits or a mental illness, you may be more likely to struggle as well.
- Discrimination: Being told by society that you are worthless can leave a lasting impact on your self-esteem and mental health. Racism, ableism, classism, homophobia, sexism, and transphobia can all contribute to low self-esteem.
- Family dynamics: The lessons you may have learned growing up in a dysfunctional, unpredictable, or neglectful family environment can follow you into adulthood.
- Trauma: Trauma leaves its mark physically, mentally, and emotionally. Traumatic experiences during childhood, such as bullying or abuse, can be especially impactful. However, trauma in adulthood can also affect your self-esteem.
- Stress: The stress of certain expectations, whether financial, relational, professional, or personal, can slowly eat away at your self-esteem.
- Comparison: Social media makes it easier than ever to compare yourself with others who appear to have life figured out. Comparing your struggles to someone else’s highlight reel can have a serious effect on your self-esteem.
- Physical illness/pain: Constantly dealing with a serious illness or chronic pain can wear down your self-esteem.
- Mental illness: Struggling with your mental health is nothing to be ashamed of. However, we live in a society in which there is still a stigma surrounding talking about mental illness and seeking treatment. This stigma may negatively affect your self-esteem.
People with low self-esteem may be more susceptible to certain mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression. They may struggle to set boundaries, negatively impacting their ability to practice self-care.
Due to their overwhelming fear of being judged or rejected, people with low self-esteem can go through life without fully appreciating the power they have to change their circumstances, no matter how small. This perceived lack of agency can slowly transform into a type of learned helplessness, in which a person stops trying to change or escape harmful situations in their life because they believe their suffering is inescapable.
Healthy self-esteem is characterized by knowing and celebrating your identity. You’re able to identify and use your strengths while readily admitting and being mindful of your limits. Instead of putting on a certain identity for others, you know who you are and are able to show up as your full self, regardless of what others may think.
Signs of healthy self-esteem include:
- Being vulnerable with those you love
- Being assertive, not aggressive
- Setting boundaries
- Seeking feedback from people you trust
- Accepting failure as a normal part of life
- Believing in your inherent worth, regardless of what others say or think
- Using your voice
- Standing up for others
- Knowing and accepting both your strengths and your weaknesses
- Not being ashamed to ask for help
Excessive self-esteem is characterized by an overestimation of your skills, abilities, and importance. Just like low self-esteem, excessive self-esteem may be caused by a lack of confidence or a feeling of worthlessness. However, instead of these beliefs making a person feel small, those with excessive self-esteem try to compensate for these beliefs through their words and actions.
Signs of excessive self-esteem include:
- A need to feel superior to others
- Impulsive, reckless, or attention-seeking behavior
- The need to always perform for others
- Sense of entitlement
- Disregard for rules
- An inability to accept feedback, criticism, or failure
- Manipulation of others
People with an inflated sense of self-esteem often struggle in relationships because their constant need for praise pushes people away. They can also harbor narcissistic tendencies and may rationalize manipulative behavior toward others as a necessary evil to achieve their own interests.
They are also likely to engage in impulsive or risky behavior due to their perceived sense of superiority, which can manifest as bullying, abuse, or other forms of violence. These reactive behaviors may result in negative consequences, such as avoidable injury, illness, or criminal punishment.
Self-esteem is an important building block for your mental health. Low-self esteem is related to anxiety, depression, self-harm, and other mental health disorders. On the opposite end of the spectrum, excessive self-esteem is related to narcissism (although vulnerable or “covert” narcissists can also have low-self esteem), psychopathy, and sociopathy.
By actively pursuing healthy self-esteem, you can ground your identity in an inherent sense of worthiness. This can help you better navigate both the joys and struggles of life as they come.
You can take steps to improve your self-esteem at home by:
- Prioritizing self-care: Self-care lays a strong foundation for your physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual health. By prioritizing self-care, you honor your inherent worthiness to engage in actions that promote your well-being, such as getting enough sleep, setting healthy boundaries, and making time for pleasurable activities.
- Practicing self-compassion: People with healthy self-esteem are able to acknowledge their weaknesses, respect their limits, admit their mistakes, and accept failure. Self-compassion makes it possible to love and care for yourself, even when you fall short of your expectations or values.
- Rejecting perfectionism: Perfection is unattainable. Instead of striving to be a perfect, idealized version of yourself, set realistic goals for yourself and continue practicing self-compassion.
- Resisting comparison: You are on your own journey, not anyone else’s. That means that comparing your life to others’ lives is simply counterproductive. If you struggle with comparison, consider limiting your activity on certain social media platforms that perpetuate feelings of inadequacy in their users.
- Staying present: Practicing mindfulness can help you experience the present moment instead of being carried away by anxieties or fears about whether or not you’re measuring up.
Although at-home strategies for improving self-esteem are great, they may not be effective if you’re also struggling with a mental health disorder. Certain professional therapies can help you address both your mental illness and your self-esteem, such as:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT can help you identify unhelpful or harmful thoughts that may fuel your feelings of inadequacy and result in unwanted behaviors.
- Acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT): ACT teaches you to accept what you cannot change and encourages you to take committed action where you can to build a meaningful life. Self-compassion, self-care, and self-acceptance are huge components of ACT.
- Positive psychology: Positive psychology can help you focus on your strengths, identify your values, and practice gratitude so you can lead a more fulfilling life. Click here to find a psychologist near you.
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The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.