What is self-esteem, and how can I improve mine?
Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/09/2023
“Self-esteem” is your confidence in your own worth or value. It’s related to and made up of various ways you perceive yourself:
- Self-acceptance: Your ability to accept yourself as you are
- Self-compassion: Your ability to treat yourself kindly and 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 body, as well as your overall sense of self
- Self-confidence: Your ability to act in ways that line up with your sense of self
Note that all aspects of the self rely on self-perception—meaning what you think and believe about yourself. Your self-perception may be informed by objective facts or by other people, but at the end of the day it’s a subjective concept that depends on your personality, health, family, history, and current reality.
Levels of self-esteem
There are three levels of self-esteem: low, healthy, and excessive. Your level will likely change as you age. Though you may be born with certain personality traits that influence your self-esteem, environmental factors can also affect it. That’s because the way 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. If you have low self-esteem, you try not to attract too much attention to yourself. You may speak softly or attempt to take up less space through your posture and body language. You may have difficulty accepting compliments and prioritizing your own needs.
You may also struggle with perfectionism—a need to be perfect that makes you critical and judgmental of yourself. Because you doubt your own abilities, you may be afraid to try new things, and you may avoid tasks that could result in failure.
What causes low self-esteem?
Low self-esteem often develops in childhood. 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 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 health condition, you may be likelier to struggle as well.
- Discrimination: Being told by society that you’re worth less than others can leave a lasting impact on your self-esteem and mental health. Racism, ableism, classism, sexism, homophobia, 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 at all stages of life. Traumatic experiences during childhood, such as bullying or abuse, can be especially impactful.
- Stress: Certain stressful expectations, whether they’re 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 seem 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: Dealing constantly with a serious illness or chronic pain can wear down your self-esteem.
- Mental illness: Mental health challenges are nothing to be ashamed of. However, we live in a society where talking about mental illness and seeking treatment are often still stigmatized. This may negatively affect your self-esteem.
Effects of low self-esteem
Due to an overwhelming fear of being judged or rejected, you may go through life without fully appreciating the power you have to change your circumstances, no matter how small. This perceived lack of agency can slowly transform into a type of learned helplessness, in which you stop trying to change or escape harmful situations because you believe your suffering is inescapable.
Healthy self-esteem is characterized by knowing and celebrating your identity. You’re able to identify and use your strengths while admitting and being mindful of your limits. Instead of putting on a certain identity for others, you know who you are and feel able to show up as your full self, regardless of what others might 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 you feel small, you try to compensate for them through your 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
- Inability to accept feedback, criticism, or failure
- Manipulation of others
Effects of excessive self-esteem
Inflated self-esteem can cause you to struggle in relationships because your constant need for praise pushes people away. You may harbor narcissistic tendencies and rationalize manipulative behavior toward others as a necessary evil to achieve your own interests.
You may also engage in impulsive or risky behavior due to your perceived sense of superiority, which can manifest as bullying, abuse, or other forms of violence. These reactive behaviors may result in consequences such as injury, illness, or criminal punishment.
How to improve your self-esteem
Self-esteem is an important building block for your mental health.2 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.
Building healthy self-esteem at home
You can take steps to improve your self-esteem 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 activities that bring you joy.
- Practicing self-compassion: With healthy self-esteem, you can acknowledge your weaknesses, respect your limits, admit your 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 and continue practicing self-compassion.
- Resisting comparison: You’re on your own journey, not anyone else’s. Comparing your life to others’ lives is counterproductive. If you struggle with comparison, consider limiting activity on social media platforms that perpetuate your feelings of inadequacy.
- Staying present: Practicing mindfulness can help you experience the present moment instead of being carried away by anxieties about measuring up.
Therapy for self-esteem
Practicing at-home strategies to improve self-esteem is a great step, but they may not be effective if you also have a mental health disorder. Certain types of professional therapy can help you address both your mental health and your self-esteem:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you identify unhelpful or harmful thoughts that may fuel your feelings of inadequacy and result in unwanted behaviors.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) teaches you to accept what you can’t change and encourages you to take committed action to build a meaningful life where you can. Self-compassion, self-care, and self-acceptance are the core components of ACT.
- Positive psychology can help you focus on your strengths, identify your values, and practice gratitude so you can lead a more fulfilling life.
To find a therapist near you, browse our provider directory.
About the author
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.
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