What Exactly Is Self-Esteem?
“Self-esteem” refers to a person’s internal opinion of themselves, specifically in terms of how good, worthy, respectable, competent, and valuable they feel. (The word “esteem” developed from the Latin root “to estimate, to appraise”; the modern concept of self-esteem as we know it originated in the 18th-century, with the first known written reference from Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume.)
Self-esteem differs slightly from the closely-related concept of self-confidence. The latter refers to having enough trust in one’s qualities and abilities to present them outwardly so that they are then validated by others (but not necessarily believed by the self). Thus, a person can possess strong self-confidence but low self-esteem, and vice versa. While self-confidence is certainly an important component of overall well-being, having healthy self-esteem is key to living life with greater happiness, coping with stress, staying motivated, and protecting against depression and anxiety, to name just a few of the benefits.
Where Does Self-Esteem Come From, and What Influences It?
The development of self-esteem begins in infancy. An initial sense of self-esteem is established in most children by age 5, although it goes on to fluctuate over one’s lifetime.
A baby’s foundation for self-esteem is laid by their parent(s)/caregiver. When the baby’s basic needs are met—things like being fed, cared for, shown affection—it communicates messages of worthiness and love. When babies voice their needs (e.g., crying because they are hungry, cold, wanting comfort, etc.) and are responded to, it reinforces these messages and also adds the element of agency. These small experiences of successful self-advocacy unconsciously build babies’ feelings of competence and capability, as well as trust in interpersonal relationships.
Children continue to develop their self-esteem primarily through interactions with parents: when parents provide attention, care, unconditional love, and praise for skills and accomplishments, children further internalize their own worthiness, value, and inherent sense of being a “good” person. Over one’s lifetime, a person’s self-esteem is also impacted by the different experiences and relationships they have with various people in various settings. How others treat them, how they perceive their treatment, the strength of interpersonal connections and the roles played are all integral factors. Pop culture and media messages, too, strongly impact how people feel toward themselves.
You might be more prone to low self-esteem if you:
Frequently compare yourself to others
Have often been put down, criticized, or made to feel incompetent
Grew up in a situation where love was conditional
Don’t fully identify within all of society’s dominant, most-privileged categories
Have experienced some form of violence, abuse, or neglect from another person
Are part of a group that is discriminated against, marginalized, or targeted
Signs of Low Self-Esteem
Difficulty voicing own needs, wants, and feelings; hard to make own choices
Sensitivity to criticism
Feelings of inadequacy, or not being good enough compared to others
Pessimistic and puts others down
Blaming others instead of accepting responsibility
Doesn’t take initiative; has low aspirations
Negative, harsh self-talk (“you’re so stupid”, “you’re ugly”, “why would anybody like you?” etc.)
Lack of self-care
Trouble being alone, but isolates / cancels social plans
Seeks reassurance, validation from others
Feeling of not deserving good things in life: success, love, respect, friendships, etc.
Trouble setting or keeping boundaries
Feeling little control over own life
Easily frustrated with mistakes
Why It Is Important to Have High Self-Esteem
Self-esteem has been correlated with increased happiness and life satisfaction. It is a fundamental factor in determining human mental health, emotional wellness, social relationships, and quality of life.
People with high self-esteem typically maintain a better and more stable mood than those with low self-esteem. Because self-esteem strengthens one’s ability to tolerate painful and stressful events, people with high self-esteem also tend to experience less anxiety: trust in one’s own resilience diminishes fears of how we’ll fare in the face of future pain or stress. In children and teens, many studies have shown a direct link between low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and/or suicidal feelings (as well as decreased school success, violence, crime, teen pregnancy, smoking/alcohol/drug use, and potential for dropping out of school).
Beyond overall quality of life, research has also correlated low self-esteem to specific threats. For example, in females, low self-esteem is linked with a higher risk of anorexia or bulimia. In the general population, studies have shown that having low self-esteem makes people more vulnerable to interpersonal abuses ranging from bullying to human trafficking.
Having high self-esteem also provides motivation for people to explore and expand their abilities, which typically leads to reaching a higher potential. Motivation, functioning at a higher potential, and self-esteem’s correlation with the likelihood of taking on more difficult tasks can amount to greater career successes for folks with higher self-esteem. These successes then continue to perpetuate this bidirectional correlation between self-esteem and achievement.
Positive self-esteem also allows for positive relationships: when we respect and care enough to treat ourselves well, we are able to do the same for others. When we know that we are worthy of love and respect we will be able to connect meaningfully with the people in our lives who offer us those things, instead of just feeling like a fraud. This, too, is a bidirectional relationship: the more we allow ourselves to be boosted by others, the stronger our own self-esteem can become. The renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow stated that respect for self and respect from others are two of the most basic human needs, and self-esteem is key here to both. People with higher self-esteem are also less likely to isolate, and able to be more “present” and secure when interacting in relationships and with the world; there has been a positive link shown between higher self-esteem and “forgiveness in close relationships.” Higher self-esteem is also connected with a lesser likelihood of staying in unhealthy relationships.
How to Boost Your Self Esteem
Wherever you are in your self-esteem journey, here are some ways that all of us can work on boosting self-esteem:
Recognize the good things you’re doing: Start a daily log or journal to track achievements, progress, breakthroughs, getting-throughs, proud-ofs, etc.-- no matter how small. Recognizing the things that you’re accomplishing (especially the little things you may not have been noticing or considering important enough to “count”) helps build a sense of legitimacy, objective self-pride, and motivation to keep going.
Practice accepting compliments (notice, and just allow, any uncomfortable feelings that arise.)
Self-care: Each day, choose a self-care activity (something soothing that makes you happy), and set aside a designated time for it. This can be the same activity every day, or you could even make a daily ritual of it. Try giving this a one-week “test run” and see how you feel.
Disprove the “Inner Critic”: Identify one specific negative message that you get from your “inner critic” (e.g. “I’m stupid… selfish… a terrible person… don’t deserve… no good for anyone… unlikable”, etc.). Think of a specific action you can take that will provide direct “evidence” that you are not that negative message (e.g. volunteering would disprove being “no good” and “selfish”; bringing dessert to an older neighbor would clearly disprove “I’m no good for anyone”, etc.) Then, take action!
Positive self-talk: practice using positive self-talk—whether actual (“I feel good about myself today”), or theoretical (“I deserve to feel good about myself”) (post-it notes on the mirror are also a great option!) For an added punch, simultaneously practice catching any negative self-talk and replacing it with something kinder.
Practice self-compassion and forgiveness: When stressful events or interactions arise and there’s a tendency to feel overly at fault, consider context and perspective. Think about the circumstances and treat yourself exactly how you would treat a beloved friend in the same situation. It’s important to be aware and accepting of our own faults-- and take ownership of our mistakes-- and to recognize no one deserves excessive blame, guilt, or punishment.
If you or someone you love is struggling with low self-esteem or related emotional concerns, WBMA can help! To reach out for help, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Jeanni Jensen, MA, LCPC
Psychotherapist, SOAR Psychotherapy and Testing