Self-esteem is how a person feels about themselves. It is their belief they have abilities to do things and add value to others’ lives.
Positive or healthy self-esteem usually has good side effects. Doctors think people with good self-esteem do better in school, have happier relationships, and have well-adjusted kids. 1 Low or poor self-esteem can result in opposite effects. Low self-esteem can affect a person’s mental health and potentially even lead to drug and alcohol abuse.
Self-esteem plays an important role in not only how a person feels about themselves, but how they go through life. One author and American sociologist named Neil Smelser wrote this about self-esteem: “many, if not most, of the major problems plaguing society have roots in the low self-esteem of many people who make up society”. 2
Because low self-esteem often starts early on in life, it can be a hard habit to break. A person has to complete re-learn the way they think about themselves and how they act around others. This is challenging but not impossible. And the rewards of enhanced self-esteem can be a better quality of life overall.
The term “self-esteem” hasn’t been around forever. Doctors first started using it about the late 1800s. Psychologist William James is the first known doctor to mention specifically the words “self-esteem.” 4 In his writing, he said that a person’s self-esteem is like a ratio of potential to succeed. He wrote that the more successful a person was, the more satisfied in their life they would be.
Self-Esteem was Studied Extensively in the 1940s
While James and other experts may have discussed self-esteem in the 1890s, the idea of self-esteem didn’t really get going until the 1940s. In the 1940s and 1950s, researchers started to do studies on how self-esteem affected concepts in life like happiness and success. The results of these research studies helped doctors start to link good self-esteem with better outcomes in therapy. Doctors started to look at the research to find ways to help their patients build healthier
Self-Esteem Linked to Other Conditions
Two doctors that did a lot of important research on self-esteem were Maslow and Raimy.5 These two doctors studied issues such as self-esteem and schizophrenia and self-esteem and happiness in married people. The results of these studies helped doctors identify that people with low self-esteem had more problems in life and were less likely to have success in therapy.
How Demographics Affect Self-Esteem
In 1965, a researcher named Morris Rosenberg released a big study on self-esteem and some of the factors that play a role in self-esteem. 7 These include:
- Family Structure
- Social Class
He also found that factors such as anxiety and social isolation also played a role in low self-esteem.
Increase in Research During the 1970s
By the 1970s, researchers had hundreds of studies about self-esteem to review. While researchers were talking a lot about self-esteem, the words hadn’t really hit the public knowledge yet. But they would – thanks to the increasing role of “self-help” literature. Self-help literature is a category of books or articles that are supposed to help people live better lives. Some people may read self-help books to help their love life, lose weight, or be a better parent. These books helped people to recognize the words “self-esteem.”
Video: Understanding & Fixing Low Self-Esteem
Symptoms of Low Self-Esteem
Decades of research have helped doctors understand more about how to recognize low self-esteem. 9 Some behaviors a person may have when they have low self-esteem include:
- A person won’t start a job or task because they know they’ll fail at it.
- A person makes excuses for everything that didn’t go their way.
- A person always makes comments like “I never do anything right” or “It’s my fault.”
- A person seems to worry too much about what other people think of them.
- A person always seems to have physical symptoms that keep them from doing things, such as headaches, body aches, or problems sleeping.
- A person quits activities or jobs almost immediately after they start them because they get frustrated.
- A person cheats or lies to win because they don’t think they can do it on their own.
- A person is controlling or bossy to cover up the fact they don’t feel good about themselves.
- A person withdraws socially.
- A person can’t take criticism or praise.
- A person is either overly helpful or refuses to help.
Everybody has an episode of low self-esteem every once in a while. It’s when this feeling persists and symptoms occur most of the time that low self-esteem can be a problem.
The Most Common Symptom is Feeling Worthless
The most common symptom in people with self-esteem is a feeling of worthlessness. A person with low self-esteem doesn’t believe in themselves or their abilities.
Why Do People Feel Low Self-Esteem?
Low self-esteem is often the result of multiple reasons. Different things can happen in a person’s life that may cut down their self-esteem. Examples of these include: 10
A history of stressful life events. These may include a divorce, heath of a pertner, or problems with money.
History of struggles in school that bring down their confidence. Examples could include having problems on standardized tests, having a learning disability, or failing to pass an important test.
- An unhappy childhood, where a person’s parents weren’t supportive or were very critical of the person when they were growing up.
- Being in an abusive relationship, such as with a parent, caregiver, friend, or partner.
- Having chronic health problems, such as pain, heart problems, or physical disability.
- Having a history of mental illness, such as depression or anxiety.
Low Self-Esteem Starts Early in Life
Doctors know that for a lot of people, low self-esteem usually starts when a person is little. People may get messages from their family, teachers, siblings, or parents that they can’t live up to expectations. Influences from the media, such as images of picture-perfect models, can also make a person feel inferior. For some people, the idea that they aren’t good enough or that only perfection will do sticks with the person. They find or feel like they can’t live up to the expectations they place on themselves or that others place on them. 11
Sometimes, low self-esteem also has to do with a person’s personality. Some people find it easier to think and act negatively than others do.
Social Media Affects Self-Esteem
A study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that social networking sites — such as Facebook and Instagram — can have beneficial and negative effects on a person’s self-esteem. On the negative side, social media can result in social comparison, where a person compares themselves with other people and feels inferior to them. The positive side is that sometimes social media can help a person to develop goals to improve themselves.
Over time, low self-esteem can take a toll on a person. It makes them afraid to live their life and try new things. According to Chris Williams, a professor of psychosocial psychiatry at the University of Glasgow, these aren’t healthy ways to cope with low self-esteem. In an interview with Britain’s National Health Service:
“In the short term, avoiding challenging and difficult situations makes you feel a lot safer. In the longer term, this can backfire because it reinforces your underlying doubts and fears. It teaches you the unhelpful rule that the only way to cope is by avoiding things.” ~ Chris Williams
Effect of Disability on Self-Esteem
Disabilities, including physical disabilities, may also impair a person’s self-esteem. According to an article published in the medical journal De Gruyter, of 186 persons with physical disabilities, people who live with physical disabilities and are sedentary have lower self-esteem than those with physical disabilities that are still active or engage in regular physical activities. 14 Examples of these physical disabilities include amputees and cerebral palsy.
Addiction Can Lead to Low Self-Esteem
Sometimes the causes of low self-esteem are like a chicken-or-the-egg discussion. For example, some people think a person uses drugs because they have low self-esteem while other people may develop low self-esteem due to side effects from their drug use.
These are just some of the examples of why a person may have low self-esteem. There are lots of people that don’t have any of these concerns in their medical history and still have low self-esteem.
Misconceptions About Self-Esteem
Wealth Doesn’t Protect Against Low Self-Esteem
One of the most common misconceptions about self-esteem is that if a person has wealth, a good education, parents in an important role, or have a big job title, they have good self-esteem. 15 According to researchers writing in the journal Addiction & Health, these factors don’t cause a person to have good self-esteem.
This is important to realize because there are a lot of people out there who seem to “have it all.” But inside, they may have feelings of worthlessness and worry. People may not take them as seriously when they say they have low self-esteem because their life seems so good on the outside. But it’s important to realize that people who have a lot can struggle too.
You Can’t Just Snap Out of It
Another misconception about low self-esteem is that a person simply can or should “snap out of it” . 16 Low self-esteem is often the result of lots of different factors that have added up over time and kept a person feeling low or sad about themselves. Once low self-esteem starts, it gets maintained by certain factors and ways of thinking.
For example, when a person has low self-esteem, they always assume things will turn out badly for them. An example could be trying for a promotion at work. A person with low self-esteem tells themselves if they apply, they’ll only get passed over because that’s what always happens. As a result, a person starts showing unhelpful behaviors. These are behaviors like avoiding the problem or taking excessive precautions, so they aren’t even in consideration for a job change.
Unhelpful behaviors further unhelpful emotions. These include feelings like anxiety or depression. A person may start to think critically of themselves like they don’t deserve this promotion and they can never hope to have anything more. This only furthers a person’s low self-esteem and impacts their mental health.
How Low Self-Esteem Impacts Your Mental Health
A lot of research studies have linked low self-esteem and mental health problems. And it seems like a lot of these problems start early in life. People with low self-esteem as a child or adolescent start to have a lot of anxiety around school, their relationships, their friendships, and more. They start feeling like a failure before they’ve even had the opportunity to try.
Three Year Study of Teenagers Links Self-Esteem with Mental Health
An article published in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health studied 201 young people ages 13 to 18 and then checked in with them three years later to find out about their mental health .18 When the researchers first met the young people, they asked them questions about their self-esteem, mental health, and physical health. After three years, the researchers sent them a questionnaire to fill out. Some of the questions asked if the young people agreed with certain sentences, like “I take a positive attitude toward myself” or “I feel I am a valuable person, at least on par with others.” 19
When the researchers figured up all the answer, they decided there was a strong relationship between self-esteem and anxiety and depression. The people in the study who had low self-esteem were more likely to have problems with anxiety, depression, and attention. 20 The people who had high self-esteem earlier were less likely to have anxiety and depression.
Doctors know low self-esteem can lead to the development of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. Depression is when a person doesn’t have a lot of hope. They don’t have a lot of energy and some people say they feel worthless. Anxiety is when a person is afraid or worried about things to an extreme level.
Study of Tweens Links Low Self-Esteem with Depression
Another study of adolescents ages 10 to 12 years old published in the journal Developmental Psychology found low self-esteem was a risk factor for depression. The study asked 674 people between the ages of 10 and 12 years old to answer questions about self-esteem, depression, and other topics. They also interviewed the young people’s families about issues like depression in the mom or dad.
When the researchers were done with the survey, they found that at age 10, both boys and girls had similar levels of self-esteem. At age 12, girls had better scores in areas such as school competence, honesty, trustworthiness, and relationships with peers. The researchers found that if a child had low self-esteem at age 10, they were more likely to have depression-like symptoms when they were age 12. They also found people who rated themselves as not honest or trustworthy were most likely to have depression.
Theories Why Self-Esteem and Mental Health are Linked
According to the article, doctors have two theories about why a person who has self-esteem is more likely to have depression .23 The first thing is called the vulnerability model. This model suggests that low self-esteem is a risk factor that can potentially cause depression. The other model is the “scar” model. This model states that depression causes self-esteem by leaving a permanent “scar” in a person’s overall sense of well-being that’s hard for them to bounce back from. Most researchers tend to think the vulnerability effect is more likely. According to an article in the journal Developmental Psychology, the effects of low self-esteem on depression are twice those of depression on self-esteem. 24
The researchers decided that low self-esteem was likely a trigger for depression. The researchers supported the vulnerability model because they found that if a person didn’t have a significant sense of self-worth, they were most likely to be depressed. The research also supports the idea that low self-esteem as a young person can have significant effects on a person throughout their life, including in their mental health.
Studies on Self-Esteem and Social Media are Just Getting Started
In surveys of persons regarding their attitudes about social media, some people report experiencing feelings of inadequacy and poorer self-esteem compared to those who did not regularly use social media. These findings were published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.
One of the hardest parts about having a mental illness is that it can keep a person’s self-esteem down. A person with low self-esteem may feel like other people judge them or won’t accept them because they have a problem. 28 That makes a the person feel even worse. They may be nervous that other people won’t accept them or make them feel like they can’t do anything right.
Bad or sad things are likely bound to happen in someone’s life. A person with high self-esteem may be able to handle them better because they believe they can overcome them. A person with low self-esteem may have worsening symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses because they don’t see themselves as a person who can move past their problems.
Low Self-Esteem’s Effects on Addiction
According to NAMI, a history of low self-esteem in childhood and early life can make a person more likely to be addicted to drugs later in life. 30 There’s a lot of research to back this up too.
Low Self-Esteem Early in Life Can Lead to Addiction
One study from Florida State University found that boys who had low self-esteem at age 11 were more likely to be addicted to drugs by the time they were 20. 31 The researchers published their study in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Substance Abuse. One of the researchers named John Taylor said this about their findings “Low self-esteem is kind of the spark plug for self-destructive behavior, and drug use is one of these. It’s a fundamental need to have a good sense of self. Without it, people may become pathologically unhappy about themselves, and that can lead to some very serious problems”.
In Boys, Low Self-Esteem Leads to Addiction
The researchers found that boys with low self-esteem were 1.6 times more likely to be drug-dependent later in life than other children who didn’t have low self-esteem . They also found that people who had tried drugs by age 13 were more likely to be dependent years later than people who hadn’t. For example, 37 percent of the people who had tried drugs by age 13 were addicted to them later in life while only 3 percent of those who hadn’t tried drugs by age 13 were addicted.
In Girls, Low Self-Esteem Leads to Eating Disorders
The researchers found low self-esteem in girls was more likely to cause problems like depression and eating disorders instead of drug addiction. They thought boys had higher rates of drug problems because of their self-esteem.
Prison Study Supports the Connection Between Self-Esteem and Addiction
A 2011 study published in the journal Addiction & Health also looked at how self-esteem and addiction are connected. 36 The study authors interviewed 200 people in prison for addiction, theft, or prostitution and compared their answers to a sample of 100 people who were in prison. At the end of the study, the authors found the higher a person said their self-esteem was, the more likely they were to avoid illegal drugs and narcotics. The people in their survey who had a history of drug abuse, theft, or prostitution had lower self-esteem than the people who were not.
Nearly 100% of People Treated for Mental Illness Have Low Self-Esteem
Another study published in the journal Annals of General Psychiatry studied 957 psychiatric patients, 182 patients who didn’t have a mental illness but were physically ill, and 51 control subjects. 37At the study’s conclusion, the authors found that virtually every person with a mental health disorder experienced some degree of lower self-esteem. The study found the people with the lowest self-esteem were those who suffered from the following conditions:
- Major Depression
- Eating Disorders
- Substance Abuse
Patients who suffered from drug addiction and had major depression had some of the lowest self-esteem scores among those tested. 38 The researchers also found that people who had a psychiatric disorder and a chronic medical condition (like diabetes or high blood pressure) were more likely to have low self-esteem. 39
Self-Reporting Makes it Hard to Get Definite Numbers
While there are some questionnaires that can help doctors figure out if a person probably has low self-esteem, there aren’t definite numbers about self-esteem. There’s no current estimate like “this many people addicted to drugs have low self-esteem.” But doctors do know that self-esteem plays a role in drug addiction. Sometimes, using drugs have the potential to cause negative feelings about a person. They may feel weak or outcast because they can’t quit using drugs. Others may turn to drugs to escape from their feelings of worthlessness. The two conditions can play into each other in big ways.
How Low Self-esteem Impacts Quality of Life
Low self-esteem can greatly impact a person’s quality of life. They don’t believe in themselves and their abilities to achieve success in their relationships, work, and life overall. Even if they do achieve and accomplish, they think it’s due to luck or other forces, and not because they deserve it or earned it.
Some of the ways that low self-esteem impact a person’s quality of life include the following:
A person with low self-esteem is usually the bully or the person being bullied. They may act angry constantly and try to make their partner feel bad. Other people with low self-esteem may feel like they don’t deserve to be loved. As a result, they may tolerate bad treatment and misbehavior from their partner.
A person that doesn’t believe in themselves doesn’t often take care of themselves. They may eat to excess or drink too much alcohol or use drugs.
A person with low self-esteem isn’t usually resilient. This means they don’t handle hard times or challenges well. They immediately think the situation is hopeless and they won’t get over it.
Negative Feelings Negative feelings can lead to mental health concerns. As mentioned above, poor self-esteem can lead to poor mental health. People with poor self-esteem are so critical of themselves they may have persistent feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, and sadness.
Harmful Behaviors Caused by Low Self-Esteem
In addition to these impacts on quality of life, people with low self-esteem often engage in behaviors that harm their health and well-being. These include greater instances of drug abuse, suicide attempts, or eating disorders. These behaviors damage a person’s health and keep a person’s self-esteem low. Even if a person is using drugs or alcohol as a means to escape their thoughts, the inevitable crash that comes after a person uses drugs or alcohol can bring all the thoughts and feelings of low self-esteem back.
Video: A User’s Guide to Building Self-Esteem
How Can You Improve Your Self-Esteem?
It’s hard for a person to change their mind about how they feel about themselves overnight. It takes time for a person’s self-esteem to build up and improve. A lot of times, they may need to see a medical professional and do a lot of activities and positive thinking over time. They often need encouragement from family and friends to keep their self-esteem higher. Ways a person can build their self-esteem include the following:
Internal Ways to Build Self-Esteem
Stop comparing themselves to other people. A person who is always trying to be like others can’t be themselves. And they’ll only get disappointed when they try to be like someone else. If a person senses that they’re comparing themselves, they need to stop and say something positive about themselves. An example could be “I am enough. I accept myself, and I don’t need to be like anyone else.”
Write a list of good qualities about themselves. A person should keep this list close at hand, such as a picture on their cell phone. When they doubt themselves, they should look at it.
Recognize when they’re engaging in negative self-talk. If they find themselves thinking they are bad, ugly, fat, stupid, or any other negative word, they need to stop. Then, they should tell themselves something positive and say it like they mean it. This can be as simple as saying “NO! I AM a good person.”
Move past the past. To move forward, a person can’t keep looking backward. Once they’ve dealt with their past, they need to stop dwelling on things. They can tell themselves, “This is over. I’m moving on, and I don’t need to worry about this anymore.”
External Ways to Build Self-Esteem
Exercise is physical activity that increases feel-good chemicals in the brain that help a person feel better. It’s also an activity a person is doing for themselves and no one else.
Learn to be Direct
A person with low self-esteem needs to share their thoughts and feelings. They don’t need to be afraid of sharing their opinions. Often, the more they share them, the better they will feel.
Find a Positive Activity to Enjoy
Taking up a new hobby can be a way for a person to develop a positive social atmosphere. Some people even volunteer as a way to do something good for their community and meet new people.
Keep a Journal
A person can write in a journal every day to recognize ways they succeeded in building their self-esteem and ways they may have struggled. Over time, they will likely find their successes are greater than their setbacks.
Taking Care of Yourself Helps Improve Self-Esteem
To start to build self-esteem, it’s important a person take care of themselves. This means doing things like eating a healthy diet, exercising, and maybe even meditating to relax .40 When a person makes themselves a priority and tries to improve their health, they start to feel better about themselves. They start to see themselves as a person of value and worth.
There are several theories and ways doctors suggest people boost their self-esteem. One method is called “acceptance and commitment therapy” .41 There are three steps to this approach.
First, a person should think about times when they’ve felt down or struggled with their self-esteem. This could be when a person is in school, sees a certain person, or goes out in public.
Second, a person should use an approach that helps them see their thoughts in a different way. Examples could include saying the words several times over and over, trying to write them with a hand a person doesn’t normally write with, or even singing a song with the words. While this approach may seem silly, it helps a person put distance between themselves and their thoughts. It allows a person to see words for what they are – letters that are out together. These words only have meaning if a person listens to them and believes them.
Third, a person should accept their thoughts and feel what they mean to that person. A person doesn’t have to act in them or believe them. They just need to recognize them as thoughts and that they don’t have to have too much power over a person.
Improving Self-Esteem at Work and at School
A person with low self-esteem may commonly struggle at school and in the workplace. This can impair their abilities to achieve a promotion or raise as well as to perform well in school. As a result, a person may feel increasingly frustrated with their life. This can only perpetuate a person’s low self-esteem.
Some of the ways a person can work to improve their self-esteem at school and in the workplace include the following:
Celebrate everyday victories. Every day, a person should reflect on one to three things they did well during the school or workday. 33 This can help a person better identify the ways they are succeeding in their efforts.
Tape a large red stop sign on a notebook or office wall. When a person has a negative thought, they should look at the stop sign and think about how they need to stop negative thinking and move on to positive thoughts.
Create a “praise” board that features positive aspects of a person’s professional and personal careers. This can be even small things, such as a sentence of positive feedback on a project or paper.
With time and regular practice, a person can start to enhance their self-esteem. To really accomplish it, a person really has to be aware of their thoughts and feelings.
Resources to Improve Your Low Self-Esteem
If a person needs help for low self-esteem, drug abuse, or mental health concerns (or a combination of all), the first place to start can be their doctor’s office. If they are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, they should seek emergency medical attention. They can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is open 24 hours a day. The phone number is 1-800-273-8255.
Psychologists and Psychiatrists
A person’s primary care physician can often refer them to a mental health expert (such as a psychiatrist) or a rehabilitation facility where they can find out more information about a pathway to sobriety while also receiving psychiatric support. Often, rehabilitation centers can help a person detox from a substance of abuse while also offering counseling and support groups. Helping to correct a person’s “addictive thinking” can also help them break their addiction to feeling bad about themselves and putting themselves down.
Examples of some of the therapy approaches a doctor can use include the following:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
This approach involves having a person recognize and reflect on their thoughts and then learning how they can adjust these behaviors to more positive ones.
This therapy approach involves rewarding a person for positive behaviors. Examples could be writing in a journal to reflect on positive behaviors a person has displayed over the course of a day.
Motivational Enhancement Therapy
Motivational enhancement therapy involves a therapist talking with a person to help them find their personal motivations to improve their self-esteem. This approach is one of self-discovery.
If a person already has an established relationship with a support group, community health center, or therapist, they should reach out to one or more of these individuals. They may recommend more frequent counseling sessions or other approaches to helping a person enhance their self-esteem. A person may be able to participate in online chat groups if they don’t have an in-person support group in their community.
Phone and Computer Apps
In addition to these efforts, there are lots of apps and other support tools that can help a person work to build their self-esteem on a daily basis. Examples of these apps (all are free, but some may have extras that can be purchased in-app) include:
Grateful: A Gratitude Journal
This app has small prompts on a daily basis that ask a person to focus on what they are thankful for and to think positively about their life.
This app offers free daily guided meditation that takes 10 minutes a day or less. People can use this app to focus their thinking, enhance positivity, and enhance their belief in themselves.
Stop, Breathe, and Think
This app offers daily mindfulness sessions as well as specific “sessions” or guided content for concerns such as stress relief, reduction of anxiety, and enhancement of focus.
This app sends texts message every weekday that are motivational and uplifting. It also features a gratitude journal where a person can record one thing they are thankful for each day.Happier
Another app focused on enhancing happiness and overall well-being, Happier encourages periodic, 10-second pauses in a person’s daily life to enhance self-esteem and positivity.Workbooks
The Centre for Clinical Interventions also offers a self-esteem workbook and educational learning modules that are free of charge. A person can access these by going to the following link: cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Self-Esteem.
There aren’t any specific medicines that can help enhance a person’s self-esteem. However, a doctor may be able to prescribe medicines to treat conditions that may affect a person’s self-esteem. Examples can include anti-depressants for depression or medicines to reduce anxiety in those who have panic disorders and other concerns.
These resources aren’t a substitute for professional medical help and rehabilitation, if needed. However, they can help a person who is struggling with their self-esteem.
Low Self-Esteem Impacts Your Well-Being and is Often Underestimated
Low self-esteem is an important, yet often underestimated, factor in a person’s overall sense of well-being, mental health, and addiction recovery. When a person’s sense of self-worth and purpose is lower, they may be more likely to engage in drug use and other negative behaviors. By addressing aspects that can raise a person’s self-esteem, ideally, a person can live a healthier, happier life. In many ways, self-esteem is like an addiction. A person is addicted to unhelpful thoughts and feelings about themselves. Even when they work on their self-esteem, one thing going wrong can trigger a person and make them feel negative about themselves. This is why it is so important that a person with low self-esteem learn coping skills so they can deal with the times ahead when they feel bad about themselves. It’s important a person with a history of low self-esteem constantly engage in healthy and helpful behaviors. This includes things like taking care of themselves and finding activities they truly enjoy to participate with people they enjoy socializing with. This constant awareness of their self-esteem and how to recognize thoughts that worsen low self-esteem can help a person foster healthy self-esteem.
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