Self-esteem is all about the beliefs we have about ourselves. If we have a negative view of ourselves we will focus on our weaknesses and mistakes – this is low self-esteem. People with low self-esteem often dwell on things that have not gone well, and blame themselves.

People with good self-esteem have a more positive outlook. Whilst they still make mistakes and experience difficulties, they can cope with this as they can recognise their own good points and strengths.

Low self-esteem

People who had difficult life experiences as children can grow up with low self-esteem. They may have been bullied, treated badly by parents or teachers or criticised by peers and adults. Adults’ self-esteem can be affected by stressful life events such as redundancy or abusive relationships.

Feelings associated with low self-esteem can include guilt, shame, sadness, anxiety and frustration. Many people with low self-esteem spend a lot of time worrying and being critical of themselves, having thoughts such as ‘I’m useless, I’m a failure, I’m stupid’. All of this can lead to things like avoiding family and friends, reduced performance at work/school, getting angry with other people and being shy or passive.

Lots of people will have been taught that talking about their good points and achievements is basically ‘showing off’, and so they keep quiet or discount these things.

Good self-esteem

People with a more balanced self-esteem may have experienced less negative life events. They may have had parents and friends who weren’t overly critical for example. People who haven’t constantly been ‘put down’ will have enough confidence to say what they want to say and pursue their goals. When they need to solve problems they find this easier because they have more of a belief that they will do the right thing, but they also recognise and are comfortable with their own limitations.

What can help self-esteem?

A lot of people find that slowly trying to change their thoughts can help. For example, after making a mistake, rather than just thinking ‘I’m useless, I’m giving up’, it can help to think ‘ok so I didn’t get it right this time, so I’ll do it differently next time’. Because low self-esteem can be very deeply rooted, it takes time to be able to do this, but it’s worth trying and practicing. Remembering times when things did go well, and writing these down, can be a reminder of skills and strengths.

Comparing ourselves to others is unhelpful as most people will see themselves as ‘less’ than the person they are comparing themselves to. Good self-esteem involves accepting our good and bad points.

Getting to know ourselves can be really useful too. The page on ‘identity’ might help with this.

Real Life Experience

Self-esteem relates to the value an individual places on his or her sense of worth. It has been linked to certain outcomes, for example, subjective happiness, achievements in work and education, and positive relationships with others. Someone who has high levels of self-esteem believes themselves to be competent at what they do, feels worthy as an individual, and will take pride in any achievements. However, someone who has low self-esteem may feel that they have little value as a human, feel overly critical about anything they do, or may be overly-reliant on praise or approval from others.

My sense of self-esteem has changed in response to life events. I have had higher levels of self-esteem when I have achieved things to be proud of – for example, when I passed my driving test, when I finished my degree, or when I won a photography competition. However, for much of my life I have struggled with low self esteem, particularly if I feel I have failed at something, or not done as well as I’d hoped. This has been particularly challenging when I had previously ‘built up my hopes’ over something. For example, during my first driving test I felt I had done everything well – at the end of the test I was fairly confident of passing, so to be told that I had failed was a massive blow to me.

Having low self-esteem has also made me less willing to be assertive even if I feel that I have a justifiable reason to complain about something. This is because sometimes I feel that I lack the confidence to argue my case, and generally feel the need to please others rather than nurture my own needs and wants. Having poor self-esteem has impacted on various aspects of my life, and has led to me adopting some negative coping strategies such as the use of alcohol and by directly avoiding any situations that could further damage my self-esteem. I have always been fearful of any form of criticism, which I almost feel to be a form of personal attack. Common to many others with self-esteem issues, I dwell on or exaggerate any past mistakes, and see temporary setbacks as being long-term issues. My self-esteem is also not helped by societal and government rhetoric. I rely on benefits at present; however there is often the view that anyone who is not a taxpayer in full-time employment is somehow a lesser citizen or even a ‘scrounger’.

While I still have issues with low self-esteem today, I have found a number of strategies to be helpful. Firstly, I believe that self-esteem is inextricably linked with low mood, depression and anxiety, and so lifestyle changes such as regular sleep, good diet, avoidance of alcohol, and exercise, can indirectly lead to better self-esteem. Other strategies I have adopted include trying to focus on all the positive things I have achieved, and by attempting things in small steps to minimise the chance of failure (i.e. walking before I can run). One useful strategy is to think about how I would treat others in a similar situation to my own. This is because many people with low self-esteem are more critical of themselves than others like them. Taking such a step back made me realise that I often judge myself harshly, and as a consequence I have become much more accepting of myself.