We’ve all felt inadequate at some point. We make a blunder at work, we get ghosted by our crush, we obsess over the stupid thing we said at lunch. But while moments of insecurity or inadequacy are part of being human, sustained or constant feelings of not being good enough may point to having low self-esteem.
Self-esteem — also called self-regard, self-worth, self-respect — is how we view ourselves. It’s a subjective evaluation, meaning it’s almost always based on opinion, rather than fact.
Low self-esteem is influenced by both environmental and biological factors, usually during our young lives. While the causes are largely out of our control, we can work to form new, more positive self-perceptions as adults.
In this article, we’ll dive deeper into how and when low self-esteem is developed and what you can do to grow the confidence you deserve.
First things first: Low self-esteem isn’t a diagnosis, but rather a grouping of internal habits, feelings, and perceptions. And while there are common symptoms of low self-esteem, everyone exhibits it differently. According to Michelle Stafford, LMSW. here are some symptoms.
Internal symptoms of low self-esteem may include:
- feeling worthless, unloved, or unwanted
- obsessively fearing failure or believing you’re not good at anything (when there isn’t any evidence to show that’s true)
- having imposter syndrome or feeling like you don’t belong
- feeling like your successes or accomplishments are accidents or that you don’t deserve them
- frequent negative self-talk
- feeling like you’re a burden
- always doubting yourself or second-guessing yourself
External symptoms of low self-esteem may include:
- a lack of personal boundary setting
- people pleasing, saying “yes” to everything and everyone
- trouble learning new skills or concepts, especially things that are deemed difficult by society, like math
- difficulty making new friends or increased dependency on existing friends
- conflict avoidance
- not going after what you want, not asking for what you need
- disempowering body language, such as slumped shoulders, protective postures, limited eye contact
- social withdraw
- social anxiety
Low self-esteem might indicate a mental health condition
A person’s self-perception is closely linked to their mental health. So, while low self-esteem isn’t a diagnosis, many of the symptoms of low self-esteem can be ones from other mental health conditions. For example, difficulty making friends, feelings of worthlessness, and frequent negative self-talk are all commonly experienced in people with depression.
If you think your low self-esteem might be pointing to a larger mental health condition, we strongly encourage working with a professional.
There’s no universally accepted test or tool that scans for low self-esteem (remember, it’s not a diagnosis). But the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSE) has been widely used as a measure for low self-esteem since it was developed in 1965.
Another thing to note is that it usually isn’t tricky to figure out whether you experience low self-esteem. Look at the list of symptoms above. Do some of them resonate? All of them? If you often feel persistently inadequate and it affects the way you live your life, it’s pretty likely you have low self-esteem!
This is also a good subject to bring up with a therapist or mental health professional. Once you realize the beliefs you have about yourself are because of low self-esteem (and not based in reality), you can start to reconstruct a more positive understanding of yourself.
Your base level of self-esteem forms primarily during your developmental years, from young childhood into young adulthood. This is the time in your life when you develop your self-identity and start to form an understanding of how you fit into the larger world.
The experiences you have in your young life can have a lasting effect on how you view yourself. If you didn’t receive enough care or attention as a child, that may translate into feelings of worthlessness as an adult. If your parents had low self-esteem, you may unconsciously mimic the way they feel about themselves.
“Our caregivers play a huge role in shaping our view of the world and with that, our self-esteem,” says Stafford. “We begin to tell ourselves stories to make sense of our experiences and to fill in the gaps at a young age.”
Cultural forces like racism, classism, sexism, and ableism can also influence how we think about ourselves. These power systems touch us from all sides, from poor representation in the media to bullying on the playground to microaggressions from teachers and neighbors. While many of us can soldier through these forms of discrimination with our self-esteem intact, that isn’t the case for everyone.
Here are some environmental factors that can affect our self-esteem:
- frequent criticism from parents, teachers, or other important adults during childhood
- inattentive or uninvolved caregivers or parents
- medical and mental health conditions
- adverse life events
- trauma or abuse
We should also note that low self-esteem can develop in adults, too. Dramatic life changes like the end of a serious relationship or the outset of a medical condition can have an impact on our self-worth, no matter what age we are.
Lastly, biology also plays a part. Some of us are simply wired to feel things more intensely. Because of this, we may remember or hold on to experiences in our lives that other people would more easily brush off.
It’s totally possible to unlearn negative self-perceptions. But we won’t pretend it’s easy. Forming positive self-esteem requires daily practice and patience. But if we commit to the work of building self-confidence, the effort will pay off. More job opportunities, healthier relationships, and a more positive outlook on life awaits. So, let’s get to work!
Don’t trust the voice in your head
What feels true is not necessarily true. Your brain encourages a hypervigilant state, especially if you tend to be anxious more often. This state is great when you have to run from lions, but not so great when you need to prep for a job interview. If there’s a little voice in your brain telling you to stay small, thank it for the awareness, and challenge yourself to feel bigger.
Manage your expectations
People with low self-esteem have a habit of holding themselves to an impossible standard. Give yourself a break! You’re doing the best you can.
Challenge your beliefs about yourself
If you find yourself automatically questioning your abilities, push back. Is it really true that you’re not qualified for that job? What would happen if you applied for it anyway? Be careful of rejecting yourself before you even have a chance to try.
Practice positive self-talk
If negative self-talk has become a very ingrained habit, make positive self-talk your new normal. Every time you engage in self-negativity, stop, take a breath, forgive yourself, and remind yourself of all the good qualities you possess. Rewrite the script and remind yourself of all the ways the negative comments are not true.
Be your own best friend
Would you ever speak to a friend the way you speak to yourself at times? If the answer is no, then you are likely being far too hard on yourself. Give yourself a hug (seriously, imagine it! It feels great) and think of what a great friend would tell you instead.
Work with a therapist
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and changing years of negative behavior won’t happen overnight. You may need to seek professional help. A therapist can help you recognize your triggers for low self-esteem, understand where the triggers come from, and manage the triggers.
Many people experience low self-esteem. (Hello, fellow imposters!) Low self-esteem can stem from experiences in childhood, negative changes outside your control, or even simple brain chemistry. But with daily practice and professional help, you can build your self-confidence back up where it belongs.