What is Self-Esteem?

A person’s self-esteem level describes how they feel about their behaviors, body, values, and overall worth. That’s why some people refer to is as self-worth as well. Each person’s self-esteem plays a vital role in how they approach the world.

For example, a person with low self-esteem may think that they do not deserve a promotion for which they qualify. As such, that candidate may never apply for the position. On the other hand, people with high self-esteem apply for jobs even if they do not precisely fit the description because they know they can do the tasks.

Self-esteem is so crucial that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs names it as the primary factor determining all human behavior. The theory asserts that self-esteem plays a vital role in self-actualization.

Self-esteem levels change throughout lifetimes. For example, a person who enters a loving relationship may develop healthier self-esteem over time after seeing himself through his or her partner’s eyes. However, self-esteem does not tend to change on a day-to-day basis. Esteem changes slowly because only changes in thought patterns can alter it.

Patients can suffer from self-worth that is either too high or too low. Those with low self-esteem may also have depression or anxiety. Meanwhile, unusually high self-esteem may signal that a patient has a narcissistic personality disorder, which can make it challenging to form long-lasting relationships.

Self-Image vs. Self-Esteem

Many people mistakenly use the terms “self-image” and “self-esteem” as synonyms for one another. While these two phenomena go hand-in-hand, they have meaningful differences. A solid understanding of self-image and its impact on self-esteem can help people better know themselves.

The term “self-image” describes how people see themselves. It is the conclusions people draw when they evaluate their achievements, abilities, beauty, and behaviors. For example, someone with a healthy self-image may think, “I am empathetic, good at my job, and unique.”

Self-image can also include how people think others think of them. For example, the same person could think, “Because I’m empathetic, people like to open up to me and seek my advice.”

How a person feels about his or her self-image is their self-esteem. Someone with a positive self-image and healthy self-esteem may think things like, “I like who I am.”

People with negative self-image or low self-esteem can experience many of the same symptoms since the two go together so often.

Symptoms of Negative Self-Image and Low Self-Esteem

Some patients barely see the signs of low self-esteem and negative self-image in themselves. Self-esteem can drop so gradually that people do not even notice the shift. That’s why it’s important for everyone to take stock of their self-image and self-esteem regularly.

While some people with low self-esteem go out of their way to act small and try not to rock the boat, others have the exact opposite reaction. Some people with negative self-images overcorrect and try to project an image of confidence. In their efforts to boost their self-esteem, some people put down others.

Certain emotional disorders can develop when low self-esteem goes untreated. Such patients may have anxiety, depression, or eating disorders.

Common symptoms of unhealthy self-image and self-esteem include:

  • Inability to accept compliments
  • Bullying others
  • Avoiding social events
  • Shame
  • Undue self-doubt
  • Pessimism
  • Blaming others for problems in their lives
  • Difficulty respecting boundaries

Low self-esteem and the associated mental illnesses can cause several physical symptoms as well, including:

  • Stomach aches with no evident cause
  • Frequent headaches
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Slouching posture and back pain

What Causes Low Self-Esteem?

Traumatic events, tumultuous relationships, natural dispositions, and difficult upbringings can all trigger low self-esteem. The cause of each person’s low self-esteem is often deeply personal and unique. Sometimes, the source of a patient’s negative thoughts is not clear at first.

A process called psychoanalysis can help patients and their therapists discover the root causes of self-esteem issues. It can take several sessions that are sometimes difficult to get to the bottom of the pain. However, patients often find that uncovering the cause is well worth the effort.

Once patients know what causes their low self-esteem, they can begin to understand that those negative thoughts about themselves have no basis in fact. For example, a patient may feel that she is not smart and thus cannot achieve her career goals. When psychoanalysis reveals that she thinks this because she struggles with dyslexia in childhood, she can begin to understand that she is indeed capable of reaching her goals.

Common causes of low self-esteem include:

  • Disapproving parents or teachers in childhood
  • Sexual, emotional, or physical abuse
  • Being the victim of childhood bullying
  • Parents who were emotionally unavailable
  • Witnessing negative behavior during parents’ divorce
  • Difficulty in school
  • Religious beliefs involving guilt and shame
  • Perfectionism
  • Unrealistic beauty standards in television, movies, and other media

How to Cultivate Healthy Self-Image and Self-Esteem

Patients with negative self-images and low self-esteem can start seeing themselves in better ways. This evolution is not easy and may take plenty of time, but some of the following strategies can help.

Take Power from the Thoughts

People tend to place too much stock in their own thoughts. Many people believe that every thought they have is true, especially the thoughts about themselves. For example, someone may think, “I am unloveable,” and then believes that to be the case. However, thoughts are just thoughts. They do not speak of absolute truths.

Patients can take power away from thoughts by identifying the negative ones, then simply choosing not to believe them. In this practice, every time a person with low self-esteem experiences a negative thought about themselves, they simply think, “That’s just a thought. It’s not true.”

The practice may seem simple enough, but it requires lots of practice. Over time, patients may find that they no longer hold onto those negative thoughts.

Turn Negative Thoughts Around

Once people identify negative thoughts about themselves, they can begin to turn these ideas into positive feelings. They can flip each negative thought into its own opposite. Some examples include:

“I’m disgusting!” – “I have an amazing smile.”
“My loved ones think I’m a burden.” – “I’m glad that people love me enough to help.”
“I’m not worthy of love.” – “I trust the people who love me.”
“I will never be enough.” – “I do the best that I can each day.”

Avoid Comparisons with Others

When patients compare their accomplishments, looks, and belongings to that of others, low self-esteem is a natural result. People may think negative thoughts about themselves because the neighbor’s car is nicer, the social media star’s makeup is flawless, or a sibling has more formal education.

These comparisons are like putting someone’s highlight reel next to your bloopers. What you may not know is that the neighbor bought the car with inheritance money from a loved one, the social media star took all day to make that post perfect, and the sibling is drowning in student loan debt. Remember that others fight battles that you cannot see, so comparisons don’t give you the real picture.

Self-Esteem Therapy

Sometimes self-help is no match for deep-seated self-esteem problems. Trained mental health professionals can help patients with both psychoanalysis and psychotherapy . In the analysis portion, patients and therapists find the triggers for low self-esteem.

In psychotherapy, therapists give patients healthy coping tools for their triggers. Sometimes, therapists give their patients “homework” to practice between their meetings. For example, patients may work on journaling their feelings or turning negative thoughts around.

Opening Up to a Therapist

When patients with low self-esteem begin therapy, they often feel reluctant to open up. After all, their symptoms may be the result of rejection and they fear the same fate with the therapist. However, as they start to discuss their feelings, mental health professionals meet their patients with reassurance and compassion.

Over time, this pattern helps patients understand that they can feel the same compassion for themselves. It almost works like a sort of exposure therapy in which patients purposefully face their fears to understand how untrue the negative thoughts are.