by Harley Therapy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Self-esteem is the attitude we choose to have towards ourselves, and is made up of the beliefs we hold about ourselves, as well as the values we assign to ourselves.

Low self-esteem involves having many negative thoughts and beliefs about oneself, creating a distorted idea that you have little value to offer both others and the world.

A counsellor or psychotherapist can help you to discuss and understand the attitude you have towards yourself. Self-esteem can be connected to depression, anxiety, as a result of emotional abuse they will also work with you on these issues.

In this article:

Individuals with healthy self-esteem usually find it easier to view themselves as a good person who is worthwhile. A person with healthy self-esteem knows their strengths and skills and is proud of their accomplishments. This allows them to set and reach life goals, effectively deal with challenging situations, and also try out new things.

If you have low self-esteem, you are more likely to focus on your weaknesses, downfalls, or perceived failures rather than draw on your strength and accomplishments. This may lead you to believe you aren’t such a good person, which in turn can cause difficulties in setting and achieving goals as well as creating problematic relationships with others.

While low self-esteem is not a mental health condition in and of itself, it is strongly linked with anxiety and depression. As so many cases of depression go hand-in-hand with low self-esteem, psychologists continue to debate which one of the two leads to the other.

What causes low self-esteem?

The root cause of low-self-esteem is a set of negative core beliefs. Core beliefs are ideas we develop about ourselves and the world around us as a child. These beliefs can be so entrenched in our way of thinking we may not question their validity until adulthood when we realise that life may not be going as we want.

An individual with low self-esteem may hold core beliefs like: "I always try hard but never get ahead," "the world is dangerous," or "I don't deserve love like everyone else."

Low-esteem can be triggered by the experiences we have as an adult, generally, because these experiences build on the core beliefs we have held about ourselves since childhood. This is why two people can experience the same trauma, but one may suffer a diminished sense of self while the other will recovers quickly.

An individual will have a unique set of life experiences that lead to having low self-esteem but, in general, one or a combination of the following may set the groundwork for, or trigger, low self-esteem:

  • An unstable upbringing, that may include not feeling safe, protected, and/or loved.
  • Critical caregivers – including parents, guardians, teachers – who were excessively critical or demanding of you.
  • Abuse as a child or adult; including mental, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.
  • Traumatic life experiences such as major illness, loss of a loved one, or adoption.
  • Demanding environments, such as school or the workplace, that cause you high levels of stress.
  • Unhealthy relationships – romantic or platonic – that involve being controlled, manipulated, belittled, and/or lied to.
  • Bullying, discrimination, or any other form of stigmatisation.
  • Comparing ourselves to other excessively and often, including comparing ourselves to people in the media.
  • A lack of social support than can leave us feeling lonely.
  • Inbuilt temperaments, meaning you are prone to emotional sensitivity.
  • Depression; both generally coming hand-in-hand.
  • Individuals with certain mental disorders are prone to low self-esteem, including those with anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, and avoidant personality disorder.

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What are the signs of low self-esteem?

The signs of low self-esteem include:

  • Constant negative thinking about yourself and your life: “I'm useless,” “I don’t deserve happiness,” “there is no point in trying because nothing ever works out."
  • Mistrust of others and even yourself.
  • Defensiveness.
  • A tendency to be a perfectionist.
  • A persistent sense of anxiety and fear.
  • A tendency to overanalyse personal performance and social interactions.
  • An inability to set or achieve goals.
  • Afraid of risk.
  • More prone to noticing what could go wrong instead of what could go right.
  • Victim mentality – e.g. blaming others and thinking you have no power.
  • Dependence on others to make decisions and take the lead.
  • Highly sensitive to criticism.
  • Bragging – those with low-self esteem may cover it up with ‘big talk.’
  • Chaotic relationships, including co-dependency and fear of intimacy.
  • Passive-aggressive behaviour.
  • Hypervigilance – being on guard constantly for mistakes you and others make.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Self-harming.
  • Sexual dysfunction or promiscuity.
  • Inability to set boundaries.
  • Poor communication skills.
  • A deep belief you are unlovable.
  • Addiction and other forms of self-sabotage.

Is there a difference between low confidence and low self-esteem?

It is easy to confuse low confidence with low self-esteem, and they are not the same.

Low-self esteem tends to be unconscious as it is created by our deep core beliefs and affects everything we do.

Low self confidence is related to our conscious thinking about how we may handle things and may vary with each situation we face.

You can suffer from a lack of confidence while still having good self-esteem. For example, you may hate first dates, be terrified of public speaking, or not like to dance in front of other people. However, if you still feel like you are a good person who has things to offer the world, you are only suffering from low confidence in some areas of your life.

On the other hand, individuals with low self-esteem can come across as very confident and able to do things well despite beating themselves up deep down for not being perfect. Some of the most successful individuals admit to having low self-esteem, feeling deep down that they are unworthy of love or are not a good person. They may push themselves so hard out of a belief that they must ‘prove’ themselves as valuable when in reality each individual is valuable regardless of achievements.

How is low self-esteem diagnosed?

Low self-esteem is not a mental disorder. However, if you feel your low self-esteem is making it difficult to function in your everyday life it is recommended that you seek help from a healthcare professional like a counsellor or psychotherapist.

You can see a professional privately, or speak to your General Practitioner who can refer you to an NHS service. A mental health professional can help you identify the root cause of your low self-esteem and show you ways to develop a sense of worth.

Low self-esteem can also be related to other mental health conditions and a professional can diagnose if your self-esteem issues are connected to depression, anxiety, self-harm, or disorders like anorexia, bulimia, borderline personality disorder or avoidant personality disorder.

What if low self-esteem is not addressed?

All areas of life may be difficult if we lack self-worth. It may be hard to set and achieve goals that move your life forward or to take on new challenges that make life interesting.

You may find it hard to trust others. This can create difficulty in your friendships and romances, leading to loneliness and isolation. It is also harder to set boundaries if you lack self-worth, leaving you open to manipulation or developing co-dependent behaviours.

Low self-esteem may leave you too shy to develop relationships with people you would like to know.

At work, you might end up in jobs that are too easy for you or that you don’t like because of not having the confidence to strive for what you want. You may also end up drained and exhausted from an inability to say no to demanding colleagues.

Low-self esteem may also have a negative impact on your health, leading to self-sabotaging behaviours include eating disorders, self-harm, and addictive habits like using drugs or alcohol.

Over time, untreated low self-esteem almost always leads to increasingly low moods.

What therapy helps with self-esteem?

Talking therapies like psychotherapy tend to be useful for increasing self-esteem because they help to identify core beliefs and discover at which point in life or childhood these beliefs were formed and rooted.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that has proved useful in treating low self-esteem because it allows us to recognise the way our thoughts affect the actions and choices we make. It is a practical method that can help us to manage negative thoughts.

Mindfulness is a tool that many therapists now utilise to help an individual become aware of how they truly think and feel. This helps individuals to develop greater focus and appreciation on the experiences they are presently having.

Group therapy or support groups may also be helpful when aiming to boost self-esteem.

Self-help is also very useful. There are a number of excellent books, online forums, and resources now available to help you boost your esteem. See our list of recommended resources below for more information.

A qualified, professional therapist will work with you to examine your thoughts and behaviours and improve how you feel. You will build a relationship based on trust, giving you the confidence to share your feelings and emotions with them. Your counsellor will listen to all that you have to share with empathy and openness.

An experienced therapist or counsellor like those listed on the Harley Therapy platform can help you to manage your symptoms and find your own way forward.

Filter our qualified, professional and vetted therapists by cost, location, availability and approach so you can find and book the best therapist or counsellor for you here. Or find a therapist to help with Self Esteem below.

How quickly can you boost low self-esteem?

There is no quick fix for low self-esteem. As your sense of self has developed over many years, it has been deeply entrenched in your unconscious ever since.

Altering your self-esteem is therefore an ongoing process. How quickly you can raise your esteem depends on the commitment you make to yourself and the work you decide to put into making improvements.

There is excellent information, resources, and support available for those who are ready to recognise their value.

How can I build my self-esteem?

There are a number of ways to build self-esteem.

Focus your attention on your strengths. Make a list on paper of your positive qualities, and things about yourself that you like. This can include personality traits, achievements, and hobbies you excel at. Ask a friend, partner, or colleague you trust to help you pick out a few of your positive traits. Keep adding to the list over time, and take time to read it over regularly or whenever you experience negative thoughts.

Boost your self-care regime. Looking after your physical health is a way to value yourself and show yourself respect. Eat well and wear clothes you feel great in. Exercise can also help and is proven to elevate moods.

Recognise unhelpful thoughts. Learn to distinguish between regular thoughts and those rooted in low self-esteem, which often begins with “I am” or “I should”. Example include, “I am not going to be good enough to begin with so why try” or “I should have done better at that presentation.” Once you catch a negative thought, it can be helpful to counter the thought with questions such as:

  • Is this fact or my opinion?
  • What are the disadvantages of this thought?
  • What evidence do I have against this thought?
  • Am I attempting to predict what may happen instead of being open to the possibilities of what could happen?
  • What is a more balanced thought I could choose to have instead?

Try a different perspective. It can be helpful to place yourself in someone else's shoes when you are feeling low about a situation you are convinced did not turn out well. What would your best friend have said if they had been watching? What about your eighty year-old self from the future? Would they be as judgemental?

Identify and set goals. Ensure they are realistic goals, but not so safe that they do not challenge you. Each goal can be broken down into manageable steps. It may also be helpful to set yourself a time limit in which to achieve each goal.

Spend more time doing what you’re good at. Identify what you well at and consider doing more of these things.

Spend more time with positive people. Surrounding ourselves with people who appreciate and respect us can help us feel good about ourselves.

Learn to be assertive. Saying ‘no’ is an art form that anyone can learn and can help those with low self-esteem to set much-needed boundaries with others.

Learn to communicate how you feel. Low self-esteem can lead sufferers to believe that sharing how you feel causes arguments with others. However, proper communication can lead to stronger relationships. Learning how to communicate in a helpful manner will help you feel a sense of empowerment in sharing your true thoughts and feelings with others.

Useful resources for dealing with low self-esteem

Self Help Books

Dr M. Fennell, "Overcoming Low Self Esteem."

G. Lindenfield, "Self-Esteem: Simple Steps to Build Your Confidence."

C. Wilding and S. Palmer, "Beat Low Self-Esteem with CBT: Teach Yourself."

D. D. Burns, "10 Days to Great Self-Esteem."

Useful Websites

The Self-Esteem Institute

MIND Charity’s Guide to Self-Esteem

NHS Scotland Self-Esteem Guide

Useful Phone Numbers

Samaritans – 08457 90 90 90 (If your self-esteem is particularly low, call this 24 hour hotline.)

Young Minds – 0808 802 5544 (hotline for parents worried about their children’s well-being)

Counselling and Therapeutic Services and Organisations

Counsellors, coaches, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists are all mental health professionals that can provide you with help and support.

Counselling and psychotherapy clinicsHarley Therapy lists qualified counsellors and therapists near you and online.

The NHS – an alternate to private treatment in the UK is seeing your General Practitioner and asking for a referral to a specialist.

Mental Health charities – organisations such as the Mental Health Foundation, Mind, Rethink, and Young Minds can provide access to therapy, advice, and support groups near you.

Support Groups – you may want to call your local council and enquire about support groups in your area.

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