Understanding Self-Esteem

Self-esteem refers to how much confidence someone has in their own worth or abilities. It has an effect on everything we do in our lives and how we relate to others.

Self esteem affects our thoughts, but also how we act. As an example, someone with low self esteem may not believe they are good enough for an opportunity and therefore might not even try for it, even if they could actually achieve it.

The well-known Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places self-esteem at the center of what drives humans along with things such as having enough food, safety, and even love. 

Self esteem goes up and down throughout anyone’s life. It does not change quickly however but as a result of an ongoing internal monologue about a person’s sense of self worth.

Improving self esteem takes time and effort. In some cases, individuals may have unusually high self esteem which can also be unhealthy and might indicate a narcissistic personality disorder. Those with low self esteem can suffer from other issues such as depression. 

What is Self Image?

Self image and self esteem are often conflated but they are actually distinct things. It is important to understand what self image is in order to achieve healthy self esteem.

Self image relates to how a person sees themselves. Everyone evaluates their characteristics, looks, and skills to some degree. Someone with a positive self image might think that they are competent, attractive, and a pleasure to be around. They might also feel confident that other people think these things, too. 

Self esteem relates to how an individual then feels about their self image. A person with a strong self image might think to themselves, “I am happy with who I am.”

Poor self esteem often stems from a poor self image. 

Recognizing Low Self Esteem & Self Image

It can be hard for an individual to recognize low self esteem or a negative self image in themselves. These thought patterns can be long-standing and therefore normalized. Checking in on your self esteem and self image on occasion is important to self care. 

People with low self esteem or a poor self image they may act meek, but they may also overcompensate by acting confident. Overcompensating can also take the form of belittling others, which can be harmful to relationships.

For some, low self esteem and poor self image can lead to mental illness. Mental health issues such as social anxiety or depression, for example, can result. Poor self image can also lead to eating disorders and body dysmorphia. 

Behaviors exhibited by people with poor self image or esteem include:

  • Doubting their skills
  • Feeling ashamed or embarrassed
  • Believing they will always fail
  • Blaming other people
  • Poor boundary setting
  • Avoiding social engagement
  • Hurting others to feel better about themselves
  • Avoiding compliments

Sometimes, people with self esteem and self image issues can have physical symptoms, including:

  • Digestive issues with no identifiable cause
  • Headaches
  • Back pain from poor posture
  • Insomnia

The Causes of Low Self-Esteem 

Every case of low self esteem is different. Sometimes a person has low self esteem because of a traumatic inciting event. In other cases, several small events in life may have chipped away at someone’s esteem.

Uncovering the causes of one’s self esteem can be achieved through therapy. Working with a mental health professional can help people find and address what has triggered their self esteem issues. 

After uncovering the causes of low self esteem, patients can work to realize that these thoughts were not necessarily right in the first place and that they are deserving of good things.

Common causes of low self-esteem include:

  • The disapproval of authority figures
  • Emotionally distant parents
  • Sexual, emotional or physical abuse
  • High-conflict divorce by parents
  • Bullying with no parental protection
  • Difficulty in school
  • Religious guilt
  • Perfectionist tendencies

Building Healthy Self Esteem & Self Image

Unhealthy self esteem and self image can change over time. The following are some techniques people can use to build healthy self esteem and self image.

Take Power Away from Negative Thinking

The thoughts that run through our heads are just thoughts, not hard truths. One way to help self esteem is to acknowledge that thoughts are ephemeral and not facts. This takes the power away from the negative thinking. 

Flipping Things Around

When negative thoughts happen, flip them on their heads. Respond to a negative thought with its positive counterpart:

  • “I’m unattractive!” becomes “I have a lovely profile.”
  • “I’m a burden to everyone.” becomes “I’m grateful for love and support I receive.”
  • “I don’t deserve a promotion.” becomes “I’m working hard and doing my best.”

Avoid Comparisons

In the age of social media, many of us compare ourselves to others constantly. It is important for those working on their self esteem to avoid comparing themselves with others. Keep in mind that everyone is always trying to put their best face forward and that you might not be seeing the struggles in the lives of others. 

Any of these techniques can be useful for people with unhealthy self esteem, but working on these issues in therapy can create the most effective change.

Therapy for Unhealthy Self-Esteem

Mental health professionals can use psychotherapy and psychoanalysis to help those with faulty self esteem. The process begins by identifying the causes of the unhealthy self esteem. The therapist and patient can then work on building a healthier perspective on these triggers and the patient’s self esteem.

CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, can work effectively in this process. Therapists may also give patients things to work on at home that can add value to therapy, such as journaling.