Self-esteem is a term often used to describe how we feel about who we are and the value that we place on ourselves. People develop self-esteem because we are able to have both a self-identity and also the ability to judge interpretations of ourselves.

Self-esteem impacts on the ways in which we think and view ourselves, do we feel competent and confident? Having a realistic view of our abilities and strengths can strengthen our feelings of confidence.  We also regularly measure ourselves against others, thus adjusting our value in relation to other people.  Having a peer group that you feel comfortable with and which has realistic expectations of the individual goes a long way to enhancing our self-esteem.

How does low self-esteem develop?

Self-esteem develops and changes as a result of our differing life experiences, the lessons we learn as we interact with others and the world in general. Feeling loved and accepted by our families can form a solid foundation for our self-esteem. While feeling as if you are not meeting other people's expectations, receiving no praise for your efforts and bullying, etc. can contribute to negative beliefs about yourself. 

As a result of negative or unpleasant experiences we may develop a strong inner critical voice which tends to express itself loudly when we are feeling distressed, overwhelmed or judged by others.  The inner critic uses a range of words as weapons to make us believe that these negative thoughts are facts and that they are always true.  However, there are ways to recognise and challenge this inner critic to allow us to take a more balance view of our self worth.

It is not unusual to have a negative reaction in a specific situation where, for example, you may only hold negative views about how you cope at work (e.g. "I'm hopeless at using the cash register").  However, when our negative self opinions are always with us they start to be judged as a fact and that can impact on our lives and well being.  For example saying "I'm not good enough" or "I always say stupid things" about yourself in all situations may indicate low self-esteem.

How can having low self-esteem impact upon me?

For someone with low self-esteem the inner critic can cause significant personal distress by:

  • Saying negative things about you
  • Ignoring your strengths and abilities
  • Focusing on your mistakes and failings and ignoring the positive
  • Making you expect the worst and contribute to feelings of sadness, anxiety or anger
  • Interfere with your personal relationships and make communication difficult
  • Make you avoid challenges or situations where you feel you could be judged by others
  • Reduce your university performance due to fear or negativity
  • Tell you that you do not deserve to have pleasure or fun

It is important to remember that you are not alone in having these experiences as low self-esteem is a common experience for many people.  These feelings can also be experienced as part of depression and anxiety symptoms when self-confidence and problem solving skills are affected.  Despite these challenges it is possible to make changes in your life that will enhance your self-esteem.

What can I do to improve my self-esteem?

There are a range of strategies that can be employed to improve or challenge low self-esteem when it is recognised.

These include:

  • Start to identify and acknowledge your strengths - try to identify what sorts of language you use in talking to yourself and describing yourself.
  • Recognise things in your life that you can control and act on these while trying to reduce your concerns over things you can't control.
  • Challenge yourself by setting achievable targets for a new task or skill and then build upon this success.
  • Start to identify some of the ways your internal critic talks to you and dispute them - tune into the messages that make you value yourself and turn down those that make you think negatively about value or ability.  Allow your supportive mentor voice to help identify new self statements.
  • Acknowledge mistakes are part of learning - put the experience into perspective and identify ways you may be able to solve problems differently or change to get a different outcome.  Remind yourself that you are a worthwhile person and you are learning how to do things better or differently.
  • Keep a journal to help you think through your worries or consider problem solving options.
  • Reward yourself for your achievements and share positives with others around you - help others to see themselves as capable and worthwhile too.
  • Get some professional help if you are experiencing depression or anxiety.

Further Resources