We all have times when we lack confidence and do not feel good about ourselves.
But when low self-esteem becomes a long-term problem, it can have a harmful effect on our mental health and our day-to-day lives.
What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem is the opinion we have of ourselves.
When we have healthy self-esteem, we tend to feel positive about ourselves and about life in general. It makes us better able to deal with life’s ups and downs.
When our self-esteem is low, we tend to see ourselves and our life in a more negative and critical light. We also feel less able to take on the challenges that life throws at us.
What causes low self-esteem?
Low self-esteem often begins in childhood. Our teachers, friends, siblings, parents, and even the media send us positive and negative messages about ourselves.
For some reason, the message that you are not good enough is the one that stays with you.
Perhaps you found it difficult to live up to other people’s expectations of you, or to your own expectations.
Stress and difficult life events, such as serious illness or a bereavement, can have a negative effect on self-esteem.
Personality can also play a part. Some people are just more prone to negative thinking, while others set impossibly high standards for themselves.
How does low self-esteem affect us?
If you have low self-esteem or confidence, you may hide yourself away from social situations, stop trying new things, and avoid things you find challenging.
In the short term, avoiding challenging and difficult situations might make you feel safe.
In the longer term, this can backfire because it reinforces your underlying doubts and fears. It teaches you the unhelpful rule that the only way to cope is by avoiding things.
Living with low self-esteem can harm your mental health and lead to problems such as depression and anxiety.
You may also develop unhelpful habits, such as smoking and drinking too much, as a way of coping.
How to have healthy self-esteem
To boost your self-esteem, you need to identify the negative beliefs you have about yourself, then challenge them.
You may tell yourself you’re “too stupid” to apply for a new job, for example, or that “nobody cares” about you.
Start to note these negative thoughts and write them on a piece of paper or in a diary. Ask yourself when you first started to think these thoughts.
Next, start to write some evidence that challenges these negative beliefs, such as, “I’m really good at cryptic crosswords” or “My sister calls for a chat every week”.
Write down other positive things about yourself, such as “I’m thoughtful” or “I’m a great cook” or “I’m someone that others trust”.
Also write some good things that other people say about you.
Aim to have at least 5 positive things on your list and add to it regularly. Then put your list somewhere you can see it. That way, you can keep reminding yourself that you’re OK.
You might have low confidence now because of what happened when you were growing up, but we can grow and develop new ways of seeing ourselves at any age.
Other ways to improve low self-esteem
Here are some other simple techniques that may help you feel better about yourself.
Recognise what you’re good at
We’re all good at something, whether it’s cooking, singing, doing puzzles or being a friend. We also tend to enjoy doing the things we’re good at, which can help boost your mood.
Build positive relationships
If you find certain people tend to bring you down, try to spend less time with them, or tell them how you feel about their words or actions.
Try to build relationships with people who are positive and who appreciate you.
Be kind to yourself
Being kind to yourself means being gentle to yourself at times when you feel like being self-critical.
Think what you’d say to a friend in a similar situation. We often give far better advice to others than we do to ourselves.
Learn to be assertive
Being assertive is about respecting other people’s opinions and needs, and expecting the same from them.
One trick is to look at other people who act assertively and copy what they do.
It’s not about pretending you’re someone you’re not. It’s picking up hints and tips from people you admire and letting the real you come out.
Start saying “no”
People with low self-esteem often feel they have to say yes to other people, even when they do not really want to.
The risk is that you become overburdened, resentful, angry and depressed.
For the most part, saying no does not upset relationships. It can be helpful to keep saying no, but in different ways, until they get the message.
Give yourself a challenge
We all feel nervous or afraid to do things at times. But people with healthy self-esteem do not let these feelings stop them trying new things or taking on challenges.
Set yourself a goal, such as joining an exercise class or going to a social occasion. Achieving your goals will help to increase your self-esteem.
Where to find help for low self-esteem
Psychological therapies like counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help.
You can refer yourself for psychological therapies on the NHS.
If you prefer, you can talk to a GP first and they can refer you.
You could also find a private therapist. Make sure they’re registered with a professional body.
Listen to podcast about tackling unhelpful thinking.
Media last reviewed: 2 March 2018
Media review due: 2 March 2021
Visit healthtalk.org to hear young people talking about their experiences of low self-esteem.
You can find mental health apps and tools in the NHS apps library.
Media last reviewed: 5 September 2018
Media review due: 5 September 2021