In most cases, if we have higher levels of self-esteem, we tend to like ourselves more. This helps us to maintain good mental health.
On the other hand, lower levels of self-esteem are associated with mental health challenges such as depression. People with low self-esteem often have a poorer quality of life. For example, if we have lower self-esteem, we are more likely to think that we are not clever enough to get that job, or that we are deserving of poor treatment because we are not worthy of love.
If you struggle with low self-esteem and notice that it affects your life negatively, seek help. Therapists can help you learn to reassess how you think and feel about yourself.
What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem relates to how positively we feel about ourselves and our worth. We tend to base this assessment of ourselves on qualities and characteristics such as:
- Our physical self-image
- Our view of our achievements and abilities
- Our values and how well we think we live up to them
- How other people view and respond to us
How common is low self-esteem?
It’s difficult to tell how common low self-esteem is. It tends not to be frequently measured because it is not a diagnosable mental health condition, and definitions of ‘low’ self-esteem differ.
One long-term study that examined self-esteem changes in over 3000 Americans over a period of 16 years found that: (2)
- Overall, women have lower self-esteem than men
- Levels of self-esteem peaked around the age of 60 and then declined with aging
Another study examining self-esteem in U.S. adolescents found that around 25% of 16-year-olds had low self-esteem. (3)
Signs of low self-esteem
We can all feel bad about ourselves or lack confidence at times, but people with low self-esteem feel like this regularly, or possibly even all the time. Signs that you may have low self-esteem include: (4)
- Judging yourself harshly
- Being highly critical of yourself
- Unable to identify or dismiss your positive qualities
- Comparing yourself to others negatively
- Talking or thinking about yourself negatively
- Not taking credit for your achievements
- Find it hard to believe compliments
- Blaming yourself when things go wrong
- Feeling irritable or agitated
- Depression or feeling sad
- Relationship problems
- Feeling worthless
- Feeling stressed
- Feeling anxious or worrying a lot
Mental health challenges associated with low self-esteem
Low self-esteem has been linked to many mental health challenges, including:
- Eating problems, including eating disorders
- Substance abuse, including alcohol
What to do if you are struggling with low self-esteem
If you have low self-esteem, consider a combination of the following actions to help shift how you think and feel about yourself:
- Therapy: Talking therapies in both individual and group contexts can help people to build self-esteem. Types of therapy to consider are discussed further, below.
- Practice self-compassion: Being kind to yourself, although difficult, can help to shape how you think about yourself and protect against depression. When you feel like being self-critical, try being gentle with yourself instead.
- Talk to yourself positively: Instead of telling yourself that you are too stupid to do your job, try telling yourself that you are very capable! Think about what you would say to a friend and speak to yourself in the same way. Try recording positive events and qualities about yourself in a journal - and do this on a daily basis.
- Practice accepting compliments: This will feel uncomfortable at first but can contribute to how you think about yourself.
- Stop comparing yourself to others: Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. However, when we compare ourselves to others we tend to look for things we’re not good at in people for whom this happens to be a personal strength. This is unhelpful and not a true reflection of who they are - or who you are!
- Social supports: Talk to a trusted friend or family member about how you feel. They may be able to show you that how they think of you is very different from your own sense of your worth. This can be a valuable source of information to help change how you feel about yourself.
- Be assertive: Many people with low self-esteem think that their needs are less important than those of others, and feel that they should say ‘yes’ to other people. Practice saying ‘no’ or speak with a therapist about learning how to be assertive, if you’re feeling hesitant.
- Self-care: Pay attention to your diet, try to maintain a regular sleep pattern, and exercise regularly. Find activities that you enjoy, and make time for them in your schedule. Such lifestyle factors can help to regulate our mood. (4,5,6)
- Helplines: If you need immediate support, call 1-800-273-8255, or go the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.
Therapy types to consider for low self-esteem
Many types of therapy are considered helpful for improving low self-esteem. Just a selection of examples include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT involves identifying and challenging the unhelpful thoughts associated with low self-esteem. It helps you to examine and change the core beliefs you have about yourself that contribute to low self-esteem. It’s all about developing more balanced beliefs about yourself.
- Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness helps you to be aware more aware and nonjudgemental of your thoughts, feelings and experiences. It can help people to learn self-compassion.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT involves components of both CBT and mindfulness as well as other strategies to help people take an acceptance approach. This does not mean agreeing with the unhelpful thoughts that contribute to low self-esteem!
- Psychodynamic therapy: This therapy explores how the past may influence current patterns of thought, emotion and behavior. It can help you to understand the underlying factors fuelling low self-esteem.
- Creative arts therapy: Other creative therapies such as art therapy or dance movement therapy can also be helpful, especially for those who struggle to find the right words to express themselves. It helps people to develop new and creative ways of coping.
What to look for in a therapist for low self-esteem
The best-fitting type of therapist for you will depend on individual factors, symptoms, your location and finances. When selecting a mental health professional, it can be helpful to consider the following factors:
When seeking therapy for any reason, it’s important to consider the potential for developing a strong working relationship with your therapist. This trusting relationship is called the therapeutic alliance, and it’s the number one indicator of treatment efficacy. Feeling comfortable with your prospective therapist is an absolute priority.
After you’ve read a little more about the therapy types above, think about which one might be the best fit for you. Some people prefer a creative approach, as art therapy offers; others prefer a structured approach like CBT. Keep this in mind when you are looking at the therapy types offered by your prospective therapists.
Qualifications and experience
Look for a licensed mental health professional. This ensures that the therapist you work with has undertaken the appropriate education and training. In addition, ask your prospective therapists ahead of time about their experience in treating self-esteem.
Talk in advance
The best way to judge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to oblige. This gives you the opportunity to ask about:
- Their qualifications
- Their experience working with people with low self-esteem
- What type of therapy they suggest for low self-esteem, and what that will be like
- Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy
Try to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.
Sources and references