In most cases, if we have higher levels or healthy 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 issues such as depression. People with low self-esteem often have a poorer quality of life. For example, lower self-esteem may mean 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.

Self-esteem plays a key role in a person’s life. A sense of inadequacy or poor self-respect can have a drastic effect on your ability to build healthy relationships or find self-understanding. If you struggle with self-pity 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?

Strong self-esteem reflects how we feel about ourselves and our worth. Higher self-esteem is considered healthy and associated with positivity, well-being, and emotional stability. Individuals without healthy self-esteem levels tend to have issues of self-worth, negative thoughts, negative emotions, and poor life satisfaction. We tend to base this assessment of ourselves on qualities and characteristics such as:

  • Our self-image, physical appearance or body 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. Because it is not a diagnosable mental health condition, it is often overlooked, and it’s hard to measure self-esteem. Definitions of ‘low’ self-esteem differ across the board.

One long-term study that examined self-esteem changes in over 3,000 Americans over a period of 16 years found that: (2)

  • Overall, women have lower self-esteem than men
  • Levels of high self-esteem peaked around the age of 60 and then declined with aging

Another study of self-esteem research examined U.S. adolescents and 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, have self-doubt or lack confidence at times, but people with low self-esteem tend to feel like this regularly, or possibly even all the time. Signs that you may have low self-esteem include: (4)

  • Judging yourself harshly
  • Being overly critical of yourself or having a harsh inner critic
  • Unable to identify or dismissive of your positive qualities
  • Comparing yourself to others negatively, poor self-regard
  • Negative thinking or talking about yourself negatively
  • Not taking credit for your achievements
  • Finding it hard to believe compliments
  • Blaming yourself when things go wrong or focusing on past mistakes
  • Feeling irritable or agitated
  • Depression or feeling sad, a general negative outlook on life
  • Relationship problems, including friendships as well as romantic relationships
  • Feeling worthless
  • Feeling stressed
  • Feeling anxious or worrying a lot

Mental health challenges associated with low self-esteem

High self-esteem is integral to having good mental health and closely linked to handling adversity, developing coping techniques, and building healthy relationships. Mental health disorders that have been linked to low self-esteem include the following, although having self-esteem issues doesn't mean you have these:

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 improve self-confidence and build positive self-esteem. Some types of therapy to consider are discussed further, below.
  • Practice self-compassion: Being kind to yourself can help to shape how you think about yourself and protect against depression. When you feel like being self-critical or find yourself in a pattern of negative feelings, try being gentle with yourself instead. This is a crucial step toward having healthy self-esteem.
  • Talk to yourself positively: Instead of engaging in negative self-talk, like 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: Believing positive feedback will feel uncomfortable at first, but can contribute to building self-esteem and creating a healthy sense of 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 your negative thoughts and how you feel. They may be able to show you that how they think of you is quite different from your own sense of self-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 keep a regular sleep pattern, and exercise regularly. Finding activities that you enjoy and making time for them in your schedule are important acts of self-love. Not to mention, such lifestyle factors can help to regulate your mood (4,5,6) and raise your self-esteem.
  • 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 self-esteem. Just a selection of examples include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT involves naming and challenging the unhelpful thoughts that affect self-esteem issues. 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 cognitive techniques for more balanced beliefs about yourself and increasing your self-respect.
  • Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness helps you to be aware and nonjudgmental of your thoughts, feelings and experiences. It can help people to learn self-compassion through positive self-talk.
  • 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, but embracing positive psychology and accepting that you deserve happiness!
  • Psychodynamic therapy: This therapy explores how past life events may influence current patterns of thought, emotion and behavior. It can help you to understand the underlying factors that influence 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:

Personal fit

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 proper education and training. In addition, ask your prospective therapists ahead of time about their experience in treating self-esteem issues.

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