What is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem describes the feelings people have regarding their own body, worth, behaviors, and value. Many people use “self-worth” as a synonym for self-esteem for this reason. A person’s self-esteem plays and important role in their interactions and worldview.

For example, someone who has low self-esteem may refuse to apply for a promotion, even if they are objectively qualified for the position. Meanwhile, someone with high self-esteem may apply for the job even if they don’t meet all posted criteria.

A person’s level of self-esteem changes throughout the lifetime. Long-lasting factors like relationships and jobs can impact a person’s self-worth. However, self-esteem does not change daily. Instead, persistent patterns change it over time.

Self-worth that is either too high or too low can cause mental health problems. People with self-esteem that is too high may have narcissistic personality disorder. This disorder makes it difficult for people to maintain healthy relationships. On the other side, people with self-worth that is too low may develop depression or anxiety.

Self-Image vs. Self-Esteem

While self-esteem and self-image are closely related, the terms have distinct meanings. Understanding these phenomena and the way they interact with one another can help people understand themselves better.

Self-image describes the conclusions people draw about themselves based on their behaviors, achievements, beauty, and abilities. For example, a person who has a healthy self-image may think something like, “I am kind, a good friend, and a unique person.”

Someone’s self-image may also include how someone believes others perceive them. For example, “Since I am a good friend, people like being around me and think I am nice.”

Self-esteem refers to the way a person feels about his or her self-image. The person in the previous example may think, “I like who I am becoming.” Generally, negative self-image and low self-esteem go hand-in-hand.

Symptoms of Negative Self-Image and Low Self-Esteem

Self-esteem can change so slowly that a person doesn’t even notice the change. Furthermore, people with low self-esteem may believe that they deserve to feel so terribly about themselves. These factors can make it hard for people with poor self-esteem to recognize it. As such, everyone should regularly check in with their self-image and worth.

Mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders tend to be more prevalent in people with low self-esteem. With or without underlying disorder, people with low self-esteem may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • An unwillingness to accept compliments
  • Trouble respecting the boundaries of others
  • Bullying others to feel better about themselves
  • Seeing every problem as someone else’s fault
  • Persistent pessimism
  • Excessive self-doubt
  • Shame
  • Avoidance of social events

When left untreated, low self-esteem and the associated disorders can cause:

  • Frequent stomach pains and headaches with no obvious cause
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Poor posture and related back pain

What Causes Low Self-Esteem?

The causes of low self-esteem are deeply personal and unique to each patient. Sometimes, the cause is not obvious at first. Mental health professionals can use a process called psychoanalysis to allow patients to discover the causes of their low self-worth. Then, they can being to work on those issues and improve self-esteem.

Causes of low self-worth include:

  • Perfectionism
  • Disapproving adults in childhood, including teachers and parents
  • Trouble in school
  • Physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse
  • Religious beliefs the involve shame and guilt
  • Childhood bullying
  • Emotionally unavailable or neglectful parents
  • Unrealistic beauty standards in popular media

How to Cultivate Healthy Self-Image and Self-Esteem

Individuals with low self-esteem do not need to feel this way forever. Although it takes a lot of work, the following strategies can help people feel better about themselves.

Challenge Negative Thoughts

People tend to believe their own thoughts, even if they are not objectively true. For example, a person can have the thought, “I do not deserve love.” That person then believes that they do not deserve love without ever examining why they think that.

One technique to combat low self-esteem is to directly challenge these negative thoughts. For example, if you think that you are unlovable, stop and think to yourself, “That’s nothing but a thought—a series of neurons firing. There’s no truth to it.”

Reverse Each Negative Thought

Once you can properly identify intrusive, negative thoughts, you can start turning them around. With each destructive thought, turn it around to its exact opposite. For example:

  • “I’m ugly.” – “I have beautiful eyes.”
  • “Everyone in my life thinks I’m a burden.” – “I’m grateful to have people who love me enough to help me.”
  • “Nobody really loves me. They just say that.” – “I trust that the people who love me tell the truth.”
  • “I am not good enough.” – “I try my best, and that’s enough.”

Avoid Comparisons with Others

Avoid the temptation to compare your life to others. Remember that you only see the highlight reel from other people, but you see all the practices and games in your life. Comparisons are not only destructive, but they are inaccurate as well.

Self-Esteem Therapy

Even with these self-help techniques, some people need professional assistance in overcoming low self-esteem. Trained mental health professionals use a combination of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy to help patients.

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