Self-help

Signs of Low Self-Esteem and How to Overcome It

Feeling down occasionally is normal, but persistent self-esteem issues can affect relationships and goals. Overcoming them may require lifestyle changes and therapy. Let’s take a look at how to get help and feel better.

Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC By Greg Lozano, LPC

Updated on May 01, 2024

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Feeling disappointed or down on yourself occasionally, like after a presentation goes wrong at work or forgetting to pay a bill on time, is normal. However, if you’re down on yourself more often than not, self-esteem issues could be at play.

Your self-esteem is how you think and feel about yourself. Low or high self-esteem influences your interactions with family, friends, and co-workers. Unfortunately, low self-esteem can undermine your goals and keep you from establishing satisfying, meaningful relationships in all aspects of your life.

Thankfully, you can overcome feelings of inadequacy. You may need to make changes in your daily life, and you might benefit from working with a therapist who can uncover the thoughts and feelings underlying your poor self-esteem. 

We’re taking a deeper look at low self-esteem, including the symptoms you may not recognize and how to make changes so you can build the meaningful life you want. 

What is Self-Esteem?

Teenagers are usually the focus when discussing self-esteem. Adolescence is when many people develop a negative self-image. But teens aren’t the only ones who may struggle with and succumb to low self-esteem. Low self-esteem can manifest across all age groups, interfering with various areas of everyday life. 

Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself and perceive your worth or value. Grow Therapy Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT) Tahara DeBarrows says, “Low self-esteem is characterized by a lack of confidence and feeling bad about oneself. It may stem from experiences in early childhood, which can lead to negative core beliefs about oneself.”

Self-esteem and confidence are sometimes considered one and the same. However, someone with low self-esteem can still have confidence in certain areas of their life while having an overall negative view of themselves. Self-esteem applies to how you feel about your whole self, whereas confidence is about trusting yourself.

DeBarrows adds that “self-esteem can be measured,” using appropriate skills and tools with a trained mental health professional. The first scale used to measure self-esteem was the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, which is now part of the public domain and was developed in 1965. This 10-question scale is simple and effective enough that it’s still used today. 

Scales like this are helpful because you can see if there’s been an improvement or a decline in how you feel about yourself over time. DeBarrows says that Rosenberg’s original research revealed some of the hallmarks of low self-esteem, including:

Many people may not realize that low self-esteem contributes to mental health issues and physical health. Your thoughts can affect health conditions for the positive or negative.

Grow Therapy Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) Jennifer Sagle adds, “Someone with low self-esteem views their issues in life are due to their own internal factors.” She goes on to say that someone with low self-esteem may also have imposter syndrome, which is when you have strong feelings of self-doubt and may not believe you deserve any success.

Thankfully, self-esteem isn’t static. It changes throughout your life and adjusts with life events, positive thinking, and working with a therapist to challenge long-held but unhelpful and potentially untrue beliefs. 

Ways That Self-Esteem Can Affect Your Life

Sometimes the signs of low self-esteem can be fairly obvious, especially to others. Some people mask their low self-esteem, creating more subtle signs and symptoms. They may be very loud and outgoing, but inside, they don’t feel good about themselves. Below, we’ve listed some of the more common signs of low self-esteem, and some that might sneak past your radar.

Negative Self-View and Self-Talk

Low self-esteem lends itself to a negative view of yourself and negative self-talk, which is how you talk to yourself in your mind. Self-talk has been shown to affect your thinking processes, both positively and negatively. Negative self-talk, whether talking to yourself out loud or internally, reinforces how you view yourself. Consequently, it can affect things like:

Sagle says, “I often hear clients with low self-esteem be extremely critical of themselves, have difficulty receiving compliments, and even use harsh descriptive words of themselves.” A poor self-view, negative self-talk, and difficulty accepting praise, compliments, and negative feedback are classic signs of low self-esteem and could mean you’re far harder on yourself than you should be. 

Low Self-Confidence

Low self-confidence can contribute to difficulties in accepting positive feedback and compliments. That lack of confidence may stem from feelings of worthlessness, inability, helplessness or weakness, or inadequacy that come from low self-esteem. In contrast, healthy self-esteem gives you a healthy sense of worthiness, competence, power, and trust in your abilities. 

However, low confidence isn’t always an indicator of low self-esteem. As mentioned before, some people mask low self-esteem with overconfidence or may have healthy confidence in certain aspects of their lives. 

Contributes to Mental Health Disorders

Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, personality disorders, and substance abuse are among the mental health disorders linked to low self-esteem. You could ask the question of whether low self-esteem leads to mental health disorders or whether mental health disorders contribute to low self-esteem. 

The truth is the lines between cause and effect regarding self-esteem and mental health disorders aren’t well defined. It depends on the person, and for some people, the link between their mental health and self-esteem may change over time so that one contributes more to the other as circumstances change. No matter which came first, low self-esteem can increase your vulnerability to mental illness.

Negative Social Comparison In-Person and Online

People with low self-esteem tend to compare themselves to others and judge themselves harshly. Whether at a social event in person or scrolling through social media, they tend to see themselves as lower than others. 

They may also have a higher chance of upward comparisons, which is to compare themselves to people they consider better than them. Upward comparison is particularly harmful to self-esteem because the person making the comparison usually finds themselves wanting, whether comparing lifestyle, body image, or popularity. It creates negative feelings that feed the thought patterns associated with low self-esteem.

Feeling a Lack of Control

People with low self-esteem may feel like forces outside their control continually act upon them, and they don’t have the power to stop or change their behavior or circumstances. People who think control remains outside of them have an external locus of control, which can continue to lower their self-esteem. 

Focusing outward can lead to a sense of weakness and helplessness, creating a perception of a lack of control over your own life. In contrast, someone with an internal locus of control perceives themselves as having the power to change their circumstances through their own choices and actions.

Submissive Behavior and Poor Boundaries

DeBarrows says, “…many clients with low self-esteem have poor boundaries – what I call ‘porous,’ where they overshare, have difficulty saying no to others, are afraid of rejection, and are eager to please others. Because they have poor boundaries, they have difficulty being assertive.” 

People pleasing, a form of submissive behavior, is another common sign of low self-esteem. In this case, you may not feel like your needs and wants are worth expressing or pursuing. Or you may desire to put others before yourself so the other person views you positively, even if you don’t view yourself positively.

Overcompensation

Many people with low self-esteem become good at masking how they feel about themselves through overcompensation. According to DeBarrows, “They may overcompensate, such as dismissing the input of others, defending or denying their mistakes, or stating their own contributions.” She adds other signs of overcompensating, which can include:

How to Improve Your Self-Esteem

Make Time for Self-Care

Self-care isn’t self-indulgence; it’s valuing yourself enough to care for your needs. Simple things like getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet, and making time for activities you enjoy are forms of self-care. They can calm a self-doubting inner voice and build your sense of self-worth. 

Gratitude can also be an effective form of self-care and has been shown to improve life satisfaction and how you feel about yourself. Writing a few things you’re grateful for in a gratitude journal each day can slowly change how you see yourself and your circumstances.

Practice Self-Forgiveness

There is evidence that self-esteem can improve as someone learns to forgive. That includes self-forgiveness as well as forgiveness of others. People with low self-esteem tend to be less forgiving, in general, than those with high self-esteem. With low self-esteem, you may see offenses as a threat, and not forgiving may help you feel more in control, even if the offending person is yourself. 

But everyone makes mistakes. Practice self-forgiveness in small everyday things, which can help you develop the ability to forgive in larger areas of your life. It’s a process of building positive affirmations into your life as a self-help method of putting negative feelings to rest.

Stay Active

Exercise causes the release of endorphins, which makes you feel good. A regular exercise routine can also boost self-esteem, help maintain a healthy weight, improve sleep, increase energy, and build a sense of accomplishment. You don’t have to run for hours on end to gain the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of exercise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity weekly exercise. That’s enough to keep your body fit and open the door to better self-esteem. 

Incorporate Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a meditative technique that trains you to stay in the present moment. It teaches the mind to be nonjudgmental, including being nonjudgmental of your thoughts and yourself. Meditation of this type has been shown to improve self-esteem and reduce emotional distress. 

This method helps train you to allow critical or negative thoughts to pass through your mind without becoming your focus. The practice helps prevent your thoughts from wandering into the past or future, where you can be critical of yourself. Remember that learning to meditate takes time, but with a little effort, you can train your brain to put aside negative thinking and self-criticism in favor of more positivity.

Commit to Therapy

A licensed therapist can recognize the signs of poor self-image and help you create an individualized treatment plan to build self-esteem. DeBarrows explains that therapists like herself assess where their clients are in their low self-esteem and tailor interventions to meet their needs, which can vary from person to person.

DeBarrows says she uses cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to “reframe irrational or unhelpful cognitions [thoughts].” CBT explores how your thoughts affect your emotions and behavior. It’s used to treat everything from substance abuse to depression and anxiety. 

CBT isn’t the only therapeutic method that may be used to improve self-esteem. Ask your therapist about the techniques they use and how they work. They may employ different methods to improve your communication skills or maintain boundaries when challenged. But don’t be afraid to ask your therapist questions to make the therapeutic process easier.

Learn to Set Boundaries

Sagle says, “When working with [clients] on improving their self-esteem, I always work with the client on boundaries in their communication skills. I usually find a client with low self-esteem also has difficulty being assertive. For them, it feels foreign because it seems aggressive. It takes time to learn healthy boundaries and healthy ways to communicate them.”

Boundaries are healthy and increase your sense of control. You’ll likely increase your self-esteem as you gain more confidence in your communication skills. Like many other ways to improve your self-esteem, learning to set (and keep) boundaries can take time.  

Final Thoughts

Low self-esteem can sneak into your personal and professional life without you realizing it. The skewed view that poor self-esteem creates could hold you back from having healthy relationships with your loved ones and hurt your well-being. 

Remember that your self-esteem isn’t static. You can change it, but change takes work. A trained therapist can work with you to identify the roots of your self-esteem issues and work with you to change your view of yourself. 

At Grow Therapy, we connect clients with licensed therapists who specialize in the care they need. We also work with your insurance company to connect you with in-network providers and reduce costs. Book a session, and start your journey to better self-esteem.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC Greg Lozano, LPC

Greg Lozano is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in working with individuals with severe mental illnesses such as depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia, and substance abuse conditions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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