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Date: 04/02/22- 12/02/22

Author Name: Udita Singh

Qualifications: B.A.(Hons); M.A. Applied Psychology (Specialisation in Clinical Psychology)

Designation: Consultant Psychologist, ACRO Mental Health Services.

Word count: 3,175 words

Reading time: 27 mins

Reviewed by: Sareem Athar, Aishwarya Krishna Priya and Mariyam Mohammed.

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”

  • Michel de Montaigne (1).

What is the meaning of self-esteem?

Self-esteem is a person’s overall sense of self, worth, or personal values. In other words, how much someone appreciates themselves and likes themselves is the person’s self-esteem (2). It plays a significant role in the way a person is motivated and becomes successful throughout life (3,4).

It is also the ability to achieve the things that someone genuinely desires to have in life (5). So, self-esteem is a term used in psychology to describe how people tend to evaluate themselves comprehensively with respect to self-worth(6). Furthermore, self-esteem is how much a person feels confident in themselves and how satisfied they are with their lives (7,8).

The terms self-esteem and self-worth tend to be used equivalently (9). However, feelings of self-esteem tend to be more fluid and changeable than self-worth (10).

Self-worth is the inner feeling and understanding of how good you are as a person and how deserving you are of love, care, affection, and acceptance from other people in your life (11). Self-worth is how we tend to have opinions regarding ourselves, whether the value we put on ourselves is more positive or more towards the negative side (12).

“Why should we worry about what others think of us? Do we have more confidence in their opinions than we do our own?”

  • Brigham Young (13).

Self-esteem and psychology:

Many aspects could be easily confused with self-esteem (14). In the field of psychology, many psychologists have studied the notion of self-esteem and differentiated the other similar concepts like self-image, self-worth, self-confidence, etc (15,16).

Self-concept is the understanding of who we are on the whole (17). It is how we perceive ourselves all in all (18). Many psychologists and thinkers like Sigmund Freud, Carl Rogers, etc., have postulated what self-concept is and worked on it extensively (19). According to Rogers, there are three elements of self-concept: self-image, the ideal self, and self-worth (20). The most significant difference between self-esteem and self-concept is that self-esteem is more of a self-assessment or self-evaluation, whereas self-concept is not much related to how someone evaluates themselves, it leans more towards an overall understanding of how the person is (21,22).

Self-image is the way we view ourselves (23,24). It is the picture we have in our minds regarding the way we are. It includes the character traits that we think we have; these traits could be positive as well as negative (24). Some people have this picture in their minds that include many positive characteristics like honesty, and loyalty, and they believe that they are intelligent, good-looking, kind and caring (25). Whereas some might see themselves through the lens of negative character traits like being selfish, stubborn (26,27). When we combine all our characteristics, both positive and negative, then we collectively form our strengths and weaknesses, which is, in a nutshell, our self-image (28,29). The key distinction between self-image and self-esteem is that our self-image is how we view or perceive ourselves, whereas self-esteem is how we tend to assign value to ourselves (30). Self-image is related to the way we think we appear to others and how we tend to behave generally (31).

“A positive self-image has little relationship to our material circumstances.”

  • Ezra Taft Benson (32)

Self-confidence refers to how much we believe in ourselves and how much belief we hold with regard to our capabilities and the decisions we make in everyday life (33,34). By being adequately self-confident, we tend to achieve greater success and get better outcomes personally as well as professionally, as we have faith in ourselves and our skills and competencies (35). Hence, self-confidence is the way we evaluate or assess our capabilities, while self-esteem focuses on our perception of self and how we engage with the world (36).

“Don’t wait until everything is just right (37). It will never be perfect. There will always be challenges, obstacles, and less-than-perfect conditions. So what? Get started now (38).

With each step you take, you will grow stronger and stronger, more and more skilled, more and more self-confident, and more and more successful.”

  • Mark Victor Hansen (39)

Self-efficacy is how a person has faith in his or her capability or skill to be successful in something (40). Albert Bandura, a psychologist, gave a theory called the “social cognitive theory”, where he highlights the function of social experiences, observational learning, etc (41). As stated by Bandura, self-efficacy includes an individual’s capabilities, attitudes, opinions, perceptions, cognitive capacities, etc(42).Self-efficacy can influence many things like a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviours, psychological state, drive, etc (43). Self-esteem is the degree to which we respect ourselves and how much worth we attribute to ourselves, whereas self-efficacy is how much we believe that we will succeed in whatever we do (44).

“People’s beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities.”

  • Albert Bandura (45).

Self-compassion is the skill to perceive, grasp, acknowledge and love ourselves inwardly(46). Sometimes, we easily feel compassionate and show our compassion to others, especially our loved ones, but we find it hard to show compassion to ourselves, especially when we are going through difficult times (47). So, being compassionate towards oneself includes being empathetic and sensitive towards ourselves, specifically when we are going through something challenging(48). Contrary to self-esteem, self-compassion does not focus on the way we evaluate or assess ourselves (49,50). It focuses on being kind to ourselves, even when we do not achieve something that we really wanted. It is accepting failure and being considerate to ourselves (51).

“We are each gifted in a unique and important way. It is our privilege and our adventure to discover our special light.”

  • Mary Dunbar (52).

What are the types or levels of self-esteem?

There are three levels or types of self-esteem: low, healthy, and excessive or inflated self-esteem (53).

Low self-esteem:

There are various signs of low self-esteem that you can identify in yourself or someone you know who might have low self-esteem (54).These are:

1. People with low self-esteem believe that they are just not good enough (55). They tend to hesitate nearly about everything they do and seem unconfident about the tasks that need to be done (56). They might even put off doing tasks; they might strongly procrastinate to cope with the thoughts of not being good enough (57). People might believe that they will always make mistakes and nothing will be ever done right (58). Their inner voice is fault-finding and quite critical(59). This eventually leads to immense amounts of stress and feeling anxious and also impacts interpersonal relationships (60).

2. Another sign is if a person is usually unable to speak what is on his or her mind; especially the person’s feelings and thoughts (61). People with low self-esteem may find it difficult to express their needs to others and what they want from others (62). They don't feel confident enough to speak up about their wishes and this leads to them feeling unsatisfied (63,64).

3. Fear of failure is a key sign of having low self-esteem (65). Before doing any tasks related to work or an assignment in school or college, they might try their best to avoid doing that task, because deep down, they strongly believe that they are going to fail no matter what (66). So, to avoid failing, they could simply dodge the task for as long as they can (67). They could also avoid tasks that challenge them so that they do not fail if the task is not challenging enough (68,69).People may also start making excuses if they do not succeed or even minimize the significance of the task (70).

4. Being overly apologetic is another sign (71). If there is a situation when the person had no control over it, yet the person still apologizes like they did something wrong (72). Apologizing for situations you have no control over is one issue, but you might also be saying sorry to avoid conflict, even when you don't agree with the other person’s actions and responses (73). Hence, apologizing, even if it is not their fault, could be a sign that the person fears conflicts from escalating, and might also have a fear of abandonment (74).

5. Indulging in bad and negative habits and self-harm is an indication of having low self-esteem (75). For instance, unhealthy eating patterns, drinking alcohol, smoking, doing drugs, etc are some examples of bad habits and self-harm behaviours (76). People who indulge in self-harm behaviours believe that doing those things will help them alleviate their pain and relieve their uncomfortable feelings (77). Self-harming behaviour makes the person believe that the person is in control somehow and helps them in coping (78).

6. People with lower self-esteem tend to downplay their achievements (79). People may feel that their achievements are minuscule and choose to downplay those achievements in front of others (80). They might dismiss compliments and feel unworthy of praise for all of their hard work (81). They might believe that they are inferior to others despite everything that they have accomplished so far (82). They think that if anything good happens to them and that they achieve something, it is not because of their hard work and dedication, it is because they simply got lucky (83).

7. They usually take criticism too personally(84). One thing they cannot avoid is criticism from others(85). We all need other people to remind us about the things that we need to improve(86). People with low self-esteem may break down, even if it is constructive criticism(87). They might start truly believing that they are unworthy as a person and also, they might react badly when criticised (88,89).

8. People whose self-esteem is not healthy have a negative self-image(90). They tend to look down on themselves and they get bombarded with thoughts that they are very unattractive, stupid, lazy, etc(91). They might feel that they are somehow deficient or inferior to other people because they think they cannot measure up with others(92). They focus on something negative about themselves; it could be related to their looks, personality, capabilities, etc (93).

9. Opposing being excessively apologetic with others comes blaming others for everything bad happening(94). They tend to put the blame elsewhere, and they fear taking responsibility for their own failures(95,96). This can be because they have a habit of blaming externally and this could manifest as an inability to accept responsibility when they are with others and in certain situations and circumstances (97).

10. Individuals with low self-esteem usually struggle in interpersonal relationships as they find it very difficult to say “no” to others, and they might reluctantly say yes in order to please others and they usually put others first (98).

“Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-brake on.”

-Maxwell Maltz (99).

Healthy self-esteem:

How do you know if your self-esteem is healthy? Following are the principal indications of having a healthy level of self-esteem:(100)

  1. People who have healthy self-esteem, tend to believe in themselves and their abilities to achieve things that they desire the most(101). They are aware of their strengths and they learn how to utilize their strengths in order to be successful, and they are open to bettering themselves and their positive traits (102). Moreover, they are determined, ambitious and purpose-driven (103,104).

  2. They prioritize taking appropriate care of their physical, mental, and emotional health(105). They give priority to eating well and exercising, and they focus on not bottling their feelings and emotions; they realize the importance of expressing and releasing their emotions and they do it in a healthy manner (106). They are open to learning new things and improving and challenging themselves (107,108).

3. They tend to accept that they are responsible for what happens in their lives(109). They do not tend to blame others for their own failures or shortcomings; rather they hold themselves accountable for their actions and behaviours (110,111).

4. They actively avoid actions or behaviours that are self-destructive like drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, doing drugs, driving rashly, getting into unhealthy or dysfunctional relationships, etc (112).

5. Having healthy self-esteem means knowing what one wants or needs in every aspect of life and the ability to convey to others about their needs in a respectful manner (113,114).

6. They firmly believe that they are worthy of love, care, affection, approval and they give these to themselves consistently (115). They do not believe that they need approval or validation from others, and their lives do not revolve around seeking approval or validation from others (116).

Excessive or inflated self-esteem:

Just like having low self-esteem could lead to various problems in a person’s life, having an excessively high level of self-esteem could also result in personal issues and various conflicts(117). People with quite high levels of self-esteem could struggle with interpersonal relationships and addiction problems (118). The various signs of having excessive or inflated self-esteem are:

  1. Being very arrogant, conceited, and haughty.

  2. Some may describe them as “being very self-indulgent”, and selfish.

  3. May bully others in school, colleges, workplace.

  4. Described as shrewd, cunning, deceitful.

  5. They do not try to identify or acknowledge their mistakes or flaws.

  6. Reluctant to change themselves or their character traits.

  7. Usually have impractical views regarding their capabilities and skills.

  8. They do not usually take criticisms appropriately; they tend to react with anger if they get criticised by others.

  9. They could be recognized by their impulse control issues.

  10. They believe that they are entitled (119-129).

What are the factors that influence self-esteem?

Self-esteem begins to get established during childhood, and many factors could contribute to building a healthy level of self-esteem or an unhealthy level- both low and excessive levels of self-esteem (130):

How others respond towards us plays a huge role in the kind of self-esteem we develop (131). If we consistently received validation, acceptance, and feedback, then most likely our self-esteem would be healthy; or if we receive a lot, then it could lean towards excessive self-esteem development (132).

How we engage with and connect with our parents, teachers, siblings, etc matters a lot in the development of healthy self-esteem in our childhood and additionally, our romantic partners when we become adults (133).

What kind of experiences you gather over the years at home, school, college, work, etc., also plays a crucial role in self-esteem. Numerous unfavourable circumstances and experiences lead us to develop certain negative beliefs about ourselves, which in the long run results in having low self-esteem (134). For instance, if someone was repeatedly punished over a long period of time, they might learn to believe that they are inherently bad and don’t deserve love (135).

Furthermore, many times people put a lot of pressure on us to achieve things and be extremely successful, academically, professionally, etc. People all around us put expectations on us (which could be impractical or unrealistic) and we work really hard to not disappoint our loved ones. So, we end up putting a lot of expectations on ourselves and if we do not achieve what we were expected to, we feel like a failure and we begin to blame and criticize ourselves for failing and not fulfilling others’ expectations. This results in negative core beliefs and lower self-esteem if repeated multiple times throughout our lives (136,137).

“Sometimes your belief system is really your fears attached to rules.”

  • Shannon L. Alder (138).

What are the causes?

Usually, low self-esteem is caused by experiencing an event that triggers the person in a negative manner, and there could be more than one trigger for the same(139). It could be possible that an individual has low self-esteem as an adult because he or she did not receive validation or approval from parents or from any person that the individual considers as close (140).

“Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated.”

  • Jill Bolte Taylor (141).

Furthermore, people who experienced emotional distance from their parents during childhood could show signs of lower self-esteem when they become adults (142). Sexual, emotional, mental or any kind of physical abuse could contribute to a person developing lower self-esteem (143).

If a child or a teenager struggles with regard to academic exams, assignments, or overall academic achievements, then he or she might not feel very confident which ultimately affects their belief in themselves with respect to being successful and achievements (144).

Another crucial aspect is unreasonable and irrational beauty expectations set by models on social media like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, etc. Seeing the “ideal” beauty expectations set by society compels people to believe that they are just not beautiful or attractive enough. Body shaming and bullying heavily influences individuals’ self-esteem levels (145).

Negative peer pressure or influence where a child or teenager is forced to behave in a certain manner in order to be accepted and “belong” to a particular peer group could cause low self-esteem (146).

How can therapy help in boosting self-esteem?

People who identify themselves with the numerous signs of having low self-esteem can benefit from seeking therapy for the same (147). It has been found that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) could be an effective therapeutic approach to raise the self-esteem of the clients (148). Melanie Fennell, a renowned psychologist, created a model for low self-esteem, that is primarily a cognitive-behavioural model (149). CBT model helps individuals with low self-esteem to recognize their core patterns or “core beliefs” that contributes to thoughts like “I am not good enough”, “I am a failure”, “I don’t deserve to be loved”, “I am insignificant”, etc that ultimately leads to the individuals having low self-esteem (150,151).

In order to combat these core beliefs, people tend to develop certain rules in their lives, certain behaviours so that they feel a higher sense of esteem like “I need to put others first in order to feel loved and valued”, “I need to be successful in every task to gain approval”, etc. A CBT therapist would help individuals recognize these patterns and core beliefs and help them to challenge them in order to raise their sense of esteem and self-confidence (152).

Furthermore, if the clients display signs of having a negative self-image, the therapists help the clients recognize their patterns and thoughts regarding their self-image and encourage them to highlight their positives and achievements, even if those achievements are little(153). Hence, therapists work towards building a more positive self-image of the clients in order to raise their self-esteem (154).

Additionally, tendencies such as pleasing others and having a lack of healthy boundaries with others significantly contribute to low self-esteem(155). So, therapists support the clients in building healthy boundaries, being more assertive, and learn how to put themselves and their needs first in order to stop their people-pleasing behaviours and patterns (156).

Moreover, there is a possibility that clients may show signs of self-harm tendencies and indulging in bad habits. The therapists assist clients in acknowledging these patterns and dispute them (157).

“You can have anything you want if you are willing to give up the belief that you can’t have it.”

  • Dr. Robert Anthony (158).

Hence, people who have low self-esteem could absolutely benefit by seeking therapy by psychologists and change their patterns into more healthy ones and live a prosperous life:)


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