Understanding low self-esteem and how to improve it

What causes low self-esteem

When we use the term self-esteem, we are talking about the beliefs, thoughts and ideas someone has about themselves. This includes the type of person they think they are, their abilities, the positive and negative things they feel about themselves and their expectations for the future.

It is unlikely that people will have no negative feelings about themselves whatsoever, but for those people with generally healthy self-esteem, the beliefs they hold will on the most part be positive. It is likely they may experience varying levels of difficulty in life, but will generally be able to manage these periods without them having much of a long-term negative impact.

For people with low self-esteem, the beliefs they hold about themselves will be much more geared toward negativity. These individuals may tend to focus on their weaknesses, or mistakes they have made in the past which can make it hard to recognise the positive aspects of their personality. It can be common for people with low self-esteem to blame themselves for difficulties or failures instead of recognising elements out of their control, or situations which were of not their doing.

Common symptoms of low self-esteem

The symptoms of low self-esteem will vary depending on each person, but there are some common themes and feelings associated with low self-esteem which I have listed below.

  • Feelings of worthlessness.
  • Feeling unloved or valued.
  • Being dominated by fear, worry or negative thoughts.
  • Being unrealistic about goals.
  • Being involved in or drawn toward destructive relationships.
  • Fearing change.
  • A distorted view of yourself or others.

The link between low self-esteem and mental health issues

Low self-esteem is not a recognised mental health issue, but self-esteem and mental health are closely related. Low self-esteem can make many tasks in life difficult, such as meeting new people, looking for a new job or giving a presentation. Feeling that we will automatically fail at anything or that we are not worthy of love or value can interrupt our lives. It can be these destructive patterns that can lead to frustration, and also possibly anxiety or depression.

A mental health issue can make day to day activities difficult, such as taking public transport or socially interacting with others. These difficulties can have a negative impact on how you view yourself and may mean you are more likely to withdraw from social contact due to being worried about how others may perceive you. This cycle can lead to isolation and loneliness, which can increase our low self-esteem. Often, the stigma surrounding mental health issues, can lead people to develop even further negative opinions of themselves, and compound their difficulties.

How you can build your self-esteem

Increasing self-esteem is not an easy task, and may involve challenging and changing the negative beliefs you have about who you are. This may feel like an impossible task, but there are a lot of different ways in which you can build up your self-esteem. Below, I have listed some of these.

Do something you are good at

We all have talents and skills, and actively using these or taking part in activities you enjoy are excellent ways to gain a sense of achievement and self-worth. Doing things we love or feeling we have something to offer can really allow us to build and improve our self-esteem.

Put yourself first

It may seem strange or even selfish to put your needs ahead of others, but this can be one of the best things to raise your self-esteem. It allows you to see that you have as much value as anyone else, that you matter and that you have worth. It also allows you to take time to focus on the things you enjoy, or take time out to recharge your batteries when you need to.

Be altruistic

By assisting others to achieve their goals, even when there is nothing in it for you, there is a satisfaction and a feeling that you have made a difference for someone else. This in turn can show you that are valued by others and that you’ve made a difference, which will raise your self-esteem.

Be kinder to yourself

This is may be one of the most important ways in which we can gain greater self-esteem. At times we all find it easy to berate ourselves or to feel we have not done enough, and often we forget that we are only human, and that letting ourselves off the hook from time to time is healthy, necessary and makes a difference to how we view ourselves. Patting ourselves on the back from time to time allows for self-growth and develops our self-esteem in a positive light, enabling us to that we are more than the sum of our mistakes or perceived inadequacies.

How therapy can help

Improving self-esteem may involve first understanding where your underlying beliefs come from. This may be a painful process, and you may not see a gain in your self-esteem straight away. Talking therapies can allow you space to explore all aspects of yourself, including your views, opinions and thoughts and feelings. The safe, empathic and confidential environment that therapy creates, allows you to go at your own pace while you discover more about yourself. It will allow you to engage with your strengths and abilities, and discover aspects of yourself which maybe you buried, forgot or dismissed because you felt you were not good enough.

Moving forward

There are of course practical steps to greater self-esteem, but if you have been living with negative thoughts about yourself for some time then the path to greater self-esteem may be a difficult one. But the process is also incredibly worthwhile and valuable.

We are all worthy of giving ourselves more value, care and love and showing ourselves a little more kindness and realising that we matter is the first step to increasing our self-esteem, and living lives that feel more real, valuable and meaningful.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N6 & NW5
Written by Joshua Miles, BA, MSc, BPC, BACP Accredited Psychodynamic Psychotherapist
London N6 & NW5

Joshua's an experienced Integrative Therapist with an individual approach who offers clients a warm, compassionate, non-judgemental & empathic space to unpack their thoughts & feelings. He's assisted clients to explore the roots of their low self-esteem & improve it. He works with a wide variety of issues such as depression, anxiety & bereavement.

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