Low Self-Esteem: What Does it Mean to Lack Self-Esteem?

What is Low Self-Esteem

low self-esteemLow self-esteem is characterized by a lack of confidence and feeling badly about oneself. People with low self-esteem often feel unlovable, awkward, or incompetent. According to researchers Morris Rosenberg and Timothy J. Owens, who wrote Low Self-Esteem People: A Collective Portrait, people with low self-esteem tend to be hypersensitive. They have a fragile sense of self that can easily be wounded by others.

Furthermore, people with low self-esteem are “hypervigilant and hyperalert to signs of rejection, inadequacy, and rebuff,” write Rosenberg and Owens. Often, individuals lacking self-esteem see rejection and disapproval even when there isn’t any. “The danger always lurks that [they] will make a mistake, use poor judgement, do something embarrassing, expose [themselves] to ridicule, behave immorally or contemptibly. Life, in all its variety, poses on ongoing threat to the self-esteem.”

While everyone’s self-esteem is vulnerable to other people, who may openly criticize them, ridicule them, or point out their flaws, I would argue that an even greater threat to each person’s self-esteem lurks within. Rosenberg and Owens explain:

“As observers of our own behavior, thoughts, and feelings, we not only register these phenomena in consciousness but also pass judgement on them. Thus, we may be our most severe critic, berating ourselves mercilessly when we find ourselves making an error in judgement, forgetting what we should remember, expressing ourselves awkwardly, breaking our most sacred promises to ourselves, losing our self-control, acting childishly—in short, behaving in ways that we regret and may deplore.”

This harsh inner critic, which Dr. Robert Firestone refers to as the Critical Inner Voice, contributes to a negative perceived self. Having a negative perception of oneself can have serious consequences. For example, if someone believes that other people don’t like them, they are more likely to avoid interactions with others and are quicker to react defensively, cynically, or even lash out. Rosenberg and Owen argue that “the nature and degree to which we interact with others is strongly influenced by these perceived selves, regardless of their accuracy. Indeed, our perceived selves represent one of the most important foundations on which our interpersonal behavior rests.” Furthermore, when we perceive ourselves negatively, whether we label ourselves awkward, unlovable, obnoxious, shy, etc., it becomes more and more difficult to believe that others could possibly see us in a positive light.

“In a nutshell, to have low self-esteem is to live a life of misery,” conclude Rosenberg and Owen.

Overcoming Low Self-Esteem

The good news is that it is entirely possible to overcome low self-esteem! There are two key components to combatting this negative self-image. The first is to stop listening to your critical inner voice. The second is to start practicing self-compassion.

Stop Listening to Your Inner Critic

 The critical inner voice is that internal observer that hurtfully judges our thoughts and actions. This nasty inner critic continually nags us with a barrage of negative thoughts about ourselves and the people around us. It decimates our self-esteem on a consistent basis with thoughts like…

“You’re stupid.”

“You’re fat.”

“Nobody likes you.”

“You should be quiet. Every time you talk you just make a fool of yourself.”

“Why can’t you be like other people?”

“You’re worthless.”

In order to overcome low self-esteem, it is essential that you challenge these negative thoughts and stand up to your inner critic. On PsychAlive, we have an entire section of articles, several Webinars and an eCourse devoted to this subject. The first step is to recognize when you start thinking these kinds of negative thoughts about yourself. Then, you can choose not to listen to your inner critic’s character assassinations or bad advice. It can be helpful to imagine how you would feel if someone else was saying these things to you; you’d probably feel angry and tell them to shut up or explain that they are wrong about you. Take this approach in responding to your inner critic.

One way to do this is to write down all your inner critic’s criticisms on one side of a piece of paper. Then write down a more realistic and compassionate appraisal of yourself on the other side. For example, if you write a self-criticism like “You’re stupid,” you could then write, “I may struggle at times, but I am smart and competent in many ways.”

Challenging your inner critic helps stop the shame spiral that feeds into low self-esteem. When you recognize the critical inner voice as source of your negative self-attacks, you can begin to defy this inner critic and see yourself for who you really are.

Start Practicing Self-Compassion

In many ways, the cure for self-criticism is self-compassion. Self-compassion is the radical practice of treating yourself like a friend! It is a wonderful way to build more confidence in yourself. Research has shown that self-compassion is even better for your mental health than self-esteem.

Dr. Kristen Neff, who researches self-compassion, explains that self-compassion is not based on self-evaluation or judgement; rather, it is based on a steady attitude of kindness and acceptance toward yourself. While this may sound simple, treating yourself with compassion and kindness may be challenging at first. However, you will develop more self-compassion as you practice over time.

Here are the three steps for practicing self-compassion:

1) Acknowledge and notice your suffering.

2) Be kind and caring in response to suffering.

3) Remember that imperfection is part of the human experience and something we all share.

You can find self-compassion exercises on Dr. Kristen Neff’s website.

How to Develop Self-Confidence

Research into self-esteem shows that both low and high self-esteem can create emotional and social problems for individuals. While high levels self-esteem can be linked to narcissism (read more here). Low levels of self-esteem can be linked to social anxiety, lack of confidence, and depression. The healthiest type of self-esteem is moderate self-esteem that is based more on valuing one’s inherent worth as a person and less about comparing oneself to others. In this sense, if your goal is to develop more self-confidence, it is better to focus on having high levels of self-worth rather than high levels of self-esteem.

I’ve written previously about building self-esteem and developing more confidence. In addition to challenging your inner critic and practicing self-compassion, here are a few other strategies for feeling better about yourself.

Stop Comparing Yourself to Other People

Looking to boost your confidence by measuring yourself against others is a big mistake. Dr. Kristen Neff explains, “Our competitive culture tells us we need to be special and above average to feel good about ourselves, but we can’t all be above average at the same time…There is always someone richer, more attractive, or successful than we are.” When we evaluate ourselves based on external achievements, other people’s perceptions and competitions, “our sense of self-worth bounces around like a ping-pong ball, rising and falling in lock-step with our latest success or failure.” Social media only exacerbates this problem, as people post their picture-perfect moments and shiny achievements, which we compare to our tarnished, flawed everyday lives.

In order to build a healthy sense of confidence, we need to stop comparing ourselves to others. Instead of worrying about how you measure up to the people around you, think about the type of person you want to be. Set goals and take actions that are consistent with your own values.

Live Up to Your Own Moral Code

Self-confidence and self-esteem are built on self-RESPECT. If you live a life that is in line with your own principles, whatever they may be, you are more likely to respect yourself, feel more confident, and even do better in life. For example, a study at the University of Michigan found that students “who based their self-esteem on internal sources–such as being a virtuous person or adhering to moral standards–were found to receive higher grades and less likely to use alcohol and drugs or to develop eating disorders.”

To feel good about yourself, it is important to have integrity and make sure that your actions match your words. For example, if eating healthy and looking your best are important values to you, you will feel better if you maintain a healthy lifestyle. When your actions don’t match your words, you are far more vulnerable to self-attacks. The inner critic loves to point out these shortcomings. It is valuable to think about your core principles and act in line with those beliefs when you are trying to boost your confidence.

Do Something Meaningful

As human beings, we tend to feel good about ourselves when we do something meaningful, taking part in activities that are larger than ourselves and/or helpful to others. This is a beautiful way to go about building confidence and developing healthier levels of self-esteem.

Studies show that volunteering has a positive effect on how people feel about themselves. Researcher Jennifer Crocker suggests that you find “a goal that is bigger than the self.” When pursuing meaningful activities, it is important to think about what feels the most significant to you. For some people, this may mean volunteering at a homeless shelter, tutoring children, taking part in local politics, gardening with friends, etc. Follow the breadcrumbs of where you find meaning, and you may find your self-esteem along the way.

About the Author

Lena Firestone Lena Firestone is a writer and new media specialist. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine. She currently works at PsychAlive.org and leads private writing workshops in Santa Barbara, CA.

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38 Comments

queenee sanes

Hi maám! can i asked if what date did you post this informations about self-esteem?

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wildlyalive

I totally agree with this one. It is not really easy and it is a struggle having a low self esteem but it is not IMPOSSIBLE to overcome it.

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Nichole | Wildly Alive

I totally agree with this one. It is not really easy and it is a struggle having a low self esteem but it is not IMPOSSIBLE to overcome it.

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Lindsay Sunde

Luckily I do not suffer from low self esteem. Everyone has days where confidence wavers and you just have one of those days. I am not what anyone else’s opinion is of me is. I am in a place in life where I want to be and would have it no other way. I guess my point is that there is nothing I feel lacking of. The cause of all suffering is desire, people desire to be someone else instead of accepting who they are. The thief of all joy is comparison, people spend too much time comparing themselves to other people instead of loving who they are and where they are. I may hate the way some people operate in society, those trying to break you down and ruin your self esteem and sometimes your life depending on who you’re dealing with just to keep you stuck in doubt, but I know I simply don’t have to do what they do, want what they want or live how they live – no permission needed or asked for.

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Carol

This is so helpful, thank you. I thought I learned this lesson a long time ago, but I guess I need to keep reminding myself not to compare myself to others. I am 58 and looking to retire within the next 5 years or so. I’m at a point in my life where I’m evaluating what I’ve achieved. It always some how surprises me to find out how so many of my peers have second homes and beautiful first homes. I end up asking myself where did I go wrong. It’s ridiculous I have a beautiful Town house, which my husband and I chose over a single family home since he work two jobs, a car a beautiful son or able to take vacations from time to time a pool on our complex This Is The Life I chose and was able to achieve its enough I need to learn to be grateful. Sorry punctuation isn’t possible I’m doing this on my phone

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Glenn Fry

I read once graffiti on a wall in Italy, the beautiful things in my life are not things. We should all have the basics, but striving after material things to make us happy and boost our self esteem just uses up time for generating good qualities as a person.

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Shanelle

Thank you so so much, everything you said made so much sense. I want to reread this article because I want to be able to gain as much as I can.

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newsun

Overcoming chronic low self-esteem is difficult, especially if you have enough good talents that people recognize that’ll make situation even more confusing as you don’t understand why you’re feeling this way.

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Gugu

You will never have a full knowledge of who you really are until you understand the role and power of the creator in creating you! As much as your professionals can contribute the reality is u were born at the foundation of the world the only person u can ask about who u really are is God himself – fortunately u do not need an appointment u can just say – God here I am tell me who I am and what I am here to do and your life will begin to be an ongoing adventure of how great you are. I live in South Africa where black people were abused for many years! When I asked Jesus who am I he said you are made in the image and likeness of me to rule and reign over all the works of the devil – u are seated above all principalities and powers of evil in high places with me if you believe in me – spirit rules over the natural! So low self esteem does not even arise when you understand the intention of God about who we are and who we ought to be – it is the adventure of finding out and that is what life ought to be!

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Blessed Ann

Can i just say you are amazing? ’cause you just nailed it
Proud of black people, cheers!!
And God bless you

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Ronald

so nice and interesting to read, i am really empowered that it is entirely possible to overcome low self-esteem with these two components; to combating the negative self-image by stop listening to my critical inner voice and practicing self-compassion.

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SameFeelsDifferentDay

I read these articles and I feel like someone wrote it specifically for me. No we have not met but how do you know me so well?

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Rex Emmy Macalex

I thought I was way above this concept of low esteem until this day. Most of the things mentioned in this article I fall in those category but I refuse to stop fighting.. I’m very sure I’ll overcome it and learn to love and appreciate myself better. Thanks ma’am for the inspiring words too

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Carol Lorenzo

I spent 20 years in psychoanalysis and finally felt I overcame much of my low self-esteem. However, before before and during therapy, there were days when I would leave work with pains in my stomach from emotional pain, shame about something I said or did, doubt. I still have bouts of low self-esteem, but I’m able to work through it more quickly. I’m a teacher and I left a parent a voicemail about their child and I have been worrying about what I said. I also went to a retirement party for a staff member and felt as if I wore the wrong thing and most definitely comparing myself to what other coworkers have, second homes, large homes. This article was a wonderful reminder to not compare yourself to other people I am who I am and I’ve achieved what I have and that’s good enough.

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Filip

I believe it has to do with childhood trauma. Been going through some these days. I remember my father always putting himself and his things first. He hushed me when I was very young because the TV was more important. He showed me how to do things before I got to try it out myself.
So now I’m afraid of disturbing people, taking space, I feel unworthy of anything, help even, afraid of trying.
This all sucks. I hope seeing this now is the beginning of some change. I’ve been so angry and sad these days, I’m all exhausted and don’t give a fck about others.
I need to break out of these crippling fears. It’s life or death

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Mike J

I’m right there with you, Filip. My parents and grandparents were very cold people, so I turned into a super-polite man who was never, never good enough and never had the courage to go after what I wanted.

So here I am at 55 after 2 failed marriages rebuilding myself from the ground up. I literally had to question everything about myself. It’s a struggle, but it’s worth it. I keep this article open on my phone to “remind” myself when that old inner dialogue kicks in.

Take care and be kind to yourself.

Peace

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Gary Wise

When someone told me I had low self-esteem I was offended. I didn’t want to have “low”anything and it hurt. After reading your article I learned that I was doing it to myself. Knowing the source I can work on him/myself. Thank you for the guidance and learning I received through your thoughts and words!

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Thirteen

I don’t know how I got here literally and mentally. I am 45. As someone with what seems like life long depression, somehow I ended up here realizing that depression was just a symptom of my life long low self esteem. I once changed like the seasons. I had what I thought was seasonal depression and when spring came. I was reborn. Repeating that circle for years until, the circles got bigger and a season turned to seasons then years. The line “Living in misery” struck my core and I nearly cried. “Stop your crying!” the voice of my dad prevented those tears from falling, but you don’t want to hear about that.
The inner critic has taken over my life and that’s all that guides me. A self destructive and unsure negative voice. Anyway after reading this article I tried to stop the critic. I have been imagining my 5 year old self following me around, and I start telling him all the wonderful things he does(did). All the things that nobody ever said to me. All the attention I deserved but never got. He gets to hear now. It’s my first step to self help. Anywho thanks for the article. I feel validated.

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Jennifer

I’m 42 years old and I feel like I’ve already peaked and am now on the down slope of my life. I know I am too young to feel this way, and I think I have low self esteem. If you asked me years ago, I would have said I had high self esteem. When did this change? I think it was when I tried to go for a promotion at work and was rejected. I had prepared for this promotion, worked hard to earn my MBA. I was still told no. Somebody else was better, in their eyes, for the job. After that moment, everything changed. I got fired a year later for my “bad attitude”. I admit it was bad. I was pissed. I was the best candidate for the job, why shouldn’t I be pissed. Since then I have been job bouncing – not really finding my niche. I’m trying to reinvent myself professionally and have had to start over in an entry level job. The words, “you have 2 degrees, why are you so unemployable?” keep playing over and over in my head. I used to have such confidence (maybe too much). I feel like this is punishment for my high self esteem. I used to look down on others that I felt were ignorant. Accepting this defeat has not been easy for me. It’s been over two years since this all started, and life feels like it’s been getting worse and worse. I don’t know how to stop this cycle. Therapy? Maybe.

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Wardie

I have rock bottom self-esteem, but enough about me, I’m not that important anyway, I just wanted to say I think the lass in the photo at the top of the page is so cute, I just want to cuddle her <3

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Brian

I am in high school in Kenya,Africa and am glad I realized my problem early enough.Am not sure where it all began but I think it began when I joined high school three years ago. Back on primary school I used to top the class and I was known but on joining high school am not sure what I expected but it was different.I believe my inner critical voice played the biggest role by criticizing what I did. Maybe I was doing things to earn an appraisal and when it didn’t I criticized myself mercilessly that it even affected my grades.Anyway am grateful I realized my hype reactiveness to petty issues and decided to find out about low self-esteem. Am now on my way to reconstruct what I demolished.
Thanks.

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Paul

I feel entirely competent – more so, in fact – in all areas of my life except romance and sexuality. The fact is, no woman could ever want me because I am unattractive. I have never approached a woman I am attracted to because rejection would be guaranteed – and there is no evidence that this is not the case. This has nothing to do with my looks – but with a sense that no matter what I do, no woman will ever have the slightest interest in me as a potential romantic / sexual partner when there are so many other men to choose from. There is zero evidence that any woman has ever been interested in me and I am not about to express interest in the absence of interest.

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Susan Collins

Maybe you should do things to make yourself feel more attractive that way you will have the confidence to approach a woman. You already have set yourself up for failure because you believe that you will be rejected. Yes there is a lot of men out there too choose from as a woman but there is also a lot of women too. Work on what is making you feel unattractive.

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Paul

Hello Susan. Thank you for your response. The reason I believe rejection is always guaranteed is the complete lack of evidence that any woman has ever been interested in me. Irrespective of how many women are choosing or how many men there are to choose from, women send signals to guys they like to invite them to approach and not to guys they are not interested in. No matter how I feel about myself, I honestly believe that women would always choose other guys. Since I have never received any signal from a woman, I have concluded that no woman has ever been interested in me. therefore my approaching a woman would be at best unwelcome and at worst taken as offensive.

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BeeConfident

Great and I will using this to help me in my everyday life. My depression is getting worse everyday and I need to get ahead of it. Thank you!!

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Dave Lamoureux

78 years old still suffering from low self esteem never realized how bad until I read your article Thank you I feel better about myself already

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Ronald Johnson

I do not think those things will work for me. Some of the worst people I know do not have any insight. A component of the ‘harsh inner critic’. They constantly talk about how great they are and they just aren’t. In fact they are an absolute drag on the self esteems of those around them. They love to hear others think negatively about themselves. I do not want to be like that. Being connected requires being humble and grounded and that makes you a valuable component in any relationships. You will be none of those things if you ignore your insight.

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Nafisat Abdulmumin

What can I say is just like u write dis article just for me am really suffering dis low self esteem of a thing and I really want to fight it tnx so much God bless u

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mike

i’m an old man now i spent plenty of time trying it never goes away the only thing i found about self esteem if you want it pick better parents

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