What is low self-esteem? And how is it different from low self-confidence?
The American Psychological Association defines self-esteem as:
“the degree to which the qualities and characteristics contained in one’s self-concept are perceived to be positive. It reflects a person’s physical self-image, view of his or her accomplishments and capabilities, and values and perceived success in living up to them, as well as the ways in which others view and respond to that person.”
Self-esteem is how you see yourself and how well you like yourself. Self-confidence, on the other hand, is your belief in yourself and your abilities. You can have high self-confidence but low self-esteem. For example, you might believe in your social skills and know that you’re good at making friends (high self-confidence), but you might not like yourself (low self-esteem).
Even though they’re different, learning how to be more confident can help you build self-esteem, since it can affect how you view yourself. If you see yourself as capable and skilled, you might appreciate yourself more.
What are the signs of low self-esteem?
Below are some signs of low self-esteem that might surprise you.
1. Poor boundaries
If you find that you’re constantly saying “yes” to things you don’t want to do, this could be a sneaky sign of low self-esteem.
“When we are not feeling confident and sure of ourselves, we compromise our boundaries and comfortability for other people,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Janika Veasley, LMFT. “We don’t believe that we can advocate for ourselves and still maintain the relationship. However, the more sure and confident we are, the more we hold onto our boundaries and connection with others.”
Everyone loves the class clown, but dig a little deeper, and that jokester might actually be dealing with negative self-perception.
“Comedy is usually born from a seed of tragedy that is well cared for and nurtured,” explains life coach Kate Chapman. “If the humor is self-deprecating or cuts another person down, that is a sign of very low self-esteem on the part of the joke teller. Humor can be used in all sorts of ways. If it’s being used as a weapon—making fun of a person, as opposed to a situation—then it’s being used by someone who has a low sense of self. Once a person knows what it’s like to esteem themselves (and also others), their humor most always changes into something that uplifts, rather than cuts down.”
Constantly putting yourself down, even if it’s in a joking manner, is yet another sign that you might not value yourself. If you don’t think highly of yourself, it’s easy to shoot down compliments or make fun of yourself as a way to beat others to the punch.
People with low self-esteem are especially prone to thinking they’re bad or that they’ve done something wrong. To compensate for this, they’ll apologize frequently, even when they don’t need to. For example, someone with low self-esteem might be having a friendly conversation with someone and then suddenly say, “Ugh, sorry I’m talking so much.”
5. Problems accepting praise
Can’t take a compliment? While others might think you’re being modest, it could be that you don’t esteem yourself.
“Some people may see it as humility, but people with low self-esteem tend to find it difficult to accept positive feedback or compliments because they don’t see themselves positively,” explains clinical psychologist Brian Wind, Ph.D., the chief clinical officer at JourneyPure treatment center.
6. Comparing yourself to others
Remember, self-esteem is about valuing yourself and seeing your qualities as positive. When you lack these things, you’ll fall prey to constant self-comparison. Someone with low self-esteem might obsess over the positive qualities others have and think that they lack these same positive qualities. This constant self-comparison feeds that negative self-view and lowers self-esteem even more.
Ever met someone who seemed so arrogant that you were sure they thought they were the greatest thing since sliced bread? Well, it might actually be the opposite.
“When we meet arrogant people, we often get frustrated as we cannot understand why they think so highly of themselves,” says Ray Sadoun, an addiction advocate at OK Rehab. “However, they are often secretly insecure. They mask their low self-esteem by pretending to be extremely confident, which throws people off the scent.”
8. Refusal to try new things
If a friend asked you to take up surfing with them or join them in a pottery class, would you be excited by the opportunity to try something new? Or would you shrink from the potential to fail?
“A lack of openness to trying new things could be attributed to past discouragement or failure when things were attempted that didn’t end well for us,” says Erin Dierickx, a licensed marriage and family therapist associate. “Perhaps we tried a new activity but became embarrassed after not succeeding after the first or many tries. Or maybe we were told by someone we know, love, and trust, particularly at a young age, that we weren’t meant to do something or weren’t very good at it.”
9. Taking things personally
Being sensitive can be a superpower, but if you find that you’re frequently hurt by someone else’s words or actions, it might be an indicator that you’re struggling with low self-esteem. Why? If you liked who you are, your sense of self wouldn’t feel threatened by external factors.
“People with high self-esteem feel good enough about themselves that they don’t take things personally,” says empowerment coach Patricia Heitz.
Do you frequently take on more than you can handle or try to prove yourself to others? You might be overcompensating, and that might be a sign of low self-esteem.
“There is usually an extreme external focus of needing attention, wanting to be in charge, accepting more of a workload than others, feeling compelled to say yes when they should be saying no,” explains licensed mental health counselor Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP, the chief clinical officer at Foundations Wellness Center.
What causes low self-esteem?
Adversity and trauma
When I asked mental health professionals for causes of low self-esteem, one common theme emerged: there are many causes of low self-esteem, and they all have to do with adversity.
“Some things that can contribute to low self-esteem can include abuse, trauma, difficult social experiences, and failing at something you wanted to succeed at,” says licensed professional counselor Mikela Hallmark, LPC.
Inflated praise during childhood
Too much of a good thing can also cause low self-esteem. Research published in Child Development found that receiving inflated praise during childhood can lower a person’s self-esteem because they’re worried about living up to those high expectations. Instead, it’s better if parents treat their children warmly.
Not being seen in childhood and adolescence
“When a person is not heard nor acknowledged by others, it is difficult for that person to develop a solid sense of self,” explains licensed marriage and family therapist Ashley Hudson, LMFT. “They are attempting to be unique and try on many hats when developing their identity. If the child or teenager is not validated nor acknowledged for the unique self they are, other views of themself creep in and can potentially lead to low self-esteem.”
How to be more confident: 7 ideas for boosting belief in your abilities
1. Cultivate positive relationships
In a meta-analysis published in 2019 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the American Psychological Association found that positive relationships, social support and social acceptance boost self-esteem. But the inverse is also true: having low self-esteem could negatively affect relationships.
Study author Michelle A. Harris, Ph.D., of The University of Texas at Austin noted that, because of this reciprocal relationship, if someone struggles with low self-esteem or has poor social relationships, clinical interventions can help break the cycle.
2. Join more identity-based groups
Speaking of positive social relationships, belonging to multiple social identity-based groups can boost self-esteem more than friendships alone. That’s according to research by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and published in PLOS One.
By looking at groups of school children, the elderly, and the formerly homeless, researchers found that, consistently, multiple group memberships predicted self-esteem, but a large network of friends did not. However, this was only true when the groups contributed to the participants’ sense of self (identity-based groups).
3. Savor nature
A 2020 survey of 3,000 adults in Japan found that more frequent use of greenspace and views of greenery through windows at home was linked to increased levels of self-esteem during the pandemic.
“Our results suggest that nearby nature can serve as a buffer in decreasing the adverse impacts of a very stressful event on humans,” said lead author Masashi Soga, Ph.D., of The University of Tokyo.
So the next time you’re feeling down about yourself, try savoring the view from your window. If you don’t have a good view of nature around you, walk to a park if you can.
4. Work with a coach
Coaches are professionals who are experienced in unearthing the root problems that are holding you back from realizing your full potential. They’ll discuss your goals and struggles, as well as ask questions that help you come to new realizations. When you find the right coach, they can truly help you gain perspective that you wouldn’t get on your own.
5. Enlist the help of a mental health professional
If your low self-esteem is frequently interfering with your life, a good place to start is speaking with your physician or contacting a licensed therapist. Both are qualified to address and diagnose mental health concerns and help develop a treatment plan, or at least, they can point you in the right direction. Even a routine checkup with your family doctor is a completely appropriate time to bring up self-esteem concerns; they can refer you to the right provider if necessary.
6. Set small, achievable goals
Confidence comes from seeing proof of your ability, but the problem is, being good at something the first time you try it is unrealistic. To build confidence, give yourself some grace and start small when setting goals.
For example, instead of saying you want to run a marathon when you’ve never run before, start with buying a pair of running shoes. Then, break them in by walking around your neighborhood. Gradually, you can build up to short runs around the block, running a 5K, a 10K, and so forth, until your body is capable of doing a marathon. By starting small, you give yourself a boost of confidence each time you achieve that small milestone until, eventually, you achieve the big goal.
7. Use positive affirmations with caution
Positive affirmations such as “I am loved” or “I can do this” are usually touted as effective ways to boost self-esteem—but there’s a caveat: they may make those with low self-esteem feel worse. That’s according to research by psychologist Joanne Wood, Ph.D. In one experiment, she and her colleagues randomly assigned participants to a neutral-focus or positive-focus condition. Both groups were given a positive statement (“I am a lovable person”). The positive-focus group was asked to focus on how the statement was true for them, while the neutral-focus group was asked to focus on how the statement was true and not true for them.
The results? Participants with low self-esteem reported feeling worse when they were told to focus on how the statement was true for them (positive-focus group) when compared to the neutral focus. For those with high self-esteem, though, there was no change, regardless of positive or neutral focus on the statement.
If positive affirmations work for you, great! But if they make you feel worse, try more neutral affirmations. For example, instead of saying, “I am a generous person,” say something that can’t be disputed, like, “Tessa made it to her doctor’s appointment because I drove her there.” That way, it’s not a generalization but a concrete example of generosity. While you might balk at being called “generous,” you can’t dispute that Tessa got to her appointment because you took the time and energy to drive her there.
You can learn how to be more confident
As you can see, low self-esteem can block so many areas of your life, and there are many potential root causes. But thankfully, you can build both self-confidence and self-esteem. Sometimes, you just need a little support and guidance.
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