Self-Esteem & Its Role in Our Lives

Self-esteem is a vital component in anyone’s life. It defines how we feel about everything from our bodies and values to our overall worth. As such, self-esteem defines our very approach to the world. It is so important to our function as human beings that the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs defines it as the primary driver in all human actions. 

Self-esteem fluctuates in everyone over long periods of time. Since it results from established thought patterns, it cannot change over night. Additionally, self-esteem that is too high can be as detrimental as low self-esteem.  High self-esteem often means that narcissistic traits or disorder are present, while low self-esteem may be comorbid with depression and anxiety. 

The Difference Between Self-Image & Self-Esteem

Self image and self-esteem are two distinct concepts, though many people conflate the two. Someone’s self image defines how they view themselves. When they look at their efforts and achievements in the world, individuals make conclusions about themselves. This is self image.  

Self-esteem, as contrast, is how people feel about this conception of themselves. If a self image is “I am a competent person”, self-esteem is “I feel proud of the fact that I am competent.”

These two concepts work closely together, as a result. As a result, people with negative self-image or low self-esteem can go through the same symptoms.

Symptoms of Low Self-Esteem

It is important for individuals to learn to identify the signs of low self-esteem. Changes to self-esteem happen slowly over time and can sneak up on someone. Assessing one’s self-esteem on a regular basis, therefore, is crucial. 

When faulty self-esteem is not addressed it can lead to emotional disorders. Symptoms commonly associated with unhealthy self-esteem include the following:

  • An avoidance of compliments
  • Being a bully
  • Social avoidance
  • Feelings of shame
  • Outsized self doubt
  • Excessive pessimism
  • Blaming external factors for problems
  • Having no or few boundaries

Unhealthy self-esteem can also have physical symptoms, including:

  • digestive problems
  • Frequent headaches
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Insomnia or disordered sleeping
  • Bad posture and associated back pain

The Causes of Low Self-Esteem

Where low self-esteem comes from is not always clear. Sometimes there are obvious triggers, such as abuse or conditioning, but oftentimes a patient needs to work with a therapist to uncover causes. 

Psychoanalysis can be an effective tool for uncovering the causes of low self-esteem. Through several sessions, therapist and patient seek out the root of the patient’s pain. After causes have been discovered, the patient and therapist can work on helping the patient understand that these conceptions of self are faulty and false.  

Common causes of low self-esteem include:

  • Parents or teachers who did not approve of the individual
  • Abuse
  • Experiencing bullying
  • Emotionally detached parents
  • Being privy to conflict during parent divorce
  • School difficulties
  • Religious beliefs that focus on guilt and shame
  • Perfectionism
  • Unrealistic beauty standards in television, movies, and other media

Cultivating Healthy Self-Image and Self-Esteem

The following are some ways in which individuals can start to rebuild self-esteem. The process takes time and commitment, but can make a difference over the long term to one’s quality of life. 

Don’t Give Thoughts Power

Having a negative internal monologue is particularly destructive because we tend to give power to this voice. Work toward neutralizing the power of your inner monologue. Thoughts are not absolute truths; they are just thoughts. 

A patient can employ a simple tool when negative thoughts appear. They can take a moment and remind themselves, “That thought is just a thought. It is not a truth.” While simple, it is a practice that takes time and effort. If a patient sticks with this practice, they can actively work to reprogram their thinking. 

Flip Negative Thoughts on Their Heads

When negative thoughts come up, turn them over on themselves. Work to transform your negative thoughts into positive ones. Examples include: 

“I’m so stupid” transforms into “I’m really competent.”

“I’m a burden to my spouse” turns into “I’m glad my spouse cares enough to help.”

“I am no good” turns into “I try my best each and every day.”

Avoiding Comparisons 

One way in which people ding their self-esteem is by comparing themselves to others. Especially in a world of social media, this habit can be daily and pervasive.  

Avoid comparisons because more often than not they are faulty. They are the equivalent of putting a staged photo by a professional photographer next to a snapshot taken with no care. Comparisons as inherent untruths are like the negative thoughts we let play through our heads– don’t give them power. 

Therapy for Low Self-Esteem

While these self-help exercises can help start your self-esteem transformation, working with a mental health professional is the best way to address low and destructive self-esteem. Patients might consider working with a psychoanalyst, focusing on identifying triggers. Alternatively, patients can also work with psychotherapists to develop new tools and coping mechanisms.  Therapy may include take home work that the patient does in his or her own time to supplement therapy sessions. 

Therapy can be difficult, at times, for those with low self-esteem. Opening up to a therapist can be painful, since the individual with low self-esteem often expects rejection. Individuals seeking help for this condition need to understand that trained mental health professionals work with compassion and understanding of patient needs. Through this compassionate process, patients can learn to employ compassion towards themselves, enhancing the healing process. 

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