We all have times when we lack confidence and don’t feel good about ourselves.
But when low self-esteem becomes a long-term problem, it can have a harmful effect on our mental health and our lives.
Self-esteem is the opinion we have of ourselves. When we have healthy self-esteem, we tend to feel positive about ourselves and about life in general. It makes us able to deal with life’s ups and downs better.
When our self-esteem is low, we tend to see ourselves and our life in a more negative and critical light. We also feel less able to take on the challenges life throws at us.
What causes low self-esteem?
Low self-esteem often begins in childhood. Teachers, friends, siblings, parents, and even the media give us lots of messages – both positive and negative. But for some reason, the message that you are not good enough sticks.
You may have found it difficult to live up to other people’s expectations of you, or to your own expectations.
Stress and difficult life events, such as serious illness or a bereavement, can have a negative effect on self-esteem. Personality can also play a part. Some of us are simply more prone to negative thinking, while others set impossibly high standards for themselves.
How does low self-esteem affect us?
The problem with thinking we’re no good is that we start to behave as if it’s true. “Low self-esteem often changes people’s behaviour in ways that act to confirm the person isn’t able to do things or isn’t very good,” says Chris Williams, Professor of Psychosocial Psychiatry at the University of Glasgow.
If you have low self-esteem or confidence, you may hide yourself away from social situations, stop trying new things and avoid things you find challenging.
“In the short term, avoiding challenging and difficult situations makes you feel a lot safer,” says Professor Williams. “In the longer term, this avoidance can actually backfire because it reinforces your underlying doubts and fears. It teaches you the unhelpful rule that the only way to cope is by avoiding things.”
Living with low self-esteem can harm your mental health, leading to problems such as depression and anxiety. You may also develop unhelpful habits, such as smoking and drinking too much, as a way of coping.
How to have healthy self-esteem
In order to boost self-esteem, you need to identify and challenge the negative beliefs you have about yourself.
“You need to look at your beliefs, how you learned them and why you believe them,” says Professor Williams. “Then actively begin to gather and write down evidence that disconfirms them.”
Learn to spot the negative thoughts you have about yourself. You may tell yourself you are "too stupid" to apply for a new job, for example, or that "nobody cares" about you. Start to note these negative thoughts and write them down on a piece of paper or in a diary, suggests Professor Williams. Ask yourself when you first started to think these thoughts.
Next, start to write down evidence that challenges these negative beliefs: "I am really good at cryptic crosswords" or "My sister calls for a chat every week". Write down other positive things you know to be true about yourself, such as "I am thoughtful" or "I am a great cook" or "I am someone that others trust". Also write down good things that other people say about you.
Aim to have at least five things on your list and add to it regularly. Then put your list somewhere you can see it. That way, you can keep reminding yourself that you are OK.
“It’s about helping people recognise they have strengths as well as weaknesses, like everyone else, and begin to recognise those strengths in themselves,” says Professor Williams.
“You might have low confidence now because of what happened when you were growing up,” he says. “But we can grow and develop new ways of seeing ourselves at any age.”
Other ways to improve low self-esteem
Here are some other simple techniques that may help you feel better about yourself.
Recognise what you are good at
We are all good at something, whether it’s cooking, singing, doing puzzles or being a friend. We also tend to enjoy doing the things we are good at, which can help to boost your mood.
Build positive relationships
If you find certain people tend to bring you down, try to spend less time with them, or tell them how you feel about their words or actions. Seek out relationships with people who are positive and who appreciate you.
Be kind to yourself
Professor Williams advises: “Be compassionate to yourself. That means being gentle to yourself at times when you feel like being self-critical. Think what you’d say to encourage a friend in a similar situation. We often give far better advice to others than we do to ourselves.”
Learn to be assertive
Being assertive is about respecting other people’s opinions and needs, and expecting the same from them.
One trick is to look at other people who act assertively and copy what they do. “It’s not about pretending you’re someone you’re not,” says Professor Williams. “It’s picking up hints and tips from people you admire and letting the real you come out. There’s no point suddenly saying, ‘I’m going to be Chris Hoy’, but you might be able to get your bike out and do a bit of cycling for the first time in ages.”
Start saying 'no'
People with low self-esteem often feel they have to say yes to other people, even when they don’t really want to. The risk is that you become overburdened, resentful, angry and depressed.
“For the most part, saying no doesn’t upset relationships,” says Professor Williams. “It can be helpful to take a scratched-record approach. Keep saying no in different ways until they get the message.”
Give yourself a challenge
We all feel nervous or afraid to do things at times. People with healthy self-esteem don’t let these feelings stop them from trying new things or taking on challenges.
Set yourself a goal, such as joining an exercise class or going to a social occasion. Achieving your goals will help to increase your self-esteem.
Where to find help for low self-esteem
You may feel you need some help to start seeing yourself in a more positive light. Talking therapies, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy, can help. Your GP can explain the different types and tell you what’s available in your area.
Read more about the different types of therapy.
You can also refer yourself for counselling or therapy. Use the NHS Choices Services Directory or visit the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy website to find a registered counsellor and therapist near you.
Hear Dr Williams' podcast about tackling unhelpful thinking.