WHAT IS LOW SELF-ESTEEM?
by Joyce Chong (updated 1st February 2022)
Many of us may be familiar with the concept of low self-esteem, but what does it really mean? Essentially, it refers to having a less-than-favourable opinion of yourself. Self-esteem can be considered from different angles , including:
Your global or trait self-esteem (how you generally feel about yourself across most situations),
Evaluations of yourself in specific domains (for example how you feel about your performance at work versus how you feel about yourselves as a worthy partner or even your level of body-confidence),
Your self-worth in response to events.
The messages that you hear over the years - from a young age via parents, teachers, other students at school, colleagues, partners - all serve to shape your self-esteem. Some of these messages may then be internalised, and form your internal dialogue, talking at you even when you don’t want them to. This unhelpful self-talk can be ever-present, or sit in the background until a setback (e.g. negative performance review, perceived criticism) causes it to flare up again.
WHAT IS THE IMPACT OF LOW SELF-ESTEEM?
Low self-esteem has a really long reach, affecting linked with many of the issues that we see in our work as psychologists. Consider how it presents in the following circumstances:
Social anxiety + low self-esteem
When you feel bad about yourself, any situation in which you may potentially be evaluated can cause significant anxiety. This can lead to avoidance of parties, gatherings, tests, classes, meetings - the list of situations seems endless. In turn, this can lead to loneliness - even if you wish to form a connection your anxiety stops you from relating to others in a genuine manner as all you can think about is what they think of you.
PERFECTIONISM + LOW SELF-ESTEEM
Feelings of inadequacy can push you to adopt a perfectionistic coping style as you try to be ‘good enough’ so that you appear faultless. This can manifest in different ways, for example:
Spending an excessive amount of time working on an assignment until it seems ‘good enough’.
Catering for a function to such a high standard so that others will form a favourable impression of you.
Acting in ways that others will be in awe of your achievements.
Unfortunately this type of coping can easily lead to burnout as you attempt to prove yourself worthy.
DEPRESSION + LOW SELF-ESTEEM
It can be hard to see a positive future when you don’t feel good about yourself. You may find yourself holding back, not attempting things that you think won’t turn out in your favour, then feel bad about your situation. Low self-esteem can really affect your quality of life because of these constraints, and in turn, your mood.
BODY IMAGE, EATING DISORDERS + LOW SELF-ESTEEM
Self-esteem can be determined by a range of factors, but for some, an overemphasis may be placed on body weight and shape. Where there is a drive for thinness, and the belief that losing weight is linked to feeling good, body image issues and even eating disorders may arise. Learn more about the link between low self-esteem, body image, and eating disorders here.
RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMs, ASSERTIVENESS + LOW SELF-ESTEEM
Self-esteem can lead to issues within your relationship including problems asserting yourself because you don’t believe in your own rights. You may doubt your wishes, assume that you are incorrect, and find it hard to cope in situations of conflict.
WHAT DO THOUGHTS AND THINKING STYLE HAVE TO DO WITH LOW SELF-ESTEEM?
Individuals with low self-esteem often hold the core belief of “I’m not good enough”. In the various areas of their lives these thoughts may take on a slightly different form, for example:
In relationships and friendships, low self-esteem may lead you to think that you aren’t important enough or special enough to deserve your partner or friends, or that you will lose loved ones if they knew the real you. As a result, you may hide your true self, instead moulding your personality and taste to suit others.
At work you may worry that you’re not clever enough or good enough at your work if passed over for a promotion. Or, you may worry that you’re not smart enough or talented enough in comparison to others. These may then create a relentless pursuit of achievement, leading burnout.
Thinking styles help reinforce the ‘not good enough’ thoughts found in low self-esteem. Some time ago we blogged about Thinking Styles that sabotage mental health here. Let’s take a closer look at how these may apply to you when it comes to low self-esteem.
NEGATIVE FILTER Any small negative outcome affects your view of entire events - you may focus on a small slip up even though the rest of the presentation went extremely well.
DISCOUNTING THE POSITIVES Here, anything that you did well in fails to shift your opinion of yourself. So, if you did well on a project you brush it off as something anyone else could’ve done, or if someone compliments you it’s seen as them taking pity on you. In fact, discounting the positives is commonly seen in Imposter Syndrome.
EMOTIONAL REASONING When you feel down about yourself you treat these feelings as facts. For example if you feel inadequate in response to some feedback on a report you wrote, you may interpret this as evidence that you’re a failure.
PERSONALISATION You automatically assume things are your fault and discount the contribution of external factors, or you shoulder far more responsibility for outcomes than is justified. So, while you may have had a disagreement with a friend, you assume that it is entirely your fault, and ignore how their role in the disagreement.
SHOULDS + MUSTS By setting rigid standards for yourself with little wiggle room, you set yourself up to fail or feel disappointed. This may take the form of believing you must work in a particular profession, be of a certain weight, dress a particular way, have a certain number of followers, earn a particular income…the list can be endless. Set these standards too high and you set yourself up for likely failure and the inevitable blow to your self-esteem.
LABELLING Here you view your mistakes to be due entirely to stable internal qualities (i.e. it’s you!), without taking into consideration the situation. So, rather than recognising you didn’t do well at soccer because you’re out of practice, you label yourself as clumsy and useless. By telling yourself that the reason why things don’t work out is because of stable, internal qualities, will that give you a sense that change is possible?
MIND READING Assuming that others think the worst of you is something that people with low self-esteem commonly experience. The difficulty is that treating assumptions as facts means you’re not likely to look for evidence that disconfirms your belief.
HOW TO SHIFT UNHELPFUL THINKING STYLES IN LOW SELF-ESTEEM
Sometimes when you hold a mirror up to yourself it can be daunting to see how entrenched your thoughts and thinking styles are. The challenge of changing these entrenched thoughts and thinking styles can also be quite daunting. Let's break it down by looking at three lines of questioning to get you started:
Where did the messages come from? What was your earliest recollection of feeling this way about yourself? Do these messages still apply in your life today?
Have there been any examples, however small, that contradict how you see yourself? For example, if you believe that you're a terrible student, cast your mind back - have you ever received positive feedback?
What thinking styles are at play? Are you reinforcing your negative self-view by tuning out positives? Are your unrealistic expectations setting you up to feel bad about yourself? Are you assuming what others think of you to be true without stopping to check if your thoughts are accurate?
Make a start on changing how you see yourself using the above questions. If you’re after a more tailored approach and would like to make an appointment (in Perth or via telehealth) feel free to contact us.
 Brown, J.D., Dutton, K.A., & Cook, K.E. (2001). From the top down: Self-esteem and self-evaluation. Cognition and emotion, 15, 615-631.
 Edelman, S. (2003). Change your thinking. ABC Books.