Learning the signs of low self-esteem and how to take action can help improve the way you view yourself and the world.
When your self-esteem is high, you may feel confident and ready to take on the world. But continued low self-esteem can affect your relationships, sense of self-worth, how you express yourself, and how you navigate life.
By definition, self-esteem is essentially how you think and feel about yourself at the conscious and unconscious levels.
From a psychological standpoint, Dr. Jan Roberts, LCSW, says that low self-esteem typically reflects those hidden thoughts and beliefs you might have about yourself.
You can have low self-confidence for many reasons, like:
- expectations from parents and caregivers as a child
- peer pressure from friends or loved ones
- relationships, including breakups or divorce
- unresolved trauma
- internalized shame
- certain mental health conditions
- brain functioning and development
- other societal and cultural messages
“We tend to hold on to negative experiences, memories, thoughts, and words that people say. Those messages become embedded into our thinking patterns and create a filter of how we see everything,” Roberts explains.
“Our perceptions eventually create our reality. If we have negative thought processes, we will see things — including ourselves — negatively. Therefore, poor self-esteem becomes the result of our own poor view of ourselves and capabilities,” she says.
Do most people have low self-esteem? Not exactly.
Many people might feel self-conscious or have bouts of low self-confidence now and then. But “having a low self-esteem is not a natural state of being,” says Roberts.
If those negative feelings last for an extended period of time, you may need to work on boosting your self-esteem.
What are the signs of low self-esteem? Here are some examples:
You’re a people-pleaser
You may try to please people instead of being your authentic self and pursuing what brings you joy and pleasure.
Licensed therapist Cheryl A. Clarke, LMFT, says folks with low self-esteem also have a tendency to be passive or passive-aggressive instead of standing up for themselves.
You feel needy or unworthy
Maybe you feel like you don’t deserve love, praise, or a raise at work. This is directly related to how much you value yourself and your abilities.
“A lack of inner worth is driven by a set of beliefs that they’re no good, feeling of insignificance, or believe they have nothing of value,” says Clarke.
“Since most people with low self-esteem seek things (careers, relationships, success, power, etc.) outside of themselves to make them feel more worthy, it’s important to remember that self-esteem is an inside job and directly correlated with joy,” says Roberts.
You struggle to build healthy relationships
The stronger your self-worth, the healthier your relationships tend to be. “If you struggle with low self-esteem, it can threaten your overall relationships,” says Clarke.
You might face challenges with intimacy, trusting partners, and establishing strong personal boundaries, Clarke notes. And according to Roberts, you’re more like to stay in a one-sided, abusive, or codependent relationship, as well.
You have a poor self-image
Do you call yourself “fat” or “ugly” and judge how you look when standing in front of a mirror? If so, it’s likely you think poorly of yourself and your appearance due to negative self-image.
Rejecting compliments is another example of negative self-esteem. You could just be humble, but frequently rejecting forms of flattery instead of saying “thank you” can mean you don’t believe those things are true.
You experience negative self-talk
“I’m a loser.” “I don’t deserve to be happy.” “Why did I say that? I’m so stupid.”
There are all common examples of negative self-talk that can result from low confidence.
If you regularly insult yourself — either internally or in conversation with others — you likely have low self-esteem. Being unforgiving or harsh on yourself when making mistakes can be a sign, too.
You compare yourself to others
We all tend to play the comparison game. Comparing yourself to others can help you achieve your goals or inspire you to become better in the workplace.
But if this becomes a frequent habit and starts to negatively impact your mental health, it may be a sign that you need to work on your confidence.
You experience self-doubt
Second-guessing ourselves is natural. After all, we’re only human.
But if you’re often untrusting of your own judgment or constantly seeking the opinions of others, this may be related to your self-esteem.
Clarke says this can also show up as you feeling like you’ll always make mistakes and letting fear drive your life instead of feeling confident facing challenges.
You avoid self-expression
Maybe you avoid expressing yourself out of shame, embarrassment, or fears of judgment. This habit of “playing small” could also be due to a lack of confidence.
“When someone is not self-expressed, they always feel they don’t fit in and find themselves conforming,” Clarke adds. Essentially, you hide yourself or blend in with others as a coping mechanism for feeling insecure.
If you resonate with any of those low self-esteem examples, there’s no need to stress. There are plenty of ways to boost self-esteem and become more confident.
Identify (and heal) the root cause
”Low self-esteem has deep roots, which require a commitment to becoming self-aware,” Clarke explains. She suggests getting real with yourself to learn what’s making you feel less confident and change those thought patterns.
“It’s important to explore cognitions and the messages learned that initially created the negative core beliefs,” says Roberts. “Understanding how low self-esteem evolves as a result of past internalized messages and cognitive processing can help [people] create new ways of perceiving their world around them.”
Set small goals
“People with low self-esteem often feel like failures and develop learned helplessness. Creating small, achievable goals can help build competence and consequently confidence,” says Roberts.
A great first goal is to notice when you witness examples of poor self-esteem showing up in your life. Then, you can take action.
For example, maybe you’ll try to stop making self-deprecating jokes in front of others, or compliment yourself the next time you look in the mirror. These little goals will eventually add up to create bigger change.
Be kind to yourself
Low self-esteem can cause us to be unfairly hard on ourselves. Remember to be gentle with yourself as you unlearn harmful messages and conditioning.
“It’s not about pushing yourself harder or beating yourself up. It just doesn’t go away with positive thinking and pretending you feel better about yourself than you really do,” reminds Clarke. “Instead of brushing it off or shaming yourself for your experience, try to accept yourself and work toward positive change.”
“Self-love is the foundation of self-esteem,” says Clarke. So, when you don’t love yourself, you’ll likely have low self-esteem.
It’s a good idea to pursue healthy habits, like eating nutritious meals, moving your body, sleeping well, and taking care of your mental health. This could also mean learning more about yourself, including what you enjoy, and accepting your flaws and imperfections.
Forcing yourself to focus on the bright side of things during challenges can be a form of toxic positivity. But positive thinking can help you adjust your way of thinking, too. Consider all your great personality traits and the ways in which you thrive rather than dwelling on your faults or undesirable traits.
Clarke also suggests practicing self-forgiveness as a form of healing your self-esteem. You can also repeat positive affirmations, like “I am worthy of happiness” or “I am confident.”
See a therapist
A therapist can point out where low self-esteem shows up in your life and guide you toward positive change. They can also help you identify where it’s coming from, so you can heal, create new thought patterns, and become more confident.
“A therapist will help you with integrating new ways of relating to yourself and the world that will begin to gently raise your esteem,” says Clarke.
“Focusing on cognitive reprocessing and developing new competencies help [people] avoid seeking outside of themselves for validation and will help them realize that they can influence their self-esteem and well-being as well,” adds Roberts.
How we perceive and value ourselves directly affects the ways in which we navigate life.
Understanding the signs of low self-esteem and recognizing when those patterns show up for you is a great step toward creating positive change.
Low self-esteem shows up in various ways. Examples include lacking boundaries, people-pleasing, talking badly about yourself, and feeling unworthy. If you relate to any of these, you may have low self-esteem.
But if you have poor self-image, there’s no reason to feel worse about it. You can figure out the causes, practice self-love, or speak with a mental health professional to learn — and improve — how you see yourself and the world around you.
It can take time and hard work, but boosting your confidence is possible and can help you live a more fulfilled life.