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What Is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is what we think of ourselves. When it’s positive, we have confidence and self-respect. We’re content with ourselves and our abilities, in who we are and our competence. Self-esteem is relatively stable and enduring, though it can fluctuate. Healthy self-esteem makes us resilient and hopeful about life.

Self-Esteem Impacts Everything

Self-esteem affects not only what we think, but also how we feel and behave. It and has significant ramifications for our happiness and enjoyment of life. It considerably affects events in our life, including our relationships, our work and goals, and how we care for ourselves and our children.

Although difficult events, such as a breakups, illness, or loss of income, may in the short term moderate our self-esteem, we soon rebound to think positively about ourselves and our future. Even when we fail, it doesn’t diminish our self-esteem. People with healthy self-esteem credit themselves when things go right, and when they don’t, they consider external causes and also honestly evaluate their mistakes and shortcomings. Then they improve upon them.

Healthy vs. Impaired Self-Esteem

I prefer to use the terms healthy and impaired self-esteem, rather than high and low, because narcissists and conceited individuals who appear to have high self-esteem actually don’t. Theirs is inflated, compensates for shame and insecurity, and is often unrelated to reality. Boasting is an example, because it indicates that the person is dependent on others’ opinion of them and reveals impaired rather than healthy self-esteem. Thus, healthy self-esteem requires that we’re able to honestly and a realistically assess our strengths and weaknesses. We’re not too concerned about others’ opinions of us. When we accept our flaws without judgment, our self-acceptance goes beyond self-esteem.

Impaired Self-Esteem

Impaired self-esteem negatively impacts our ability to manage adversity and life’s disappointments. All of our relationships are affected, including our relationship with ourselves. When our self-esteem is impaired, we feel insecure, compare ourselves to others, and doubt and criticize ourselves. We neither recognize our worth, nor honor and express our needs and wants. Instead, we may self-sacrifice, defer to others, or try to control them and/or their feelings toward us to feel better about ourselves. For example, we might people-please, manipulate, or devalue them, provoke jealousy, or restrict their association with others. Consciously or unconsciously, we devalue ourselves, including our positive skills and attributes, making us hyper-sensitive to criticism. We may also be afraid to try new things, because we might fail.

Symptoms of Healthy and Impaired Self-Esteem

The following chart lists symptoms that reflect healthy vs. impaired self-esteem. Remember that self-esteem varies on a continuum. It’s not black or white. You may relate to some, but not all.

Healthy Self-EsteemImpaired Self-Esteem
Know you’re okayFeel not enough; always improving yourself
Know you have value and matterLack self-worth and value; feel unimportant
Feel competent and confidentDoubt self, feel incompetent, and afraid to risk
Like yourselfJudge and dislike yourself
Exhibit honesty and integrityPlease, hide, and agree with others
Trust yourselfIndecisive, ask others’ opinions
Accept praiseDeflect or distrust praise
Accept attentionAvoid, dislike attention
Are self-responsible; honor selfDiscount feelings, wants, or needs
Have internal locus of controlNeed others’ guidance or approval
Self-efficacy to pursue goalsAfraid to start and do things
Have self-respectAllow abuse; put others first
Have self-compassionSelf-judgment, self-loathing
Happy for others good fortuneEnvy and compare yourself to others
Acceptance of othersJudge others
Satisfied in relationshipsUnhappy in relationships
Assertive Defer to others, indirect and afraid to express yourself
OptimisticFeel anxious and pessimistic
Welcome feedbackDefensive of real or perceived criticism

The Cause of Impaired Self-Esteem

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can lead to codependency as an adult. It also weakens your self-esteem. Often you don’t have a voice. Your opinions and desires aren’t taken seriously. Parents usually have low self-esteem and are unhappy with each other. They themselves neither have nor model good relationship skills, including cooperation, healthy boundaries, assertiveness, and conflict resolution. They may be abusive, controlling, interfering, manipulative, indifferent, inconsistent, or just preoccupied. Directly or indirectly, they may shame their children’s feelings and personal traits, feelings, and needs. It’s not safe to be, to trust, and to express themselves.

Children feel insecure, anxious, and/or angry. As a result, they feel emotionally abandoned and conclude that they are at fault — not good enough to be acceptable to both parents. (They might still believe that they’re loved.) Eventually, they don’t like themselves and feel inferior or inadequate. They grow up codependent with low self-esteem and learn to hide their feelings, walk on eggshells, withdraw, and try to please or become aggressive. This reflects how toxic shame becomes internalized.

Shame

Shame runs deeper than self-esteem. It’s a profoundly painful emotion rather than a mental evaluation. Underlying toxic shame can lead to impaired or low self-esteem and other negative thoughts and feelings. It’s not just that we lack confidence, but we might believe that we’re bad, worthless, inferior, or unlovable. It creates feelings of false guilt and fear and hopelessness, at times, and feeling irredeemable. Shame is a major cause of depression and can lead to self-destructive behavior, eating disorders, addiction, and aggression.

Shame causes shame anxiety about anticipating shame in the future, usually in the form of rejection or judgment by other people. Shame anxiety makes it difficult to try new things, have intimate relationships, be spontaneous, or take risks. Sometimes, we don’t realize that it’s not others’ judgments or rejection we fear, but our failure to meet our own unrealistic standards. We judge ourselves harshly for mistakes than others would. This pattern is very self-destructive with perfectionists. Our self-judgment can paralyze us so that we’re indecisive, because our internal critic will judge us no matter what we decide!

Relationships

Our relationship with ourselves provides a template for our relationships with others. It impacts our relationship happiness. Self-esteem determines our communication style, boundaries, and our ability to be intimate. Research indicates that a partner with healthy self-esteem can positively influence his or her partner’s self-esteem, but also shows that low self-esteem portends a negative outcome for the relationship. This can become a self-reinforcing cycle of abandonment lowering self-esteem.

Impaired self-esteem hinders our ability to speak up about our wants and needs and share vulnerable feelings. This compromises honesty and intimacy. As a result of insecurity, shame, and impaired self-esteem as children, we may have developed an attachment style that, to varying degrees, is anxious or avoidant and makes intimacy challenging. We pursue or distance ourselves from our partner and are usually attracted to someone who also has an insecure attachment style.

Generally, we allow others to treat us the manner in which we believe we deserve. When we don’t respect and honor ourselves, we won’t expect to be treated with respect and might accept abuse or withholding behavior. Similarly, we may give more than we receive in our relationships and overdo at work. Our inner critic can be judgmental of others, too. When we’re critical of our partner or highly defensive, it makes it difficult to problem-solve. Insecure self-esteem can also make us suspicious, needy, or demanding of our partner.

Raising Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is generally determined by our teens. Some of us struggle all our lives with impaired self-esteem and even the resulting depression. But we can change and build healthy self-esteem. Raising self-esteem means getting to know and love yourself — building a relationship, as you would with a friend — and becoming your own best friend. This takes attentive listening, quiet time, and commitment. The alternative is to be lost at sea, continually trying to prove or improve yourself or win someone’s love, while never feeling truly lovable or enough — like something is missing.

It’s difficult to get outside our own thoughts and beliefs to see ourselves from another perspective. Therapy can help us change how we think, act, and what we believe. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to raise self-esteem. It’s more powerful when combined with meditation that increases self-awareness. Some things you can do:

  • Recognize the Signs. Be able to spot clues that your self-esteem needs uplifting. Many people think they have good self-esteem. They may be talented, beautiful, or successful, but still lack self-esteem.
  • Root Out False Beliefs. Learn how to identify and deprogram false beliefs and behaviors you want to change and those you want to implement.
  • Identify Cognitive Distortions. Impaired self-esteem can cause us to skew and distort reality. Learn to identify and challenge your cognitive distortions.
  • Journal. Journaling has been shown to elevate mood and decrease depression. Keeping a journal can also help you to monitor your interactions with others and your negative self-talk.
  • Heal Toxic Shame. If you believe you suffer from codependency and shame, learn more about it and do the exercises in Conquering Shame and Codependency.
What Is Self-Esteem?


Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s the author of Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and six ebooks, including: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind - Become Assertive and Set Limits, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People, and Freedom from Guilt and Blame - Finding Self-Forgiveness, available on her website and Amazon. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 28 years and coaches internationally. She’s a sought-after speaker in media and at professional conferences. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.” Find her on Youtube.com, Soundcloud, Twitter @darlenelancer, and at www.Facebook.com/codependencyrecovery.

APA Reference
Lancer, D. (2019). What Is Self-Esteem?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 23, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-self-esteem/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 10 May 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 10 May 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.