What do we mean by 'self-esteem'?
Self-esteem concerns our beliefs about our skills, our abilities, and how likely we think we are to succeed. People with high self-esteem generally feel good about themselves; they tend to be happier and cope better with criticism and challenges. They believe that other people, in general, value and respect them.
People with lower self-esteem tend to see the world in a negative way, as though through a distorting filter. Their dislike for themselves colours their perceptions of the world. Evidence suggests there's a link between low self-esteem and shyness, loneliness, and feeling generally 'unworthy'.
There doesn't seem to be a clear link between self-esteem and career success or productivity, though self-esteem certainly affects our ability to enjoy life.
Self-esteem is fairly stable
Self-esteem is the judgement we make (and tend to keep) with regard to ourselves: it's an overall attitude of approval or disapproval, a personal judgment of our own worthiness. Self-esteem tends to be fairly stable over time - unless we work to change it (by being in therapy, for example).
Self-esteem and self-concept
'Self-esteem' and 'self-concept' are sometimes used to mean the same thing, though they're actually different. Self-concept includes all the beliefs we have about ourselves; it's everything that we know about ourselves. It includes, for example, our name, race, likes, dislikes, beliefs, values, and physical characteristics.
Self-esteem is more about the way we feel when we think about and judge ourselves. We can believe positive things about ourselves (for example, knowing we are good at sports), but continue to not really like ourselves very much.
For people with low self-esteem, the low regard in which they hold themselves can 'spread' to other areas, making it hard to recognise or accept specific compliments. Recognising a skill or ability can be hard if we feel pretty worthless overall.
It's also possible to like ourselves, and so have high self-esteem, in spite of there being little evidence to support our views. Self-esteem is less connected with how good we are, more about how good we think we are.
In general, people with a 'fragile' sense of self-esteem tend to seek positive feedback from others and feel hurt in response to negative feedback.
How does self-esteem develop?
Like most areas of psychology, opinion is divided. Some think that we 'take in' (internalise) the beliefs and attitudes of important people in our lives, especially when we're young. We come to treat ourselves as those around us treated us, or as they thought about us.
Others suggest how, for much of human evolution, our survival depended on belonging to a group. People who belonged to groups were safer, they were more likely to survive and to reproduce.
Some think that the function of self-esteem is to monitor the likelihood of us being excluded or rejected by a peer group.
When we act in ways that make it more likely we'll be rejected, our self-esteem reduces. Changes in our self-esteem help us monitor how likely we are to be accepted or rejected, allowing us to change our behaviour accordingly.
People with high self-esteem believe they're unlikely to be rejected, so don't worry too much about how others see them. People with lower self-esteem will be more concerned about rejection, and may be more motivated to try to manage the way others see them.
Differences between the sexes
Research suggests that girl's self-esteem tends to be more influenced by relationships, whereas boys are more influenced by achievement and by material 'success'. Gender-specific generalisations are always inexact, but overall it seems that males may be more likely to achieve high self-esteem from 'getting ahead', whereas females may be more likely to gain self-esteem from 'getting along' with their peers.
Aspects of self-esteem
We can think about self-esteem in three main ways:
Performance self-esteem refers to one's sense of competence and ability. People who are high in performance self-esteem believe that, in the main, they are fairly smart and capable of getting things done.
Social self-esteem refers to how people think others perceive them. If people believe that others, especially significant others, value and respect them, they will have high social self-esteem. People who are low in social self-esteem may experience social anxiety and feel self-conscious in social situations.
Physical self-esteem refers to how people view their physical selves; it includes athletic ability, physical attractiveness, as well as how we have come to feel about our body shape, race and ethnicity.
Symptoms of low self-esteem
What causes low self-esteem?
Our genes, our experiences and our outlook all play a part. Low self-esteem can be a result of current stressful life events such as prolonged money worries, illness, an accident that's resulted in some kind of impairment, chronic pain, relationship problems, or an ongoing difficult to solve situation.
Having other psychological problems, for example depression or anxiety can also reduce our self-esteem.
The roots of low self-esteem, when we began to see ourselves in a negative light, can often be found in our experiences in early in life or in adolescence.
Did you have any early experiences that might have contributed to the way you feel about yourself? Take a little time to make a note of those experiences.
People with high self-esteem can find their self-confidence eroded if they have negative experiences later in life.
We can come to develop low self-esteem if we are bullied at work, are in an abusive relationship, experience prolonged financial hardship or continuous stressful life events, traumatic events, or life-altering illnesses or injuries.
Have you had any recent stressful life experiences that might have affected how you feel about yourself?
Might I have low self-esteem?
If you have read this far, you probably already have a pretty good idea! Try this quick exercise. Why not write a brief description of yourself...
Low self-esteem is a concept, not a 'mental illness', so cannot be diagnosed as such. It's quite possible to hide low self-esteem, other people may never really know how a person feels about themselves, though the things we do and say can let others know about our thoughts and feelings.
Here are some examples of things people with low self-esteem might say about themselves:
If you think you might have low self-esteem, take a few minutes to write down how your life might be better if you had high self-esteem.
Low self-esteem and other problems
Low self-esteem can be a problem in its own right and, for some people, can lead to, or worsen, other problems. Low self-esteem can increase the risk of depression, eating disorders and social anxiety. If you think your low self-esteem is caused by, or is causing other problems such as anxiety or depression, or if it's leading you to avoid work or social commitments, it's best to seek a professional opinion.