Self-Esteem Articles, Research & Resources

Lisa A. Koosis
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What Is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is the measure of a person’s belief in their own value. It reflects an individual’s cumulative belief about tangible and intangible aspects of themselves. (1) Although the factors that influence self-esteem can be different for everyone, they may include:

  • Personality
  • Physical attributes
  • Accomplishments
  • Morals and values
  • Capabilities
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Life experiences
  • Current emotional state (2)

Additionally, a person’s self-esteem may be influenced by how others respond to them and whether they feel they’ve been living up to their own or others’ expectations. It may also reflect messages they’re getting from society through TV, social media, and other means and can be impacted by their unique worldview. 

Self-esteem can impact a person’s mental health positively or negatively. It affects how an individual feels, thinks, and acts. (2) Someone with high self-esteem may find it easier to make decisions and cope with difficult life experiences, so those events don’t have a long-term impact. Someone with low self-esteem may find it negatively impacting their daily life. Negative self-esteem may also be associated with depression and other mental health disorders. (3) However, because building self-esteem is an ongoing process for most people, it may change over time.

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How Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence Differ

Although self-esteem and self-confidence are often used interchangeably, these two terms have different meanings. While self-esteem reflects an individual's internal thought processes and isn’t visible to other people, self-confidence flows outward for others to see. (4) It often reflects an individual’s belief in their competence when executing a particular set of skills and how they project that to others through words and actions. Learning how to gain self-confidence typically involves acquiring and developing a skill set, such as woodworking or golfing. 

Self-esteem and self-confidence often overlap. For example, individuals who demonstrate self-confidence in a skill and receive positive feedback from others may find their self-esteem improves. However, self-esteem and self-confidence don't always go hand in hand. Individuals who demonstrate self-confidence can have low self-esteem, despite what they present to the world. The same can be true in reverse.

What Causes Low Self-Esteem?

Low self-esteem can develop over months or even years, or it can occur suddenly, due to a triggering life experience, such as a divorce, job loss, or physical assault. (5) Common contributing factors to low self-esteem include:

  • Preexisting mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression
  • Physical disabilities
  • Serious illnesses or chronic medical conditions
  • An unhappy childhood or a childhood trauma
  • Emotionally absent parents
  • Negative social media messages
  • Financial hardship
  • Ongoing relationship issues
  • Overly critical parents, teachers, or other authority figures
  • Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse
  • Comparison to others
  • Unobtainable cultural ideas involving behaviors or physical attributes
  • Unrealistic academic, career, or life goals (6) 

Everyone is different, and what causes low self-esteem can vary from person to person. Regardless of why it develops or how long it takes to do so, low self-esteem can have a detrimental impact on a person’s life and may result in anxiety, interpersonal difficulties, mental health issues, and decreased performance at school or work. Low self-esteem also increases an individual’s risk of drug and/or alcohol abuse. (7)

How to Build and Improve Self-Esteem

Building self-esteem can ultimately lead to a better overall quality of life. However, improving self-worth takes time and a commitment to changing deeply rooted feelings and adjusting a long-term pattern of negative thoughts. (8) Individuals who want to build or improve their self-esteem may start by taking a few basic steps:

  1. Identify self-esteem-damaging triggers: These may be situations or events, such as a career setback or family-related crisis, that lower self-esteem. Recognizing and understanding these triggers may make it easier to cope with the negative thoughts that often accompany them.
  2. Monitor thoughts and beliefs: Assess the truthfulness and logic of thoughts conveyed by an inner voice, and watch for unhealthy thought patterns, such as jumping to conclusions, confusing feelings with facts, and all-or-nothing thinking.
  3. Changing negative thoughts: Exchange negative, irrational, or untrue thoughts for more positive and factual ones. This may require forgiving oneself for missteps or failures, acknowledging the positive aspects of difficult situations, and reframing harmful self-talk into hopeful statements.
  4. Accept thoughts that can’t be changed: At times, individuals may find it possible to reframe their thoughts. In this situation, accepting negative thoughts and feelings, and understanding how supjective they are, can take away their power. (9)

How to Cope With Low Self-Esteem

Although most people experience passing moments of negative self-worth in their lives, chronic low self-esteem can make day-to-day functioning a struggle. There are, however, things you can do to improve low self-esteem. Individuals living with long-term low self-esteem can cope using several simple but effective techniques, such as:

  • Spending time with people who value and respect them
  • Doing activities they’re good at or enjoy
  • Choosing relevant, inspirational role models and heroes
  • Setting achievable goals and going after them
  • Saying no to activities that don’t make them feel good
  • Being gentle to themselves during moments that normally prompt self-criticism (10)

When coping with low self-esteem, individuals may also want to consider seeking outside help. Trusted friends and family can help minimize harmful self-criticism by providing a more positive point of view. Some people may also find it helpful to join an in-person or online support group for people with low self-esteem. Individuals who find themselves unable to improve their negative self-esteem or who are having difficulty coping with everyday tasks may want to contact a licensed therapist or mental health counselor. These professionals offer a safe space for exploring negative feelings and can provide valuable tools that can help an individual improve their self-esteem.

How to Help Someone With Low Self-Esteem

Loved ones can play a big role in determining an individual’s self-worth. If a friend, colleague, or family member is struggling with low self-esteem, offer encouragement and supportive, positive feedback. Help them build self-confidence and self-esteem by encouraging them to try something new and applauding both their successes and missteps. (11)

It’s okay to express worry if a loved one’s low self-esteem or their associated actions are troubling. Knowing someone cares can make a loved one feel valued and may give them a greater sense of belonging, leading to an overall improvement in how they feel about themselves.