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What is low self-esteem?

Self-esteem is a term used to describe how you view or think about yourself and the value that you place on yourself.

When faced with stressful or challenging situations, it’s common for people to use negative words to describe themselves, such as ‘I’m useless’, ‘worthless’ and ‘not good enough’. However, if you often think about yourself in these terms, then you may be experiencing low self-esteem. Someone with low self-esteem may have a generally negative opinion of themselves. Common thoughts that someone with low self-esteem may have are:

Do you have low self-esteem?

There are self esteem test that can be completed online or downloaded as a paper version

How does low self-esteem develop?

Often, beliefs about ourselves are conclusions we arrive at due to the things that have happened to us in our lives. If you’ve encountered negative experiences in your life, particularly in your childhood, you may hold very negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself.

If you have been neglected, mistreated, abandoned, abused or punished in extreme or unpredictable ways, you can come to believe very negative things about yourself and these experiences may cause you to develop low self-esteem.

Constantly being criticised can also cause you to develop negative beliefs about yourself. Your parents, carers or other family members making fun of you or highlighting your weaknesses instead of acknowledging your successes and strengths can also have a negative impact on your self-esteem.

Other factors that cause low self-esteem are:

  • Feeling as if you do not fit in anywhere (at home, at school)
  • Feeling intellectually inferior to or less talented than your siblings or peers
  • Feeling that you or your family is considered different or less socially acceptable by others
  • If your family was on the receiving end of prejudice or hostility
  • If you had an emotionally distant parent or carer
  • If you had a parent or carer who was not physically affectionate or able to spend time with you
  • If you did not receive enough attention, encouragement, warmth or praise as a child.

If your parents had to give their attention to dealing with stressful or difficult life events and were therefore unable to give you much attention

What causes low self-esteem...

In young people?

In late childhood and adolescence, physical appearance and how you feel about your body may start to become very important. People around the same age can also influence how you see yourself. If the people around you say negative things about you or tease you about your physical appearance, you may start to feel you are ‘unlikeable’ or ‘ugly’. This is often made worse by messages conveyed by the media, for example, that we should be slim and physically attractive to be worthwhile.

Later in life?

Negative beliefs tend to develop in childhood. However, being bullied or intimidated at work, being in an abusive relationship, experiencing prolonged financial hardship, continuous stressful life events, traumatic events, or life-changing illnesses or injuries can trigger low self-esteem later in life.

What helps

What helps overcome low self-esteem?

Low self-esteem is underpinned by negative thoughts relating to how you view yourself and how you believe others view you. One of the main ways of dealing with low self-esteem is to try and work on these thoughts.

Ways to work on your thoughts

One way of overcoming low self-esteem is to appreciate yourself more and notice your own personal qualities, everyday. Have a look at this Personal Qualities Records. The worksheet can be used to record all the good things about yourself.  Ask others in your life for help.

At the end of each day, think about what you have done and what personal qualities you displayed. For example, if you went to work that day and arrived on time, the quality you showed was good time management. If you listened to a friend’s worries, then you display qualities such as kindness, empathy, being a supportive friend and a good listener, as well as many more. Each day record this in a Positive You Journal.

The key is to continuously develop a record reflecting your worth so that you can look at this when the negative thoughts creep in.

When the negative thoughts about yourself creep in, challenge them, put them to the test, are they as true as you believe, would they stand up to scrutiny in court. Put your thought (not you) in the dock. Pretend that you are a lawyer paid lots of money to prove to a jury that the thought is true. What would you say? Remember the judge is watching. The judge will only allow evidence to be presented in court, not your opinion. Evidence from expert witnesses can be given, so who would you call to the stand? Next pretend you are the other lawyer, being paid lots of money to prove that the thought is not true and to contradict your fellow lawyer’s evidence. What would you say, what expert would you put on the stand?

You are now a jury member, you’ve heard what the lawyers and their expert witnesses have to say, what will you conclude?

There is more information on this technique and information about facts versus opinions

Living with Low Self Esteem

Ways to work on your thoughts about your appearance

We are constantly being told if you want to be happy you need to look a particular way or fit a particular style of clothing. Try and see this for what it is, marketing to sell a product. You will never fit into clothes in all shops or match the ideal image that they are portraying because the shops on your high street originate from many different countries where the ideal image and body shape differs greatly.

Ways to work on your behaviour

Try to be assertive and project confidence as this will encourage others to treat you with more respect, which in turn will help you feel more confident and of greater worth. Even if you do not feel confident, you can “fake it until you make it” with some simple behavioural strategies to give the allure of confidence. The Centre for Clinical Interventions has information on the skills in assertiveness that everyone can do no matter how they feel inside.

People with low self-esteem tend to withdraw from the world in general. You may tend to do less of the things you find pleasurable. One way to improve your self-esteem and sense of achievement is to start doing things again a little at a time.  Try to make a list of the things you did previously but stopped or new things you would like to do.  Use this weekly planner to start reintroducing these activities.

Engaging in physical activities is a great way to build confidence. In fact, a recent study found that women aged 18 to 24 are twice as likely to be confident and have high self-esteem if they play sport. You can get a sense of achievement from physical activity. Due to the chemicals released during exercise, you can also experience an improvement in your mood. If you prefer to exercise alone, you may benefit from downloading an exercise app, such as Runkeeper or Nike+ Training club – workout & fitness plans. These allow you to track your achievements. You can also join the social media forums available so you can get encouragement from others.

Looking after someone with...Low Self-Esteem

How to support someone with low self-esteem

There are several ways to support people with low self-esteem. You can help by continuously pointing out their positive qualities and achievements.  You can encourage them to write these compliments down as a record of their own personal qualities.

There are several ways to support people with poor body image. You can point out what their body enables them to do rather than what their body looks like and highlight that everybody looks different.

Advice for parents trying to nurture self-esteem in their children:

As a parent you will be aware that young children are being bombarded with messages about how they should look and behave. Disney characters are often female and beautiful or male and strong. In teenagers there is often talk of the amount of muscles a boy has.

It is important to let our children know that everyone matures at a different rate and everyone has a different body shape, that your looks do not determine your value but rather it is what you achieve and contribute in life and the person that you are that counts.

The Amighty Girl Facebook page is also helpful, as each day information about inspirational girls and women is posted and not one is inspirational because of their looks but rather because they are different and have achieved something great.

Further information for carers is available on our Looking After Someone page and from the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde carers site

Further information and support

If you would like to find out more about self-esteem and ways to improve low self-esteem either in yourself or others, there are several websites listed below that may be helpful.

Centre for Clinical Interventions 


NHS choices 

Wellbeing Glasgow 

Northumberland Self help booklets 

Overcoming self-esteem 

Overcoming low self esteem by Melanie Fennell is a self help book and is available online for free and is held by many Glasgow libraries