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Understanding 8 causes of low self-esteem and 6 empowering strategies to build it

Self-esteem is how you see yourself. When you have healthy self-esteem, it means you have a positive opinion of yourself and you appreciate the things you’ve accomplished.

Everyone has moments when they doubt themselves, but if your self-esteem is low, you might often feel unhappy or not so great about who you are. After all, several causes of low self-esteem can pull your confidence down.

Low self-esteem can sometimes make it tough to make choices. When your self-esteem isn’t as high as it could be, you might rely too much on what others think of you. 

This lack of self-confidence can lead to a fear of taking chances simply because you’re worried about failing. You might often expect things not to go your way, and when you make mistakes, you might be extra hard on yourself. Putting yourself down and brushing off any compliments you get is common.

This negative self-view can also affect how you interact with others, potentially leading to less-than-healthy relationships.

How does low self-esteem affect your life?

Low self-esteem can have a profound and wide impact a person’s life, said Better Health.

Here are some of the ways it can manifest:

  • Low self-esteem often leads to persistent negative feelings, including sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, shame, or guilt. Constant self-criticism can take a toll on mental health.
  • Individuals with low self-esteem may tolerate unhealthy behaviors in their relationships because they believe they need to earn love and friendship. On the other hand, they might struggle with anger and engage in bullying behaviors.

  • People with low self-esteem may doubt their abilities and worth, which can lead to avoiding challenges and opportunities for growth.
  • Some individuals may become overachievers, striving for perfection to compensate for their feelings of inferiority.
  • Low self-esteem can lead to a constant fear of being negatively judged by others. This fear may cause them to avoid social situations and activities, leading to isolation and stress.
  • People with low self-esteem often find coping with life’s difficulties challenging because they already believe they are hopeless or incapable of overcoming challenges.
  • Neglecting self-care is a common consequence of low self-esteem. This can manifest in unhealthy behaviors such as excessive alcohol consumption or neglecting one’s physical and emotional well-being.
  • Low self-esteem puts individuals at a higher risk of self-harming behaviors, including eating disorders, substance abuse, or thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

Causes of Low Self-Esteem

1. Dealing with critical authority figures

Have you ever experienced a childhood where it seemed like nothing you did was ever good enough? Suppose you’ve been on the receiving end of constant criticism. In that case, it can leave lasting scars and make it challenging to develop a positive self-image.

The weight of shame and the feeling of constantly falling short can be incredibly painful.

2. The impact of conflicted authority figures

When parents or caregivers are in constant conflict or create an atmosphere of negativity, it can deeply affect children, Psychology Today noted.

They absorb the tension, fear, and chaos of such situations. This experience can also occur when one parent struggles emotionally or behaves unpredictably around the child.

Exposure to excessive conflicts between authority figures can leave a lasting impression, making you feel like you played a part in those conflicts or a parent’s distressing circumstances.

These intense conflicts can be incredibly frightening and may lead you to believe you were somehow responsible for them.

This sense of being “tainted” or to blame can persist into adulthood, making it one of the causes of self-esteem with long-lasting effect.

3. Challenges from uninvolved or preoccupied caregivers

Growing up with parents or primary caregivers who didn’t pay much attention to your achievements can have a lasting impact.

It may make it harder to find the motivation to aim for more in life and believe that you truly deserve it.

Feeling forgotten, unnoticed, and unimportant during your formative years can stick with you, leading to a sense of detachment and a belief that you’re not accountable to anyone.

This might also mean that nobody in your present cares about your well-being, even when that’s false. Feeling unrecognized can even lead to a sense of owing an apology for simply existing.

4. Bullying

Supportive families are crucial for recovery from childhood bullying, which is one of the most common causes of low self-esteem.

Family’s support can help provide a foundation for rebuilding self-esteem.

Conversely, if a home doesn’t feel safe and bullying continues outside, it can lead to abandonment and self-loathing. Trust issues and low self-esteem may arise, impacting daily life.

Meanwhile, overprotective parents may hinder resilience, resulting in shame and difficulty facing the world.

On the other hand, neglect or downplaying bullying experiences can leave feelings of unworthiness and anger, especially if parents are preoccupied or facing their own issues.

In chaotic homes, seeking attention becomes challenging, leading to isolation and shame, affecting emotional well-being.

5. Struggling academically without caregiver support

Experiencing academic challenges without the support of caregivers can be incredibly tough. It can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

If you felt like you were falling behind in school and no one was there to help you understand or provide the necessary accommodations, you may have internalized the belief that you are somehow defective.

This might make you constantly doubt your intelligence and feel self-conscious about sharing your thoughts and opinions.

The shame of not feeling “smart enough” can be pervasive and difficult to shake, even after you’ve found ways to accommodate your academic difficulties.

It’s important to remember that struggling in one area doesn’t define your worth or intelligence, but these feelings can linger and impact your self-esteem.

6. Dealing with trauma

Experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can be among the most blatant and devastating causes of low self-esteem.

Being subjected to these forms of abuse can make it incredibly challenging to trust the world, yourself, or others, and it can have a profound and lasting effect on your self-esteem.

It’s not uncommon to feel at fault in the aftermath of trauma, even when you couldn’t be less responsible for what happened.

Trauma can be so overwhelming that it leads to mental dissociation—a sense of checking out or going away—to cope. It can leave you feeling like you’re nothing.

To regain control over your circumstances, you may have convinced yourself that you were complicit or even to blame for the trauma.

Coping with abuse often involves strategies that are unhealthy in the long run. Still, they can provide a temporary sense of relief.

These coping mechanisms may leave you viewing yourself as repulsive and filled with profound shame, among many other complex and challenging emotions.

7. Challenges with Belief Systems

When your religious or other belief system consistently places you in a position where you feel like you’re constantly sinning or falling short, it can be like living with disapproving authority figures.

Whether judgment comes from authority figures or is ingrained in the belief system, it can trigger feelings of shame, guilt, inner conflict, and self-loathing.

Many structured belief systems present a dichotomy: one entirely good path and another entirely bad.

Finding yourself stuck in the middle can lead to a sense of confusion, feeling wrong, disorientation, shame, inauthenticity, and recurring disappointment in yourself.

This inner turmoil and the struggle to reconcile your beliefs with your actions can significantly impact your self-esteem.

8. The Impact of Society and Media

It’s undeniable that the media often portrays unrealistic standards of beauty and thinness, and this issue is becoming increasingly prevalent.

Both males and females are pressured to measure up to these unattainable ideals. While the causes of low self-esteem may stem from various sources, society, and the media exacerbate these issues by making imperfections readily accessible, creating a continuous cycle of inadequacy.

With media access becoming available at younger and younger ages, children are exposed to these unfair comparisons much earlier in life.

This early exposure can profoundly impact their self-esteem as they begin to internalize these unrealistic standards from a very young age.

Tips on building your self-esteem

Building self-esteem is crucial for mental and emotional well-being, personal growth, and successfully navigating life’s challenges. It forms the foundation for a fulfilling and satisfying life.

If you ever struggle with any of the causes of low self-esteem, there are simple and effective ways to start boosting it up. A good option is therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Forbes said.

Dr. Marla Deibler, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of the Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, says, “CBT can be really useful in helping you question and transform your self-image and the thoughts, emotions, and actions linked to how you see yourself.”

Yet, remember, therapy isn’t the sole path to enhance your self-esteem.

Here are six reliable ways, supported by experts, to start feeling happier about yourself and your role in the world.

Important note: if you’re experiencing persistent low self-esteem, it could be linked to other mental health challenges like depression, eating disorders, or substance use. Suppose you suspect you might be facing a broader mental health issue. In that case, reaching out to a mental health expert who can guide you on the path to healing and recovery is crucial.

1. Be kind to yourself

Dr. Deibler emphasizes the importance of showing kindness and understanding toward yourself. Practicing self-compassion varies from person to person but often involves realizing that you’re not alone in your struggles.

Many others may be feeling the same way. Treat yourself as you would a loved one, and try to be gentler in your thoughts and actions towards yourself.

2. Embrace your inner critic

Nearly everyone encounters their “inner critic” from time to time. If you’ve been wrestling with this critical voice, research suggests acknowledging these thoughts rather than ignoring them.

Ignoring them can actually make them stick around longer. Instead, recognize these thoughts for what they are—messages from your inner critic.

It may take practice, but doing so can create distance between these critical thoughts and reality.

3. Change negative thoughts

Once you’re more aware of your critical thoughts, practice positive reframing. This means turning a negative thought into a positive or neutral one.

For instance, shift from “I sounded foolish asking all those questions in that meeting” to “I asked many questions, and now I’m more informed.”

4. Set boundaries

Boundaries outline how you’d like people to treat you and what you’ll do if someone crosses those lines.

For instance, you might tell your partner, “I need a night out with my friends occasionally,” and expect them to respect your request. While enforcing boundaries might initially trigger guilt or fear, you’ll become more confident and boost your self-respect with practice.

5. Prioritize physical activity

Dr. Julia Samton, a certified neurologist and psychiatrist, highlights the positive impact of exercise on self-esteem and life satisfaction.

Incorporating regular physical activity into your routine can make you feel physically and mentally stronger, fostering a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.

A study from 2016 highlighted this connection, showing that physical activity and how you perceive your physical fitness can play a crucial role in your self-esteem.

To maintain a healthy level of physical activity, the World Health Organization recommends that adults between 18 and 65 aim for either 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week.

For those who may not have access to a gym or prefer other activities, a simple way to meet this recommendation is by taking a 30-minute walk on weekdays.

6. Embrace body neutrality

Building confidence also involves accepting your body. You can work on body positivity, but consider embracing body neutrality. Body neutrality aims to shift away from extreme judgments and focuses on acceptance and respect for your body.

Some ways to practice body neutrality include:

  • Unfollow social media accounts that strongly affect your body image.
  • Explore intuitive eating.
  • Engage in the types of exercise you enjoy without focusing on changing your body.
  • Acknowledge your body’s functions in a neutral way (e.g., “My legs can dance” or “My brain can read this article”).

Remember, these methods are gentle ways to cultivate self-esteem and self-acceptance, and they can help you on your journey toward feeling better about yourself and your place in the world.

Benefits of Self-Esteem

Having strong self-esteem is like having a warm and comforting blanket of self-worth and confidence. It’s like a beacon of positivity that brightens your relationships, school or work life, and even your outlook when things don’t go as planned, according to Weber State University.

When you believe in yourself, you’re like a sturdy tree that can weather any storm. You become open to learning and growing, even when faced with challenges. And here’s the best part – you don’t have to change who you are just to fit in or be liked by others.

When your self-esteem is healthy and thriving, it’s like a shield that guards you against mental health struggles like depression, anxiety, and other difficulties.

Here are some wonderful signs that show you’ve got healthy self-esteem:

1. Speaking your mind

You’re not afraid to speak up and share your needs and opinions. It’s like having a strong voice that can sing your own song.

2. Confident choices

You trust yourself to make decisions. It’s like having a compass that guides you on your path.

3. Healthy connections

You build honest and secure relationships, and if something’s not right, you have the strength to let go. It’s like having a garden where only beautiful flowers can bloom.

4. Realistic expectations

You’re fair to yourself and others, not too hard on anyone. It’s like looking at the world with clear, gentle eyes.

5. Resilience

Life’s ups and downs don’t knock you down easily. You’re like a sturdy tree that sways in the wind but doesn’t break.

These signs are like the colors of a beautiful painting that is your self-esteem, showing just how wonderfully unique and strong you are.

Below is a quick video about causes of low self-esteem and how to fix it:

(Disclaimer: This article is provided solely for informational purposes and should not be considered a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or opinion. It is strongly recommended to consult with qualified professionals for any mental health concerns or issues.)

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