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What Is Low Self-Esteem?

Marjorie McAtee
Marjorie McAtee

Low self-esteem generally occurs when a person lacks an appropriate level of self-respect. People with low self-esteem usually feel insecure, despite any reassurance they may receive from others. They may find themselves emphasizing their flaws and failures, while downgrading their successes and positive attributes. They may harbor many negative self-beliefs and speak very negatively about themselves to others. Low self-esteem can increase the risk of mental illness, affect relationships, and damage overall quality of life.

Most experts believe that low self-esteem develops very early in life, often in childhood or adolescence. One's early relationships with parents, siblings, peers, and authority figures are believed to have a massive effect on self-esteem. Those who experience loving, supportive relationships early in life are more likely to enjoy healthy self-esteem. Those who experience rejection or abuse, whether emotional or physical, in early relationships are generally considered less capable of developing a healthy sense of self-worth.

Low self-esteem may lead to abusive relationships.
Low self-esteem may lead to abusive relationships.

The perceptions of others are considered vital to developing self-esteem. As children and adolescents, most people look to family, friends, and peers to give them a sense of self-worth. People who develop low self-esteem are often those who feel that they failed in some important way early in life. Many people who develop problems with inadequate self-esteem feel that they have failed to earn the approval of an important person in their lives, such as a parent or partner, and therefore may perceive themselves as inadequate or worthless.

Children with low self-esteem may not get along with peers.
Children with low self-esteem may not get along with peers.

Unhealthily low self-esteem can have a number of negative ramifications. It is often linked to depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance-abuse problems. People who lack an appropriate sense of self-worth may have trouble succeeding at school or work, since they often remain convinced that any efforts they make will lead to failure. A low self-opinion makes it difficult to listen to or give credit to any positive feedback. People with low self-esteem tend to discount any positive feedback out of hand, since they are usually quite certain of their negative self-beliefs.

People who are unhappy with their weight can often have low self-esteem.
People who are unhappy with their weight can often have low self-esteem.

People with healthy self-esteem, on the other hand, are capable of recognizing and acknowledging both their flaws and their strengths, without giving undue emphasis to either one. Those with an appropriate sense of self-worth generally handle stress better and are considered less likely to succumb to mental illness. Experts also believe that it is possible to have too much self-esteem. It is believed that excessive self-esteem may contribute to violent or abusive behavior, since it can lead to feelings of superiority over others.

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Discussion Comments


@drtroubles - If your daughter is seeing a therapist and is talking to her mom about the issues, I think it is best to just show her your support without bringing up any specifics. I remember when I had the symptoms of low self-esteem as a teenager, and I couldn't talk to men about my problems as I felt they wouldn't understand.

What you can do is be nice to her, and perhaps treat her to some new clothes or some sort of beauty products she has her eye on. While it may be shallow, giving her the tools to feel more confident doesn't hurt. It always made me feel better when I had some new clothes or makeup. Though, that is of course just a short-term bandage.


What is the best way to support someone who is overcoming low self-esteem? Should you talk with them about their issues, or leave that to their therapist?

My daughter is having self-esteem issues and is constantly down on herself. I know she is going through some growing pains and that low self-esteem in teenagers is pretty common, but I still worry about the long term effects of her problems. She talks to me a bit about the problems she has with her peers, but I think she relates more to her mother than me. I would really like to help her in any way I can though.


Parents don't realize the damage they can do to their child's self-esteem. My friend's mother criticized her in every way, so much so that she second-guessed every word she uttered.

It was hard to listen to her sometimes. She would start out a sentence, but before she got to the fourth or fifth word of it, she would start getting flustered and questioning her statement.

Her mother had issues with being in control. She questioned her daughter's every word, and that made her unable to speak normally.


@kylee07drg – I think you probably are just self-conscious of your appearance, rather than having low self-esteem. If you did have on makeup, had your hair styled, and were wearing nice clothes, would you still not accept your husband's compliment? I bet you would be more willing to then.

People with low self-esteem are down on themselves in every area, not just appearance. We all grapple with our declining looks sometimes, but many of us also know our strong qualities, and they keep us afloat.

Though I know I don't look all that great, I do have confidence in my skill as a musician. I would probably agree with anyone who complimented my musical ability, while I would think that anyone who told me I looked beautiful was only trying to be nice.


I don't know whether I have low self-esteem or if I'm just a realist. When I'm walking around the house with no makeup on, wearing baggy sweat pants, and my husband tells me how beautiful I am, I cannot accept this.

I don't even wonder if it's true. I know that I don't feel beautiful, so I just look at him and shake my head. I point out what I'm wearing, but he doesn't seem to care.

I know that I have wrinkles, age spots, and extra weight around my waist. I also know that love can do strange things to a person's vision, so I cannot believe my husband, who is so in love with me.


I was friends with a girl in high school who exhibited all the signs of low self-esteem. She could not take a compliment, and she strove for perfection in everything she did, but she never felt like anything she accomplished was good enough.

When she turned sixteen, she became anorexic. Though she was as skinny as a rail, she believed she was overweight. This was another part of her perfectionism.

She starved herself right into the hospital. She had to have intense therapy to come out of it, and one of the things they worked on the most was improving her self-esteem.


Too little and too much self-esteem is both bad. I had a boyfriend who had low self-esteem and I think it had a very negative affect on our relationship. He acted as though I would break up with him at any point and we often fought for no clear reason.

When we did finally break up, he had trouble getting over it and called me regularly for years afterward even though I kept telling him that I wouldn't get back together with him.

I don't think that low self-esteem or high self-esteem makes a person bad. I think it just makes them more complicated and more difficult to understand. Both are opposite extremes so I think it makes it hard to relate to people with these characteristics.


I have low self-esteem symptoms too but I'm not unsuccessful at things I do. I was a great student in school, always had good grades and I have a good job right now.

The one thing I do have trouble with is criticism. I feel like I'm unable to accept or deal with criticism. If my boss criticizes something I do at work, for example, I feel horrible, almost unworthy of my salary. It's not a good feeling but somehow it makes me work harder and do things even better. Some might even say that I'm a perfectionist for that reason.

It is difficult to live this way though. My boss once told me that he was unsure of me when I first started my job. He said I was too quiet and clearly showed with my body language that I did not have much self-esteem. This made him doubt me as an employee. Over time, I was able to prove myself, but low self-esteem definitely doesn't leave a good first expression.


I've been dealing with low self-esteem for many years now. I agree with the article that causes of low self-esteem generally emerge in childhood. My experiences and sessions with psychologists have shown this to be true in my case as well.

When I think about my childhood, I remember being alone and ignored a lot by my parents. I also remember being criticized and yelled at by my parents when I did something wrong or didn't do something well enough. For example, I had trouble learning to read when I started elementary school and I remember my mom yelling at me about being a slow learner. My dad used to do the same because I was not very good at math.

I think this is when I started feeling bad about myself and started developing low self-esteem.

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