What is it?

Self-esteem refers to how you view yourself. It is the belief you have about yourself both positive and negative. It can refer to the kind of person you think you are which is informed by your life experiences. Although many feel their beliefs about themselves are factual they are in fact opinion which is based on upbringing, experiences and how we think. We can have either good or low self-esteem. People experiencing good self-esteem have a good opinion of themselves and have a positive outlook in general. Having good self-esteem makes it easier to cope and deal with change and the challenges life may throw up at you. People experiencing low self-esteem may be very critical of themselves and see themselves more negatively. They give themselves negative messages such as they are no good enough and put themselves down. Having low self-esteem can affect our confidence, our ability to cope, our ability to assert ourselves and our relationships. It can also lead to the development of mental health issues.


What causes it?

How we feel about ourselves is determined by our life experiences. Many things can impact on how we feel about ourselves. We all experience challenges in our lives which may impact on how we feel about ourselves including relationship breakup, loss of a job, failure at an interview, discrimination, stress, abuse and the expectation of others or ourselves to be a certain way telling yourself you “should” be like this. Our belief system can be made up of all of these experiences and how we process these experiences inform how we think about ourselves.


Signs and symptoms (how to spot it / what does it feel like)

If you have low self-esteem you may experience some of the following:

·      Feeling anxious

·      Being withdrawn avoiding social or challenging situations

·      Lacking self-confidence and social skills

·      Feeling depressed or sad

·      Treating yourself badly,  putting yourself down and not standing up for yourself

·      Having a low expectation of yourself and giving up easily

·      Focusing on the negative

·      Being needy

·      Saying sorry a lot

·      Feeling emotional

·      Unable to accept compliments

·      Treating others better than you treat yourself

·      Unable to put yourself first


Low self-esteem may be caused by:

·      Bullying – If a person experiences bullying they can feel diminished and lose their confidence. They may start to believe what the bullies say and feel like they are somehow less than other people. Bullying can be incredibly distressing and promote an array of negative thoughts and feelings.

·      Trauma – When someone has experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse this can severely impact on their view of themselves. Those who have experienced abuse often blame themselves and can feel shame. Trust issues may be present where you don’t trust yourself or others. Trauma can make people withdrawn as a way of coping with their trauma. All of which impacts on their self-esteem.

·      The media and society – Unrealistic ideas of what is perceived to be attractive or beautiful feed into our beliefs about ourselves. There is that sense that these ideas are unattainable and promote feelings of inadequacy. With the growth in social media, we are flooded with images every day from a young age which can grow an unrealistic perspective about the norm. This can promote isolation and negative messages to yourself.

·      Belief systems – Our beliefs are influenced by many things including upbringing, religion, the media, society, our peers and life experiences. If we experience disapproval or feel unsupported this can invoke feelings of self-loathing. Often we experience feeling that something is either good or bad. If we feel bad about ourselves it can be due to taking onboard criticism, disapproval, judgement and disappointment.  

·      Lack of attention – If you experienced a lack of attention by your parents can result in feeling unimportant. You may feel uncared for and that you don’t matter. This can impact on your self-worth as you may have felt forgotten about and therefore this reflects on how you then value yourself.

·      Academic challenges – Internalising your feelings of inadequacy when you do not fully understand something can become a belief that you aren’t clever enough. Negative messages like this can feed into your self-belief. This could impact on your confidence when speaking as you may not feel able to share your opinions and feel incredibly self-conscious.

·      The expectations of others – Trying to live up to the expectations of others can promote negative beliefs if you feel that you are not living up to someone’s expectations. You may feel like a disappointment and that no matter what you do that you always fall short.

·      Disapproving parents or teachers – Your self-esteem may be impacted on if you constantly told you weren’t good enough by authority figures in your life. Being severely criticised can make it incredibly difficult to feel good about yourself. This message of being a failure and disappointment is damaging and painful to experience.


We will all experience things which will impact on how we feel about ourselves from time to time. When we experience low self-esteem we may become more withdrawn, lack confidence and avoid challenging or social situations. This in the long term can lead to the development of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and alcohol abuse. Therefore, it is important to seek support if you feel that your self-esteem is affecting your life.


Treatment options

To have a healthy view of yourself and positive self-esteem is achievable if you first identify your negative beliefs and challenge them. Cognitive behavioural online therapy (CBT) can help you do this by giving you a safe and confidential space in which to explore your thoughts. A professional CBT therapist can help you identify negative thought patterns and goals of therapy. CBT can facilitate positive change and help you change the way you think challenging negative beliefs and helping you to develop new skills to boost your self-esteem. This can create respect for yourself and boost your self-awareness.

By Helen Rutherford