Ask a Therapist: How Can I Improve My Self-Esteem?

  1. Self-Esteem
  2. Find a Therapist
  3. Effects of Low Self-Esteem
  4. How Low Self-Esteem Develops
  5. Marginalization and Self-Esteem
  6. Therapy for Low Self-Esteem: How It Works, When To Seek It & Options
  7. 1. Identify and understand the source(s) of low self-esteem
  8. 2. Process past negative experiences in a safe, nurturing space
  9. 3. Learn to recognize critical voices that are not your own
  10. 4. Notice “all or nothing” thinking patterns
  11. Low self-esteem is preventing you from healthily developing in your everyday life
  12. Signs that it’s time to seek therapy for low self-esteem
  13. Treatment options for low self-esteem
  14. Psychodynamic therapy: Provides insight into the origins of your insecurities
  15. Psychodynamic therapy: An example of treatment for low self-esteem
  16. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Helps you identify and tackle self-defeating patterns
  17. CBT: An example of treatment for low self-esteem
  18. Some therapists use a combination of CBT and psychodynamic therapy
  19. 8 Steps to Improving Your Self-Esteem
  20. 1. Be mindful
  21. 2. Change the story
  22. 3. Avoid falling into the compare-and-despair rabbit hole
  23. 4. Channel your inner rock star
  24. 5. Exercise
  25. 6. Do unto others
  26. 7. Forgive
  27. 8. Remember that you are not your circumstances
  28. Self Esteem Therapy: Counseling For Low Self Esteem – TherapyTribe
  29. Origins of Self-Esteem
  30. Signs and Symptoms of Low Self-Esteem
  31. Treatment for Low Self-Esteem
  32. How to Find Help for Low Self-Esteem
  33. References
  34. Raising low self-esteem
  35. Recognise what you're good at 
  36. Build positive relationships
  37. Be kind to yourself
  38. Learn to be assertive
  39. Start saying «no»
  40. Give yourself a challenge


Ask a Therapist: How Can I Improve My Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is the degree to which one feels confident, valuable, and worthy of respect. It exists on a continuum from high to low. Where a person’s self-esteem falls on this spectrum can influence one’s overall well-being.

People with high self-esteem often feel good about themselves and their progress through life. People with low self-esteem often feel shame and self-doubt. They often spend lots of time criticizing themselves. Low self-esteem is a symptom of several mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

Low self-esteem is not represented as its own diagnosis in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V). Yet its symptoms and effects are very real. People who wish to improve their self-esteem can get help from a therapist.

Find a Therapist

Self-esteem draws on beliefs about oneself. Thus, people with low self-esteem is ly to have a low opinion of themselves. They may compare themselves to others, then judge themselves inferior. 

People may cope with low self-esteem in different ways. According to the Counseling and Mental Health Center at The University of Texas at Austin, low self-esteem often presents in one of three patterns:

  1. Imposter Syndrome: A person uses accomplishments or false confidence to mask their insecurities. They fear failure will reveal their true, flawed self. The person may use perfectionism or procrastination to deal with this anxiety.
  2. Rebellion: A person pretends they don't care what others think of them. Their feelings of inferiority may manifest as anger or blame. They may act out by defying authority or breaking laws. 
  3. Victimhood: A person believes they are helpless in the face of challenges. They may use self-pity to avoid changing their situation.  They often rely on others to save or guide them.

Internally, poor self-regard often manifests as self-criticism. Common examples of negative self-talk include:

  • There’s nothing I truly about myself.
  • I’ll never do well enough at school or work to succeed.
  • I’m not worthy of seeking things that interest me.
  • Other people are more deserving of happiness.
  • No one wants to hear about my life or the issues I’m facing.
  • It’s all my fault I can’t seem to find people who are good to me. Good people wouldn’t want to be with me, anyway.

Over time, negative thoughts can become so frequent the person sees them as fact. When left on a loop, this thought process can be very damaging. 

Effects of Low Self-Esteem

The cycle of self-criticism can sap away a person’s joy in life. They may stop doing hobbies they once enjoyed for fear of judgment. Feelings of anger, guilt, or sadness may keep them from enjoying what activities they do try. Some people may do self-destructive behaviors such as abusing substances or neglecting hygiene.

Self-doubt can interfere with productivity at work or school. A person may worry so much about others’ opinions that they don’t focus on the task at hand. They may avoid taking risks or making goals a certainty they will fail. A person with low self-esteem may lack resilience in the face of a challenge. 

Self-esteem issues can also impact one’s social life. Someone with low self-esteem may believe they are unworthy of love. They may try to “earn” the love of others and accept negative treatment.

Others may bully and criticize others to compensate for their own insecurities. A fear of rejection can prevent people from seeking relationships at all.

Social isolation can further feed into a negative self-image.

Low self-esteem can contribute to mental health concerns. It is especially common among people with the following concerns:

  • Eating and food issues
  • Depression
  • Social anxiety
  • Codependency
  • Self-harm

How Low Self-Esteem Develops

Some people develop low self-esteem in childhood. When adults harshly criticize children for mistakes, kids may internalize those messages. Adverse childhood experiences, such as child abuse or bullying, can also contribute to low self-esteem. 

In adulthood, any demoralizing life experience can reduce self-esteem. Loss of employment, breakups, and other life changes can cause fear or self-doubt. These feelings can affect one’s self-worth, confidence, and resilience. Once these factors are compromised, a person may be more prone to developing negative beliefs and self-talk patterns.

Marginalization and Self-Esteem

Marginalized people are those who may be at higher risk of experiencing prejudice and discrimination. This maltreatment could be one’s religion, health, looks, or many other traits. Marginalization can cause people to have a higher risk of self-esteem issues.  

Factors that may influence self-esteem include:

  • Age: Research including 48 countries shows self-esteem tends to increase from adolescence to middle age. An American study found self-esteem peaks at around 60 years old. Among seniors over 60, self-esteem declines sharply as people continue aging. Changes in financial status and physical health may account for the much of this decline.
  • Body type: Children who are overweight or obese frequently experience bullying. These youths are more ly to experience low self-esteem both during childhood and later in life. They may also have fewer friends during childhood. Social isolation can also contribute to low self-esteem. 
  • Gender: Across cultures, women tend to report lower self-esteem than men. This trend seems to be most pronounced in Western cultures.
  • Mental health status: A 2012 study examined self-esteem among people with mental health diagnoses. Humor, community involvement, and positive ingroup stereotyping were linked to higher self-esteem. People who kept their conditions secret or put lots of effort into disproving negative stereotypes often had lower self-esteem.
  • Race and ethnicity: A 2011 study of high schoolers looked at self-esteem differences between racial and ethnic groups. In the study, Asian-American students had the lowest levels of self-esteem. Hispanic students had slightly higher rates, followed by white students. Black students had the highest self-esteem levels. These data points match the results of prior studies.
  • Sexual/gender minority status: Students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ+) are more ly to develop low self-esteem than their peers. Bullying is a large contributor to self-esteem issues in LGBTQ+ kids. For transgender individuals, gender dysphoria can strongly affect self-esteem as well.  
  • Socioeconomic status: A 2017 study analyzed self-esteem in middle schoolers from low-income families. Students who believed American society was “fair” were more ly to have low self-esteem years later. Most of the students had experienced discrimination and systemic disadvantages over the course of middle school. 

However, not everyone in a marginalized group will have low self-esteem. Some people may assign less value to domains where they face systemic barriers. For instance, a person from a low-income family may not base their self-worth on owning a fancy car. Instead, they may focus on romantic success or physical fitness. 

Other people may measure their progress only in comparison to members of their own group. They may attribute setbacks to discrimination rather than individual failures. These strategies may offer a counterweight to the effects of marginalization.

Regardless of the factors contributing to one's low self-esteem, support is available. A therapist can help one address the emotions underlying low self-esteem. With time and work, it is possible to develop a healthy relationship with oneself.


  1. Bleidorn, W., Arslan, R. C., Denissen, J. J., Rentfrow, P. J., Gebauer, J. E., Potter, J., & Gosling, S. D. (2016). Age and gender differences in self-esteem—A cross-cultural window. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(3), 396-410. 
  2. Crocker, J. & Major, B. (1989). Social stigma and self-esteem: The self-protective properties of stigma. Psychological Review, 96(4), 608-630. Retrieved from
  3. Duru, E., & Balkis, M. (2014). The roles of academic procrastination tendency on the relationships among self doubt, self esteem and academic achievement. Egitim Ve Bilim, 39(173) Retrieved from
  4. Galliher, R. V., Rostosky, S. S., & Hughes, H. K. (2004). School belonging, self-esteem, and depressive symptoms in adolescents: An examination of sex, sexual attraction status, and urbanicity. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 33(3), 235-245. Retrieved from 
  5. Believing the system is fair predicts worsening self-esteem and behavior for marginalized youth.  (2017, June 19). NYU News Release. Retrieved from 
  6. How to improve your self-esteem. (2016). Retrieved from 
  7. Ilic, M., Reinecke, J., Bohner, G., Rottgers, H. O., Beblo, T., Driessen, M., Frommberger, U., & Corrigan, P.W. (2012). International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 58(3), 246-257. Retrieved from
  8. Orth, U., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Robins, R. W. (2010). Self-esteem development from young adulthood to old age: A cohort-sequential longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(4), 645-658. Retrieved from 
  9. Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale. (n.d.) Retrieved from
  10. Bachman, J. G., O’Malley, P. M., Freedman-Doan, P., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Donnellan, M. B. (2011.) Adolescent self-esteem: Differences by race/ethnicity, gender, and age. Self Identity, 10(4), 445-473. Retrieved from 
  11. Self esteem. (2017). Better Health Channel. Retrieved from 
  12. Self-esteem. (2017). The University of Texas at Austin Counseling and Mental Health Center. Retrieved from 
  13. Strauss, R. S., & Pollack, H. A. (2003). Social marginalization of overweight children. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 157(8), 746-752. Retrieved from 
  14. Wang, F., Wild, T. C., Kipp, W., Kuhle, S., & Veugelers, P. J. (2009). The influence of childhood obesity on the development of self-esteem. Health Reports, 20(2), 21-27. Retrieved from 
  15. Why self-esteem is important for mental health. (2016, July 12). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved from 

Last Update:05-01-2018


Therapy for Low Self-Esteem: How It Works, When To Seek It & Options

Ask a Therapist: How Can I Improve My Self-Esteem?

Pervasively poor self-esteem can lead to depression and anxiety, and have other psychological or emotional implications. Your self-esteem ly varies: somedays, you feel confident and capable; other days, you're flat-out miserable, and self-doubt clouds your every action. Perhaps you lean more towards one or the other, but want to reach a steady balance in your life.

Therapy can help! Here are four ways you'll benefit from therapy that's specially designed to help you with low self-esteem:

1. Identify and understand the source(s) of low self-esteem

Low self-esteem has roots in things events, relationships, or behaviors, both past and present.

Working with a therapist, you can start to understand the source of these insecurities, and how that original cause is still affecting you today.

Your therapist might encourage you to reflect on the settings and situations in which you feel your best — and your worst. Sharing these thoughts with your therapist may help you recognize any patterns that need attention.

2. Process past negative experiences in a safe, nurturing space

In therapy, you have a chance to talk through/process some of these experiences (e.g. being bullied, experiencing trauma, physical, verbal, or emotional abuse). Your therapist will remain non judgemental and constantly compassionate — you can do no wrong in your therapist’s eyes (a little magic called Unconditional Positive Regard!).

Oftentimes, people who experience maltreatment don’t believe they deserve to be treated better; therapy shows you otherwise. During your therapy journey, you’ll feel empowered to express your true feelings about those experiences — that you didn’t deserve them.

3. Learn to recognize critical voices that are not your own

As a therapist, I often hear clients speaking critically of themselves. They’re speaking from a place of insecurity, low self-esteem, or negative judgment, which leads me to ask “whose voice is that?”

Often, people can identify a parent’s, peer’s, or partner’s critical voice. They’ll then recognize that those critical voices may not be their own (or may not have started as their own). A therapist can also help you identify cognitive distortions, or warped thoughts not based in reality.

Learning to recognize these patterns helps you separate yourself from these criticisms and replace them with kinder, more self-compassionate voices.

4. Notice “all or nothing” thinking patterns

Fearing or envisioning extreme outcomes can prevent people from setting boundaries, speaking up for themselves, and protecting their own wants and needs.

When you start to notice triggers for your own black and white thinking, you can mindfully manage them as they arise, and honor your own desires. Hint: this is another example of a cognitive distortion!

Low self-esteem is easy to brush off, since it can seem more a character trait than a mental health condition. But there are times when it's advisable to seek treatment. Here are a few examples of indications you might benefit from working with a therapist on self-esteem:

Low self-esteem is preventing you from healthily developing in your everyday life

If low self-esteem is having a negative impact on the following everyday situations, you might want to consider seeking help.

  • Your interpersonal relationships: You don't feel you're «worth» better treatment. This might lead to unhealthy relationships that are codependent, abusive, or boundary-crossing.
  • Your school or work responsibilities: You set yourself up to, or assume that you will, fail. This could then become overwhelming work stress.
  • Socializing and interacting with others: You have extreme social anxiety at the thought of having to open up to others because you think you aren't «good» enough.
  • Setting boundaries with others: You don't feel your needs are important, so you let others cross healthy boundaries and take advantage.

Signs that it’s time to seek therapy for low self-esteem

In addition to the above external situations, here are some personal «warning signs» that may indicate the need for help:

  • You are feeling overwhelmed, angry, ignored and/or taken advantage of in relationships
  • You are experiencing mood swings
  • You are having difficulty beginning, completing and/or accomplishing tasks (at work, school, personal or otherwise)
  • You feel alone and at a loss as to how to help yourself
  • Constantly trying to “fix,” “do” or “say” the right thing to get people to you, or agree with you

Treatment options for low self-esteem

When it comes to treating low self-esteem, you have options! Two of the major approaches are psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Here's what they each looks in terms of developing healthier self-regard:

Psychodynamic therapy: Provides insight into the origins of your insecurities

Psychodynamic therapy can help people identify and recognize the underlying causes or reasons for having low self-esteem. It can also help people connect past experiences to present ones that may be influencing their self-esteem.

This type of relational therapy also encourages people to use their voice, identify what they want and need, and practice doing this with a professional so it can come more easily in situations outside of therapy.

Psychodynamic therapy: An example of treatment for low self-esteem

A patient of mine had highly critical parents growing up – parents who constantly told her that trying her best wasn’t good enough, that she wasn’t reaching her potential and needed to try harder, now feels nothing she does is good enough, that she isn’t good enough.

This has led her to repeatedly enter romantic relationships with partners who are emotionally abusive and manipulative and to feel this is all she deserves. She is familiar with being criticized and made to feel small and so doesn’t know how to ask for more for herself.

We have been using psychodynamic therapy to understand the root of her self-esteem, to explore what she thinks «good enough means,» what she wants her relationships. We're using psychodynamic therapy to practice saying these things aloud, without fear of criticism or devaluation.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Helps you identify and tackle self-defeating patterns

In cognitive behavioral therapy – often shortened to CBT – clients learn to identify thought patterns that are influencing their low self-esteem thoughts, behaviors, and actions.

This skills-based approach, in other words, helps clients tackle their self-defeating thoughts and ineffective behavior to turn out more confident.

CBT: An example of treatment for low self-esteem

I have a patient who constantly has the narrative, “I am too much for people” in her mind, so everything and anything that happens in her life gets filtered through this narrative.

It has affected a lot of her interpersonal relationships, and comes up the most often in moments where she could/would benefit from asking for help. Her fear is that asking for help with anything will be too much for anyone and inevitably they will leave or abandon her.

By recognizing this narrative, or unhelpful thought pattern, she is slowly starting to realize how much this negatively impacts her at work and in her relationships. She is completely overwhelmed by daily tasks because she is so afraid of asking for help.

She is changing the thought “I am too much for people” to “If I don’t start asking for help, my needs could become too much for me to handle and I will explode,” which is helping her to make small changes in her day to day life and get support from people who would be happy to help her.

Some therapists use a combination of CBT and psychodynamic therapy

You may prefer to work with a therapist who incorporates elements of both into their work, depending on your needs. The best way to figure out what type of therapy you need is by talking with therapists.

You can schedule calls with as many therapists as you would through Zencare’s therapist directory. On these calls, you can determine if this therapist’s style and approach are in line with what you’re looking for.

To find a therapist who specializes in helping clients with their self-esteem, filter by Specialities.

Meredith Brown is a therapist in NYC who specializes in issues relating to depression, anxiety, relationship and family conflict, eating disorders, women's health, and life transitions.

Everyone needs a vacation — including therapists. Here are 8 ways to cope when your therapist is out-of-office and unavailable.

Practice imagining your ideal future with the Best Possible Self visualization.

Although it’s a simple concept in theory, self-care is often overlooked and can be challenging to prioritize. To make it a bit easier, we've put together this self-care assessment guide.

If you are in a life threatening situation, please do not use this site. Call the 24h National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or use these resources. If your issue is an emergency, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

© 2021 Zencare Group, Inc.

If you are in a life threatening situation, don’t use this site. Call the 24h National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or use these resources. If your issue is an emergency, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

© 2021 Zencare Group, Inc.


8 Steps to Improving Your Self-Esteem

Ask a Therapist: How Can I Improve My Self-Esteem?
Source: alessandro guerriero/Shutterstock

When it comes to your self-worth, only one opinion truly matters — your own. And even that one should be carefully evaluated; we tend to be our own harshest critics.

Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D, author of The Self-Esteem Workbook, describes healthy self-esteem as a realistic, appreciative opinion of oneself.

He writes, “Unconditional human worth assumes that each of us is born with all the capacities needed to live fruitfully, although everyone has a different mix of skills, which are at different levels of development.

” He emphasizes that core worth is independent of externals that the marketplace values, such as wealth, education, health, status — or the way one has been treated.

Some navigate the world — and relationships — searching for any bit of evidence to validate their self-limiting beliefs. Much judge and jury, they constantly put themselves on trial and sometimes sentence themselves to a lifetime of self-criticism.

Following are eight steps you can take to increase your feelings of self-worth.

1. Be mindful

We can’t change something if we don’t recognize that there is something to change. By simply becoming aware of our negative self-talk, we begin to distance ourselves from the feelings it brings up.

This enables us to identify with them less. Without this awareness, we can easily fall into the trap of believing our self-limiting talk, and as meditation teacher Allan Lokos says, “Don’t believe everything you think.

Thoughts are just that — thoughts.”

As soon as you find yourself going down the path of self-criticism, gently note what is happening, be curious about it, and remind yourself, “These are thoughts, not facts.”

2. Change the story

We all have a narrative or a story we’ve created about ourselves that shapes our self-perceptions, upon which our core self-image is based. If we want to change that story, we have to understand where it came from and where we received the messages we tell ourselves. Whose voices are we internalizing?

“Sometimes automatic negative thoughts ‘you’re fat’ or ‘you’re lazy’ can be repeated in your mind so often that you start to believe they are true,” says Jessica Koblenz, Psy.D. “These thoughts are learned, which means they can be unlearned. You can start with affirmations. What do you wish you believed about yourself? Repeat these phrases to yourself every day.»

Thomas Boyce, Ph.D., supports the use of affirmations.

Research conducted by Boyce and his colleagues has demonstrated that “fluency training” in positive affirmations (for example, writing down as many different positive things you can about yourself in a minute) can lessen symptoms of depression as measured by self-report using the Beck Depression Inventory. Larger numbers of written positive statements are correlated with greater improvement. “While they have a bad reputation because of late-night TV,” Boyce says, “positive affirmations can help.”

3. Avoid falling into the compare-and-despair rabbit hole

“Two key things I emphasize are to practice acceptance and stop comparing yourself to others,” says psychotherapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW.

“I emphasize that just because someone else appears happy on social media or even in person doesn’t mean they are happy. Comparisons only lead to negative self-talk, which leads to anxiety and stress.

” Feelings of low self-worth can negatively affect your mental health as well as other areas in your life, such as work, relationships, and physical health.

  • What Is Self-Esteem?
  • Find a therapist near me

4. Channel your inner rock star

Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Someone may be a brilliant musician, but a dreadful cook.

Neither quality defines their core worth. Recognize what your strengths are and the feelings of confidence they engender, especially in times of doubt.

It’s easy to make generalizations when you “mess up” or “fail” at something, but reminding yourself of the ways you rock offers a more realistic perspective of yourself.

Psychotherapist and certified sex therapist Kristie Overstreet, LPCC, CST, CAP, suggests asking yourself, “Was there a time in your life where you had better self-esteem? What were you doing at that stage of your life?” If it’s difficult for you to identify your unique gifts, ask a friend to point them out to you. Sometimes it’s easier for others to see the best in us than it is for us to see it in ourselves.

5. Exercise

Many studies have shown a correlation between exercise and higher self-esteem, as well as improved mental health. “Exercising creates empowerment both physical and mental,” says Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress, “especially weight lifting where you can calibrate the accomplishments.

Exercise organizes your day around self-care.” She suggests dropping a task daily from your endless to-do list for the sole purpose of relaxation or doing something fun, and seeing how that feels.

Other forms of self-care, such as proper nutrition and sufficient sleep, have also been shown to have positive effects on one’s self-perception.

6. Do unto others

Hershenson suggests volunteering to help those who may be less fortunate. “Being of service to others helps take you your head. When you are able to help someone else, it makes you less focused on your own issues.”

David Simonsen, Ph.D., LMFT, agrees:

“What I find is that the more someone does something in their life that they can be proud of, the easier it is for them to recognize their worth.

Doing things that one can respect about themselves is the one key that I have found that works to raise one’s worth. It is something tangible. Helping at a homeless shelter, animal shelter, giving of time at a big brother or sister organization.

These are things that mean something and give value to not only oneself, but to someone else as well.”

There is much truth to the fact that what we put out there into the world tends to boomerang back to us. To test this out, spend a day intentionally putting out positive thoughts and behaviors toward those with whom you come into contact. As you go about your day, be mindful of what comes back to you, and also notice if your mood improves.

7. Forgive

Is there is someone in your life you haven’t forgiven? An ex-partner? A family member? Yourself? By holding on to feelings of bitterness or resentment, we keep ourselves stuck in a cycle of negativity. If we haven’t forgiven ourselves, shame will keep us in this same loop.

“Forgiving self and others has been found to improve self-esteem,” says Schiraldi, “perhaps because it connects us with our innately loving nature and promotes an acceptance of people, despite our flaws.

” He refers to the Buddhist meditation on forgiveness, which can be practiced at any time: «If I have hurt or harmed anyone, knowingly or unknowingly, I ask forgiveness. If anyone has hurt or harmed me, knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive them.

For the ways I have hurt myself, knowingly or unknowingly, I offer forgiveness.»

8. Remember that you are not your circumstances

Finally, learning to differentiate between your circumstances and who you are is key to self-worth. “Recognizing inner worth, and loving one’s imperfect self, provide the secure foundation for growth,” says Schiraldi. “With that security, one is free to grow with enjoyment, not fear of failure — because failure doesn’t change core worth.”

We are all born with infinite potential and equal worth as human beings. That we are anything less is a false belief that we have learned over time.

Therefore, with hard work and self-compassion, self-destructive thoughts and beliefs can be unlearned.

Taking the steps outlined above is a start in the effort to increase self-worth, or as Schiraldi says, to “recognize self-worth. It already exists in each person.”


Self Esteem Therapy: Counseling For Low Self Esteem – TherapyTribe

Ask a Therapist: How Can I Improve My Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem reflects what we think about ourselves. It means we “esteem” and have a good opinion about ourselves. Self-esteem has a significant prospective impact on our life experiences and not the reverse. In other words, high and low self-esteem isn’t dependent on our success or failure. (1)

Self-esteem affects how we think, feel, and behave. It impacts our relationships with others and our relationship with ourselves. We feel confident about our appearance, our intelligence, personality, and our abilities and don’t worry about what other people think of us. It shows the degree to which we have self-respect and believe we deserve respect from others.

Healthy self-esteem is a realistic assessment and acceptance of our strengths and limitations. It doesn’t mean we’re conceited, but that we respect and accept ourselves, warts and all.

Having too high self-esteem that doesn’t accurately reflect reality isn’t healthy. It’s inflated and common among people with narcissistic tendencies.

Bragging and arrogance reveal impaired rather than healthy self-esteem.

Self-esteem can fluctuate. When we’re ill or suffer a loss, such as unemployment or a divorce, we can feel down about ourselves. However, people with healthy self-esteem are resilient and rebound to think positively about themselves and their future. On the other hand, low self-esteem can make it hard to cope with life’s challenges and is a risk factor in depression. (2)

Self-esteem influences just about every facet of our lives. It informs self-care and the way we allow others to treat us and talk to us.

Self-esteem affects how we value and communicate our needs, thoughts, and feelings and underpins personal integrity and our ability to pursue goals.

It determines our sense of well-being, how we parent, our success in the workplace, and relationship satisfaction. In fact, it’s predictive of marital longevity. (3)

Origins of Self-Esteem

Healthy self-esteem is learned. Positive reinforcement during the developing years is the strongest marker for positive self-worth later on in life.

Particularly in the early formative years, our thoughts and feelings, role models, and how people react to us influences our self-esteem.

Although it’s affected by life experiences, including at school, it’s largely determined in through childhood interactions with people closest to us, whose opinion matters most, such as our parents, siblings, friends, and teachers.

There are many causes for low self-esteem, including neglectful, abusive, controlling, or judgmental parenting, bullying by peers, or even mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. It can stem from underlying shame if we didn’t feel unconditionally loved and valued by a parent. (4)

Signs and Symptoms of Low Self-Esteem

With low self-esteem, we don’t value our own opinions, needs, and ideas as much as those of other people.

We’re self-critical and focus on our perceived weaknesses and flaws, yet ignore or dismiss our strengths, skill, and success.

We negatively compare ourselves to others who we think are more attractive, capable or successful. We have difficulty accepting negative feedback and may be risk-averse due to our fear of failing.

The following symptoms are treatable with self-esteem therapy:

  • Feeling worthless or that your life is meaningless
  • Feeling incompetent or inferior
  • Feeling unloved or generally unwanted or disd
  • Needing others’ approval and opinions
  • Anxiety about being disd or rejected
  • Frequent or irrational feelings of guilt
  • Self-criticalness or criticalness of others
  • Self-doubt and indecision
  • Fear of making mistakes
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Deference to others
  • Comparing yourself to others
  • Discounting your needs, feelings, and wants
  • Staying in relationships where your investment or love isn’t reciprocated
  • Defensiveness and hypersensitivity to criticism or negative feedback
  • Discomfort with compliments
  • Difficulty speaking up, sharing opinions, or setting limits with people
  • Frequent negative thoughts and emotions
  • Being drawn to destructive relationships
  • Difficulty trusting yourself
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Envy of others
  • Difficulty starting and completing tasks or pursuing goals
  • Distorted views of yourself and others
  • Lack of agency – a feeling of “I can’t” instead of “I can”

Treatment for Low Self-Esteem

Therapy and changing our beliefs, behavior, and how we think about ourselves can raise our self-esteem. Since many people have struggled with self-esteem issues from early childhood until the present, it’s often necessary to seek therapy for this condition as it’s one that most people aren’t often able to treat on their own.

Left untreated, this could lead to serious mental health issues and even self-harm. If your relationship is suffering, improving your self-esteem increases relationship satisfaction for both you and your partner.

(5) Often, when only one person enters therapy, the relationship changes for the better, and happiness increases for the couple.

Having a supportive and caring therapist to guide you to a more realistic sense of self, as well as encourage and help you to take risks and focus on the positives to overcome the grip that low self self-esteem can have.

The therapy to treat self-worth issues is often coined “person-centered” or “person-centric,” meaning that you work from the inside out.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in the treatment of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.

(6) It helps you recognize the cause and monitor negative beliefs, doubt, and anxiety in order to alleviate painful feelings and enables you to take constructive action.

Once you recognize things that trigger low self-esteem, such as the way you look in a bathing suit, or how you feel when you always had assumed were talking about you, you can begin to reassure yourself that your limits are self-imposed.

The trapped feeling that people with self-esteem issues regularly face can be ameliorated by learning to evaluate the situation and changing negative thoughts.

Taking a new and objective view of oneself and the situation is the key to overcoming the powerful psycho-dynamic that is low self-esteem.

How to Find Help for Low Self-Esteem

In addition to seeking individual psychotherapy and/or cognitive-behavioral group therapy, there are things you can do on your own to improve your self-esteem, such as:

  • Monitor your negative self-talk
  • Learn mindfulness meditation
  • Take an assertiveness class
  • Take risks to develop your skills and improve your performance
  • Make gratitude lists

Find a Therapist: If you are ready to get help from a mental health professional visit the TherapyTribe directory to search thousands of therapists and find a therapist specializing in self-esteem counseling in your area.


(1)  Orth U1, Robins RW, Widaman KF. “Life-span development of self-esteem and its effects on important life outcomes.” J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012 Jun;102(6):1271-88. doi: 10.1037/a0025558. Epub 2011 Sep 26.

(2)  Orth U1, Robins RW, Trzesniewski KH, Maes J, Schmitt M. “Low self-esteem is a risk factor for depressive symptoms from young adulthood to old age.” Abnorm Psychol. 2009 Aug;118(3):472-8. doi: 10.1037/a0015922.

(3)  Lavner, J. A., Bradbury, T. N., & Karney, B. R. (2012).  “Incremental change or initial differences? Testing two models of marital deterioration.” Journal of Family Psychology, 26, 606–616.

(4)  Erol, Ruth Yasemin; Orth, Ulrich, “Development of self-esteem and relationship satisfaction in couples: Two longitudinal studies.” Developmental Psychology,” 2014, Vol. 50, No. 9, 2291–2303.

(5)  Lancer, Darlene. (2014) Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Hazelden Publishing, Center City: MN.

(6)  Fennell M.J.V. (2005) Low Self-Esteem. In: Freeman A., Felgoise S.H., Nezu C.M., Nezu A.M., Reinecke M.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Cognitive Behavior Therapy. pp 236-240, Springer, Boston, MA


Raising low self-esteem

Ask a Therapist: How Can I Improve My Self-Esteem?

We all have times when we lack confidence and do not feel good about ourselves.

But when low self-esteem becomes a long-term problem, it can have a harmful effect on our mental health and our day-to-day lives.

Self-esteem is the opinion we have of ourselves.

When we have healthy self-esteem, we tend to feel positive about ourselves and about life in general. It makes us better able to deal with life's ups and downs.

When our self-esteem is low, we tend to see ourselves and our life in a more negative and critical light. We also feel less able to take on the challenges that life throws at us.

Low self-esteem often begins in childhood. Our teachers, friends, siblings, parents, and even the media send us positive and negative messages about ourselves. 

For some reason, the message that you are not good enough is the one that stays with you.

Perhaps you found it difficult to live up to other people's expectations of you, or to your own expectations.

Stress and difficult life events, such as serious illness or a bereavement, can have a negative effect on self-esteem.

Personality can also play a part. Some people are just more prone to negative thinking, while others set impossibly high standards for themselves.

If you have low self-esteem or confidence, you may hide yourself away from social situations, stop trying new things, and avoid things you find challenging.

In the short term, avoiding challenging and difficult situations might make you feel safe.

In the longer term, this can backfire because it reinforces your underlying doubts and fears. It teaches you the unhelpful rule that the only way to cope is by avoiding things.

Living with low self-esteem can harm your mental health and lead to problems such as depression and anxiety.

You may also develop unhelpful habits, such as smoking and drinking too much, as a way of coping.

To boost your self-esteem, you need to identify the negative beliefs you have about yourself, then challenge them.

You may tell yourself you're «too stupid» to apply for a new job, for example, or that «nobody cares» about you.

Start to note these negative thoughts and write them on a piece of paper or in a diary. Ask yourself when you first started to think these thoughts.

Next, start to write some evidence that challenges these negative beliefs, such as, «I'm really good at cryptic crosswords» or «My sister calls for a chat every week».

Write down other positive things about yourself, such as «I'm thoughtful» or «I'm a great cook» or «I'm someone that others trust».

Also write some good things that other people say about you.

Aim to have at least 5 positive things on your list and add to it regularly. Then put your list somewhere you can see it. That way, you can keep reminding yourself that you're OK.

You might have low confidence now because of what happened when you were growing up, but we can grow and develop new ways of seeing ourselves at any age.

Here are some other simple techniques that may help you feel better about yourself.

Recognise what you're good at 

We're all good at something, whether it's cooking, singing, doing puzzles or being a friend. We also tend to enjoy doing the things we're good at, which can help boost your mood.

Build positive relationships

If you find certain people tend to bring you down, try to spend less time with them, or tell them how you feel about their words or actions.

Try to build relationships with people who are positive and who appreciate you.

Be kind to yourself

Being kind to yourself means being gentle to yourself at times when you feel being self-critical.

Think what you'd say to a friend in a similar situation. We often give far better advice to others than we do to ourselves.

Learn to be assertive

Being assertive is about respecting other people's opinions and needs, and expecting the same from them.

One trick is to look at other people who act assertively and copy what they do.

It's not about pretending you're someone you're not. It's picking up hints and tips from people you admire and letting the real you come out.

Start saying «no»

People with low self-esteem often feel they have to say yes to other people, even when they do not really want to.

The risk is that you become overburdened, resentful, angry and depressed.

For the most part, saying no does not upset relationships. It can be helpful to keep saying no, but in different ways, until they get the message.

Give yourself a challenge

We all feel nervous or afraid to do things at times. But people with healthy self-esteem do not let these feelings stop them trying new things or taking on challenges.

Set yourself a goal, such as joining an exercise class or going to a social occasion. Achieving your goals will help to increase your self-esteem.

Psychological therapies counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help.

You can refer yourself for psychological therapies on the NHS.

If you prefer, you can talk to a GP first and they can refer you.

You could also find a private therapist. Make sure they're registered with a professional body.

In this audio guide, a doctor helps you to replace negative thoughts with more positive thinking.

Visit to hear young people talking about their experiences of low self-esteem.

You can find mental health apps and tools in the NHS apps library.

Animated video explaining self-referral to psychological therapies services for stress, anxiety or depression.


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