Self-esteem is what we think of ourselves. When it’s positive, we have confidence and self-respect. We’re content with ourselves and our abilities, in who we are and our competence. Self-esteem is relatively stable and enduring, though it can fluctuate. Healthy self-esteem makes us resilient and hopeful about life.
Self-Esteem Impacts Everything
Self-esteem affects not only what we think, but also how we feel and behave. It and has significant ramifications for our happiness and enjoyment of life. It considerably affects events in our lives, including our relationships, our work and goals, and how we care for ourselves and our children. Although difficult events, such as a breakup, illness, or loss of income, may in the short term moderate our self-esteem, we soon rebound to think positively about ourselves and our future. Even when we fail, it doesn’t take diminish our self-esteem. People with healthy self-esteem credit themselves when things go right, and when they don’t, they consider external causes and also honestly evaluate their mistakes and shortcomings. Then they improve upon them.
Healthy vs. Impaired Self-Esteem
I prefer to use the terms healthy and impaired self-esteem, rather than high and low, because narcissists and conceited individuals who appear to have high self-esteem actually don’t. Theirs is inflated, compensates for shame and insecurity, and is often unrelated to reality. Boasting is an example, because it indicates that the person is dependent on others’ opinion of them and reveals impaired rather than healthy self-esteem. Thus, healthy self-esteem requires that we’re able to honestly and realistically assess our strengths and weaknesses. We’re not too concerned about others’ opinions of us. When we accept our flaws without judgment, our self-acceptance goes beyond self-esteem.
Impaired self-esteem negatively impacts our ability to manage adversity and life’s disappointments. All of our relationships are affected, including our relationship with ourselves. When our self-esteem is impaired, we feel insecure, compare ourselves to others, and doubt and criticize ourselves. We neither recognize our worth nor honor and express our needs and wants. Instead, we may self-sacrifice, defer to others, or try to control them and/or their feelings toward us to feel better about ourselves. For example, we might people-please, manipulate, control or devalue them, or provoke jealousy. Consciously or unconsciously, we devalue ourselves, including our positive skills and attributes, making us hyper-sensitive to criticism. We may also be afraid to try new things, because we might fail.
Symptoms of Healthy and Impaired Self-Esteem
The following chart lists symptoms that reflect healthy vs. impaired self-esteem. Remember that self-esteem varies on a continuum. It’s not black or white. You may relate to some but not all.
Healthy Self Esteem vs. Impaired Self-Esteem
Know you’re okay Feel not enough
Know you have value Feel unworthy, unimportant
Feel competent, confident Doubt self and avoid risks
Like yourself Judge and dislike yourself
Show honesty and integrity Please, hide, agree with others
Trust yourself Indecisive, ask others’ opinions
Accept praise Deflect or distrust praise
Accept attention Avoid, dislike attention
Self-responsible; honor self Devalue feelings, wants, needs
Self is locus of control Need others’ lead or approval
Self-efficacy, pursue goals Afraid to start and do things
Have self-respect Allow abuse; put others first
Have self-compassion Self-judgment, self-loathing
Happy for others success Envy, compare self to others
Acceptance of others Judge others
Satisfied in relationships Unhappy in relationships
Assertive Deferential or aggressive
Optimistic Feel anxious and pessimistic
Welcome feedback Fear real or imagined criticism
Cause of Impaired Self-Esteem
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can lead to codependency as an adult. It also weakens your self-esteem. Often you don’t have a voice. Your opinions and desires aren’t taken seriously. Parents usually have low self-esteem and are unhappy with each other. They themselves neither have nor model good relationship skills, including cooperation, healthy boundaries, assertiveness, and conflict resolution. They may be abusive, controlling, interfering, manipulative, indifferent, inconsistent, or just preoccupied. Directly or indirectly, they may shame their children’s feelings and personal traits, feelings, and needs. It’s not safe to be, to trust, and to express themselves.
Children feel insecure, anxious, and/or angry. As a result, they feel emotionally abandoned and conclude that they are at fault, as if they are not good enough to be acceptable to both parents (though they might still believe that they’re loved). Eventually, they don’t like themselves and feel inferior or inadequate. They grow up codependent with low self-esteem and learn to hide their feelings, walk on eggshells, withdraw, and try to please or become aggressive. This reflects how toxic shame becomes internalized.
Shame runs deeper than self-esteem. It’s a profoundly painful emotion rather than a mental evaluation. Underlying toxic shame can lead to impaired or low self-esteem and other negative thoughts and feelings. It’s not just that we lack confidence, but we might believe that we’re bad, worthless, inferior, or unlovable. It can create feelings of false guilt, fear, and hopelessness. Shame is a major cause of depression and can lead to self-destructive behavior, eating disorders, addiction, and aggression.
Shame causes shame anxiety about anticipating shame in the future, usually in the form of rejection or judgment by other people. Shame anxiety makes it difficult to try new things, have intimate relationships, be spontaneous, or take risks. Sometimes, we don’t realize that it’s not others’ judgments or rejection we fear but our failure to meet our own unrealistic standards. We judge ourselves harshly for mistakes than others would. This pattern is very self-destructive with perfectionists. Our self-judgment can paralyze us so that we’re indecisive, because our internal critic will judge us no matter what we decide.
Self-Esteem in Relationships
Our relationship with ourselves provides a template for our relationships with others. It impacts our relationship’s happiness. Self-esteem determines our communication style, boundaries, and our ability to be intimate. Research indicates that a partner with healthy self-esteem can positively influence his or her partner’s self-esteem, but also shows that low self-esteem portends a negative outcome for the relationship. This can become a self-reinforcing cycle of abandonment, lowering self-esteem.
Self-esteem is necessary if we’re to feel autonomous, adequate, and comfortable on our own. Without autonomy, we become reactive and defensive. When we aren’t, we’re too dependent upon others, hide our true feelings, react to things personally and negatively, and have to control or manipulate our loved ones to feel secure and get our needs met. This spells disaster in relationships. Neither partner feels free to be him or herself.
Self-esteem and assertiveness go hand-in-hand. Each reinforces the other. Learning to be assertive lifts our self-esteem and vice-versa. Assertiveness helps us to speak up, express ourselves, ask for your needs, and set boundaries, all of which are necessary for a healthy, successful relationship.
All three ingredients are necessary for true intimacy, which entails self-esteem and the ability to risk being authentic and vulnerable. This makes it safe for both partners to be open and honest. When our ability to speak up about our wants and needs and share vulnerable feelings is compromised, honesty and intimacy suffer.
As a result of insecurity, shame, and impaired self-esteem, as children, we may have developed an attachment style that, to varying degrees, is anxious or avoidant and makes intimacy challenging. We pursue or distance ourselves from our partner and are usually attracted to someone who also has an insecure attachment style.
Generally, we allow others to treat us the manner in which we believe we deserve. When we don’t respect ourselves, we won’t expect to be treated with respect. When we don’t value our feelings and needs and lack the courage to reveal them, we remain unhappy, feel resentment, or might blame or withdraw. We might accept abuse or withholding behavior.
Self-sacrifice and imbalance
Similarly, we may give more than we receive in our relationships and overdo at work. Our inner critic can be judgmental of others, too. When we’re critical of our partner or highly defensive, it makes it difficult to problem-solve. Insecure self-esteem can also make us suspicious, needy, or demanding of our partner.
Self-esteem is generally determined by our teens. Some of us struggle all our lives with impaired self-esteem and even the resulting depression. But we can change and build healthy self-esteem. Raising self-esteem means getting to know and love yourself—building a relationship, as you would with a friend—and becoming your own best friend. This takes attentive listening, quiet time, and commitment. The alternative is to be lost at sea, continually trying to prove or improve yourself or win someone’s love, while never feeling truly lovable or enough—like something is missing.
It’s difficult to get outside our own thoughts and beliefs to see ourselves from another perspective. Therapy can help us change how we think, act, and what we believe. Many times, one partner in individual therapy makes positive changes, and the relationship changes for the better.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to raise self-esteem. It’s more powerful when combined with meditation that increases self-awareness. Some things you can do:
Recognize the Signs. Be able to spot clues that your self-esteem needs uplifting. Many people think they have good self-esteem. They may be talented, beautiful, or successful, but still lack self-esteem.
Root Out False Beliefs. Learn how to identify and deprogram false beliefs and behaviors you want to change and those you want to implement.
Identify Cognitive Distortions. Impaired self-esteem can cause us to skew and distort reality. Learn to identify and challenge your cognitive distortions.
Journal. Journaling has been shown to elevate mood and decrease depression. Keeping a journal can also help you to monitor your interactions with others and your negative self-talk.