What Is Self-Esteem?
In psychology, the term self-esteem is used to describe a person’s overall subjective sense of personal worth or value—in other words, how much you appreciate and like yourself. It involves a variety of beliefs about yourself, such as the appraisal of your own appearance, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors.
Self-esteem includes all of the various beliefs that people hold about themselves including those related to how they look and feel, as well as how they feel about specific attributes or abilities (“I am a great painter,” “I’m a terrible friend,” etc.).
Other terms that are often used interchangeably with self-esteem include self-worth, self-regard, and self-respect.
Self-esteem is often seen as a personality trait, which means that it tends to be stable and enduring.
Signs of Healthy Self-Esteem
There are some simple ways to tell if you have healthy self-esteem. You probably have healthy self-esteem if you are more likely to:
- Avoid dwelling on past, negative experiences
- Express your needs
- Feel confident
- Have a positive outlook on life
- Say “no” when you want to
- See overall strengths and weaknesses and accept them
Signs of Low Self-Esteem
You may need to work on how you perceive yourself if you tend to experience these common problems caused by low self-esteem:
- You believe that others are better than you.
- You find expressing your needs difficult.
- You focus on your weaknesses.
- You frequently experience feelings such as shame, depression, or anxiety.
- You have a negative outlook on life.
- You have an intense fear of failure.
- You have trouble accepting positive feedback.
- You have trouble saying “no.”
- You put other people’s needs before your own.
- You struggle with confidence.
As you might imagine, many factors can potentially influence self-esteem. Some of the things that might impact your self-esteem include:
- Physical limitations
- Your inner thinking
- Your job
Racism and discrimination have also been shown to have negative effects on self-esteem.1 Additionally, genetic factors that help shape a person’s personality can play a role, but it is often our experiences that form the basis for overall self-esteem.
Those who consistently receive overly critical or negative assessments from family and friends, for example, will likely experience low self-esteem.2
Impact of Self-Esteem
Self-esteem can be an important part of motivation and success. Self-esteem levels at the extreme high and low ends of the spectrum can be harmful, so ideally, it’s best to strike a balance somewhere in the middle. A realistic yet positive view of yourself is generally considered the ideal.
A grandiose sense of self-importance, on the other hand, can be off-putting to others and can even damage personal relationships. It can also be a sign of narcissistic personality disorder, a mental health disorder characterized by an excessive need for admiration and lack of empathy toward other people.
Too little self-esteem can leave people feeling defeated or depressed. It can also lead people to make bad choices, fall into destructive relationships, or fail to live up to their full potential. Low self-esteem may hold you back from succeeding at school or work because you don’t believe yourself to be capable of success.
Having healthy self-esteem can help you achieve, because you navigate life with a positive, assertive attitude and believe you can accomplish your goals.
Theories of Self-Esteem
Many theorists have written on the dynamics involved in self-esteem. The need for self-esteem plays an important role in psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which depicts self-esteem as one of the basic human motivations.3
Maslow suggested that people need both esteem from other people as well as inner self-respect. Both of these needs must be fulfilled in order for an individual to grow as a person and achieve self-actualization.
It is important to note that self-esteem is a concept distinct from self-efficacy, which involves how well you believe you’ll handle future actions, performance, or abilities.
Tips for Improving Self-Esteem
Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to address self-esteem issues. Some things that you can do to help improve your self-esteem include:
- Become more aware of your own thoughts and feelings. Learn to identify the negative, distorted thoughts that are hurting your self-worth.
- Challenge negative thoughts. When you find yourself engaging in negative thinking, try countering those thoughts with more realistic, positive ones.
- Treat yourself with kindness. Focus on using hopeful statements and try to focus more on the positive aspects of situations. Practice forgiving yourself for past mistakes and move forward by encouraging and accepting yourself.
- Talk to a professional. Problems with self-esteem can also contribute to or be a symptom of a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. Talk to your doctor or therapist about your treatment options, which might include psychotherapy, medications, or both. You may also want to try using an online therapy program to help improve your self-esteem.