Self-esteem is the way in which we evaluate and value ourselves. People with high self-esteem generally feel more positive about themselves, while those with low self-esteem are often overly critical of themselves and view their worth in a negative light, despite their actual abilities and attributes.
About 85% of the global population admits to having low self-esteem, which could impact many aspects of everyday life, from work performance to close relationships.
There are a variety of reasons for low self-esteem such as suffering from the toxic effects of social media or poor parenting as a child. No matter the cause, self-esteem issues center around comparison to others and feelings of not measuring up.
As researcher Kristin Neff asks: “How do we get off this treadmill, this constant need to feel better than others so we [can] feel good about ourselves?”
That’s where self-compassion comes in—instead of being a self-critic and separating yourself from others to cast judgment, focus on your greatest qualities and unique abilities. When you acknowledge your gifts and how you use them to benefit those around you, you’ll begin to notice your self-esteem increasing.
Embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all, is the bridge between self-esteem and self-compassion. In this article, learn more about how to foster these qualities so you can feel more confident, worthy, accepted, and loved.
- Low self-esteem affects around 85% of the worldwide population.
- 60% of people wish they had more love for themselves.
- Low self-esteem plays a significant role in physical and mental health, impacting your relationships, work performance, and general outlook on the world.
- People with healthy self-esteem don’t measure their worth by comparing themselves to others. Instead, they highlight commonalities with the people around them.
Is Self-Esteem Important?
Your self-esteem impacts nearly every aspect of your life and plays a role in your mental and physical well-being. It affects work performance, relationships, and social acceptance, and can alter your outlook on the world.
Research shows that self-esteem impacts your:
- Psychological health (risk of stress, anxiety, and depression)
- Feelings of happiness and satisfaction
- Illness recovery and immune system function
- Willingness to engage in health-promoting behaviors (such as exercise and meditation)
- Body image and body appreciation
- Job performance
- Willingness to take risks
- Risk of substance abuse and smoking
The Signs of Healthy vs. Low Self-Esteem
While a sense of self-worth is critical for your mental and physical health, it is a balancing act. Too high or too low self-esteem can be problematic, and focusing on self-esteem while ignoring self-compassion can be hurtful, too. So, what’s the difference between healthy self-esteem and low self-esteem?
Healthy Self-Esteem Characteristics
People with healthy self-esteem do not measure their value by comparing themselves to others. Instead, they find commonalities with the people around them and know they will never please everyone. They also use failures as learning experiences and chances to rebound from setbacks.
You know you have healthy self-esteem if you:
- Live with humility and gratitude
- Understand and are sensitive to people’s emotions
- Speak truthfully, without fear of rejection
- Lead instead of follow
- Encourage the people around you
- Feel comfortable around people and have a charismatic personality
- Have a reputation for being accountable
- Don’t dwell on the past or negative experiences
- Focus on healthy, positive emotions
- Express your needs clearly
- Say “no” and set boundaries
- Accept yourself for who you are
- Don’t compare yourself to others
- Trust your judgment
- Show emotional maturity in managing emotions
It is possible to have excessive self-esteem, which can result in the inability to accept criticism and maintain close relationships. You know your self-esteem is too high if you’re obsessed with perfection, feel like you’re always right, and overestimate your abilities.
Signs of Low Self-Esteem
People with low self-esteem are much more likely to engage in self-criticism and create a negative state that keeps them feeling dissatisfied.
You know you have low self-esteem if you:
- View yourself and life events as negative
- Feel insignificant
- Feel irritable and easily angered when things don’t go your way
- Constantly compare yourself to those around you
- Experience major setbacks after making mistakes
- Have trouble making decisions
- Try hard to please others and fear making mistakes
- Have trouble expressing your needs and feelings
- Focus on your weaknesses and experience self-doubt
- Have trouble accepting compliments or positive feedback
- Put other people’s needs before your own at all times
- Find it difficult to pursue your goals and take risks
What Lowers Self-Esteem?
The causes of low self-esteem are largely environmental factors that impact a person’s sense of self and identity. The most common factors that lower self-esteem include:
- Thought patterns and self-criticism: People who engage in negative self-talk and focus on what’s going wrong are far more likely to have low self-esteem. Experiencing chronic stress can also affect your self-perception.
- Social media: Research shows that the use of social media platforms, especially among young women, is linked to higher self-objectification levels and lower self-esteem. Dr. Lisa Strohman, a clinical psychologist and public speaker, explains in a lecture that social media trains users to depend on external validation for their self-worth through posts, likes, and comments.
- Life experiences: Past trauma or hurtful life experiences can have a tremendous impact on the way you feel about yourself.
- Physical abilities: Disabilities or physical illness can impact self-esteem because you might compare your abilities to other people and feel inferior.
- Relationships with others: Relationships with parents, family members, friends, and coworkers can impact self-perception, especially if relationships were/are neglectful and abusive.
- Social standards: Measuring yourself based on social standards can affect your sense of self-worth when the ideal is out of touch and impossible to achieve.
- Unattainable goals: Self-esteem is largely impacted by your ability to succeed, so setting unattainable goals that lead to failure can cause self-criticism and negative thoughts.
- Genetics: Self-esteem is partially caused by genetics, although in a lesser amount than environmental factors. If mental illness and low self-esteem run in your family, you may be more likely to experience self-esteem issues as well.
15 Ways to Improve How You Feel About Yourself
Researcher Jeremy Sutton suggests that around 50% of our personality and self-worth feelings are genetic, while the other 50% are influenced by our environment, including parenting, schooling, work, and relationships. “The results show that we have enormous scope for growth, development, and change,” Sutton writes.
Here are ways to get started on building your self-esteem with mindset changes and actionable steps:
1. “Turn Up the Volume” on Positive Thoughts
Niko Everett, founder of Girls for Change, said during a TEDxYouth lecture that building self-esteem works when every time we have a positive thought about ourselves, we imagine “turning up the volume on that thinking.” On the other hand, every time we have a negative thought about ourselves, we should “press delete” and let it magically disappear.
2. Take a Compliment and Compliment Others
It’s common to shy away or feel uncomfortable after receiving a compliment, especially among people with low self-esteem. Instead, take a compliment by smiling and saying “thank you.” Giving genuine compliments will also build self-esteem by improving your communication skills and building relationships.
3. Build a List of Your Positive Attributes
To counteract a negative self-image, focus on highlighting your positive attributes, strengths, and abilities. Dedicate a journal to listing your positive qualities and accomplishments. Add to the list as you work on creating a more positive relationship with yourself.
4. Spend Time With People Who Make You Feel Good
Spending time with positive, uplifting people will make you feel better about yourself and your value in the world. Positive people will encourage you to follow your passions, support your ambitions, and promote a healthier lifestyle.
5. Identify Negative Beliefs
If you’re stuck in a negative mindset, it’s important to start identifying what triggers these thoughts and how you react to them. Be conscious of your inner thoughts and then challenge them by reversing the negative self-talk into something positive. Instead of “I failed at this,” say “I took a chance and now I’m one step closer to getting it right.”
6. Change Your Inner Voice
Think about how you would speak to a child. You would use encouraging, loving, and compassionate language to deal with moments of difficulty. Practice speaking to yourself in the same way. Researcher Kristin Neff concluded a publication writing that self-compassion “requires taking the skill learned over the years of being compassionate to others and doing a U-turn.”
7. Take Time for Yourself
There’s a clear relationship between self-care and self-esteem. Research published in 2021 shows that adequate self-care behaviors enhance a person’s self-esteem and ability to manage stress and anxiety. Taking time for yourself means doing something that brings you joy, like getting exercise, hiking, reading quietly, taking a road trip, or any other positive, uplifting activity.
8. Spread Kindness
Doing an act of kindness will improve your own happiness and confidence, according to a study published in Emotion. Researchers found that although people striving for happiness may be tempted to treat themselves, they may also be more successful if they opt to treat someone else instead. Some simple acts of kindness include holding the door for a stranger, bringing coffee to a friend or neighbor, donating to a local charity, or getting involved in community service.
9. Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Staying within your comfort zone, especially if it’s a place of negativity, can stop you from engaging in inspirational and impactful experiences. Although stepping outside your comfort zone can cause feelings of anxiety, it can also be a moment to grow and become more confident. You can start with small challenges, like presenting a new idea at work, aiming for a higher goal, going on a social outing you’d typically avoid, or traveling somewhere new.
10. Set Boundaries
A person with healthy self-esteem isn’t afraid to say “no” when necessary and has set clear boundaries. When you allow someone to cross your personal or professional boundaries, it can make you feel disrespected and disvalued, which can affect your self-esteem. Start by naming your limits to yourself so that you are prepared to express them when they’re crossed. If a boundary is crossed, say something like, “This isn’t working for me” or “I’m not able to make that happen.”
11. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
Self-esteem is the measure of your value, usually compared to others. But people with healthy self-esteem don’t focus on making comparisons, they are comfortable with their unique traits. Instead of comparing yourself to others, focus on your commonalities, such as your mutual love of music and books, your ability to make mistakes and move forward, and your empathy for others.
12. Celebrate the Small Wins
In an interview with Brené Brown, she explained that although we are all ordinary people, “We shame and diminish [the] ordinary.” When chasing extraordinary moments, don’t lose sight of the small things to be grateful for and celebrate. To build self-esteem, practice celebrating the small wins—the goals you reach, the positive moments, the uplifting relationships, and every other experience that improves your sense of self.
13. Find Support
When you need a shoulder to lean on, reach out for support from trusted friends, family members, or mental health professionals. It can be tough to be vulnerable and admit to your struggles, but finding support will allow you to recover and grow.
14. Practice a Growth Mindset
Learning and growing require a mindset shift, often referred to as a growth mindset. This is the belief that your skills and abilities can grow over time, and it allows you to lean into your vulnerabilities to learn more about yourself and your capabilities. One of the best ways to practice a growth mindset is by using the word “yet” out loud and during self-talk. For example, you can say, “I haven’t reached this goal . . . yet” or “I’m not where I want to be in life . . . yet.”
15. Show Gratitude
Gratitude is strongly associated with greater happiness, stronger relationships, improved mental health, and positive emotions. Throughout the day, show yourself gratitude by using positive self-talk. You can literally tell yourself that you’re doing a great job. Do the same for others, too. Expressing your gratitude will improve your mood and make you feel more confident.
Start With Small Steps to Healthy Self-Esteem
“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do.”Brené Brown
Think of the steps toward healthy self-esteem as building blocks. Incremental changes will lead to small results, so you may not notice major changes overnight, but practice will allow you to feel more comfortable and confident.
Don’t stress about the process of building your self-esteem.
Instead, start with these small steps:
- Write down five traits that you love about yourself and read them every morning for a month.
- Give out one genuine compliment every day.
- Donate your time to one community service project.
- Reach out to a trusted friend or family member just to say “hi.”
- Celebrate one small win every night before getting into bed.
Read this article to explore more ways to be confident in your own skin.
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- TEDx Talks. (2013a, February 7). The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion: Kristin Neff at TEDxCentennialParkWomen. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvtZBUSplr4
- Nguyen, D. T. (2019, September 27). Low Self-Esteem and Its Association With Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation in Vietnamese Secondary School Students: A Cross-Sectional Study. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00698/full
- TEDx Talks. (2021, May 18). How Do You Find Self Worth? | Dr. Lisa Strohman | TEDxGrandCanyonUniversity. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=847eCuLlIdo
- Sutton, J., PhD. (2022, November 26). Self-Esteem Research: 20 Most Fascinating Findings. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/self-esteem-research/
- TEDxYouth. (2013, February 9). Meet Yourself: A User’s Guide to Building Self-Esteem: Niko Everett at TEDxYouth@BommerCanyon. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOrzmFUJtrs
- Neff, K. (2022, August). Self-Compassion: Theory, Method, Research, and Intervention. Annual Reviews. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/PsychReviewInPress.pdf
- Auttama, N., Seangpraw, K., Ong-Artborirak, P., & Tonchoy, P. (2021). Factors Associated with Self-Esteem, Resilience, Mental Health, and Psychological Self-Care Among University Students in Northern Thailand. Journal of multidisciplinary healthcare, 14, 1213–1221. https://doi.org/10.2147/JMDH.S308076
- Nelson, S. K., Layous, K., Cole, S. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 16(6), 850–861. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000178