9 Signs of Low Self-Esteem & 10 Ways to Build Confidence

It's easy to brush off low self-esteem or a lack of confidence as a character trait, or to mistake it for humility. But low self-esteem has long-term damaging effects, ranging from smaller-scale occurrences – not speaking up in class or work meetings, for example – to longer-term threats, like relationship problems or self-damaging behavior.

Recognizing the signs of low self-confidence is an important first step in cultivating it. Recognizing your own worth is the next one. Here's how to get started with both.

Nine signs of low self-esteem

How often do you stop yourself from speaking your mind, due to fear of embarrassment or being wrong? Do you frequently say "sorry" where an "excuse me" would suffice?

These small self-confidence "blips" can add up, and compound your low sense of self-worth. Here are nine such signs to be aware of, so that you can work on overcoming them (e.g., with a therapist or life coach):

1. Difficulty speaking up and prioritizing your own needs, wants, and feelings

This may be especially prominent in the context of what others want or need, such as routinely placing others’ priorities above your own. Perhaps you convince yourself that what you really want doesn’t matter in the moment, in the face of someone else’s needs. It’s understandable why you don’t speak up! While caring for others is a personality strength, when it comes at the cost of your own needs, wants, or feelings, it becomes a hindrance.

2. Saying “I’m sorry” and/or feeling guilty for everyday actions

Is the word “sorry” at the top of your vocabulary? Do you feel guilty for things like taking up space or apologize for things that you have no control or responsibility over? This could be a sign that you constantly feel like you’re doing something wrong -- chances are you have nothing to apologize for, but it’s become a habit!

3. Not "rocking the boat"

Not “rocking the boat” describes the tendency to follow along with what others are doing, saying, wearing, and going. This is another example of a strength becoming overdone -- being flexible is a good thing, but when it means that you seldom carve your own path, it may be a sign of low self-esteem.

4. Not feeling deserving of, or capable of, having “more”

Whether “more” means deserving better relationships, a higher-paying job, or the common decency of others, when you feel like you deserve better, you won’t go seeking it. This can lead to unfulfilling (or even toxic) relationships, unsatisfactory or low paying jobs, and overall lower standards.

Download Your Free 9 Signs of Low Self-Esteem & 10 Ways to Build Confidence Sheet

5. Difficulty making your own choices

A lack of confidence can show up in feeling torn between choices or having difficulty making your own choices. It’s much easier to let others decide, but do they always know what you want or need? If you do make a decision, do you have trouble standing by them? This is a sign of low self-esteem, not believing that you can make good decisions.

6. Lack of boundaries

Having a lack of boundaries may leave you feeling vulnerable or hurt, whether that’s the intention of your loved ones or not. Low self-esteem shows up in feeling insecure that speaking up about your needs will cause people to look down on you.

7. Doing things or buying gifts excessively for other people

Everyone loves receiving gifts -- which is the point. By giving people thoughtful gifts, you’re relying on the joy of presents to bolster your reputation. Even for those who wouldn’t appreciate it, you buy them gifts in order to feel wanted, needed, recognized.

8. Negative self-perception

Negative self-perception means that you don’t think that people would like or accept you for who you are. This often stems from a lack of acceptance from yourself and is a very common sign of low self-esteem.

9. Critical, abusive internal dialogue  

One of the most damaging signs of low self-esteem are critical, abusive internal dialogues. Whether you scold yourself for negligible actions or call yourself names, this is negative self-talk that will impact your mood and mental health.

10 Ways to Build Confidence

Working on building, or rebuilding, your self-esteem can be done! By growing your self-esteem, you will have a much higher satisfaction with yourself  – and reconnect with your own truth and joy.

1. Seek out professional help

Going to therapy for low self-esteem can help you identify and understand the origin of their low self-esteem. Many therapists specialize in working with clients who have low self-esteem, and they not only affirm the clients’ strengths but teach them how to recognize those harmful cognitive distortions.

2. Prioritize exercise that feels good for your body

Prioritizing exercise or movement that feels good for your body, even in small amounts, helps you feel connected to your body (think mind-body connection!). This could be yoga, sports, jogging, or dancing -- anything that puts your body in motion! Exercise can actually boost the serotonin levels in your brain to help you feel calmer, help you make better decisions, feel stronger and feel more in control of yourself.

3. Put your health first with well-rounded meals

Speaking of the mind-body connection, we can put our health first by filling ourselves up with well-rounded, nutritious meals. When we are feeling healthy physically, it can have a dramatic impact on our self-esteem, as well as how we feel emotionally.

It is, of course, important to be mindful if exercise and eating healthy is becoming extreme, compulsive, interfering with other aspects of life, as this can become detrimental to self-esteem and have other emotional consequences.

4. Make a list of your priorities or goals

Make it a habit to outline your priorities and your goals each day, week, or month. Try to stick to them so you don’t get derailed by other people’s needs, demands, and requests. When it’s down on paper, it’s more meaningful than when it’s trapped in your head.

5. Pause and assess before automatically saying “yes” to a request

Pausing and assessing the situation before you say yes to a request gives you the chance to ask yourself: Is this something you can do and want to do? You can also ask yourself: Am I saying yes because this is something I actually want to do or just so this person will like me/need me/approve of me? After reflection on your answers, you may feel differently.

6. Start lifting yourself up!

Lift yourself up, however that looks! Leave love notes to yourself around your home, office, car or any other space where you spend a lot of time. We’ll get you started: I am beautiful, I am confident, I am successful, I am worthy! (Because you are). Before long, these affirmations will not feel foreign to you – and you will start to feel it and believe it!

7. Start meditating, using positive affirmations

Meditation or positive affirmations are another great way to lift yourself up. There are a lot of free apps that you can choose from, such as ThinkUp and Shine. Meditation helps you clear your mind and focus on the present, being mindful of who you are, how you feel, and your body’s state -- which can help you connect with who you authentically are. And don’t forget to reflect on your strengths!

8. Notice, and try to limit, when you are comparing yourself to others

When you are comparing yourself to others, how does that make you feel? Consider why what someone else is doing/saying/wearing matters to you so much. A concrete way to minimize this is to reduce exposure to social media (goodbye, Instagram!).

9. Find your favorite way to unwind, relax, and pamper yourself

Your favorite way to unwind, relax, or pamper yourself could be so much more than just a bubble bath! Your list of pleasurable activities could include hiking, playing with puppies, photography -- these are all ways to relax your mind and body. Doing what makes you feel refreshed is a wonderful way to invest in yourself and honor your worth.

10. Replace “I’m sorry” with more situationally-appropriate interjections

Try out some other situationally-appropriate interjections instead of “I’m sorry.” This could be “excuse me” or “beg your pardon,” where appropriate.

Or, depending on the situation, replace sorry with "thank you" – such as “thank you so much for your patience" when you're running late.

Or, depending on the situation, replace sorry with "thank you" – such as “thank you so much for your patience" when you're running late.

Work with a therapist to boost self-esteem

Understanding where your low self-esteem stems from can help you move away from some of the internally-perpetuating patterns, and towards self-acceptance. Low self-esteem can come from many places: your upbringing, harmful past relationships, the result of ingrained distorted thinking, anything.

Working with a therapist is a great way to identify and capitalize on your strengths, and pave the way for self-empowerment. Zencare makes it easy to find a therapist that’s perfect for you. You can even filter our therapist directory by looking for “self-esteem” under Specialties! You are worth finding the right therapist, so check out some of the therapist introductory videos and reach out when you find one that you like.