Everyone experiences moments of low self-esteem — you may say it’s just part of being a human being! Rough patches in life may have us questioning our self-confidence and sometimes we need to feel a little self-pity. And then we pull ourselves together, move on, and feel better. When you have healthy self-esteem, it’s just that easy, but not everyone feels this way.
It's simple 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 can have 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, mental health issues, or negative thoughts that result in self-damaging behavior.
Self-esteem research is abundant and there are several scales used to measure self-esteem. Most important is recognizing the signs of low self-confidence as an important first step to building positive self-esteem. 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 often say "sorry" where an "excuse me" would suffice?
For people with lower self-esteem, these small "blips" of fear and anxiety can add up to a lot of negative thinking and compound a sense of low self-confidence. Here are nine such signs to be aware of, so that you can work on overcoming them (e.g., with a life coach, therapist, or other mental health professional):
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 convinced yourself that what you really want doesn’t matter in the moment, in the face of someone else’s needs, or you want to avoid challenges with others. It’s understandable why you don’t speak up! While caring for others is a personality strength, when it comes at the cost of a healthy sense of your own needs, wants, or feelings, these good qualities become a hindrance. You may notice this in your romantic relationships as well as your relationships with friends and family.
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 of self-doubt and negative thinking!
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 positive qualities becoming a vulnerability — being flexible is a good thing, but when it means that you seldom carve your own path and lack confidence and self-respect, it may be a sign of low self-esteem.
4. Not feeling deserving of, or capable of, having “more”
Whether “more” means deserving positive relationships, a higher-paying job, or the common courtesy of others, when you feel like you deserve better, you won’t go seeking it. This self-doubt can lead to unfulfilling (or even toxic) relationships, unsatisfactory or low paying jobs, and overall lower standards.
5. Difficulty making your own choices
When you lack confidence or feel incompetent, it can show up as 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? When you do make decisions, do you have trouble standing by them? Are you worried about other people’s expectations? These are signs 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, hurt, or even angry, whether that’s the intention of your loved ones or not. Feelings of low self-esteem tend to show up as insecurity that speaking up about your needs will cause people to look down on you, which reinforces negative thought patterns and is counter-productive to having healthy relationships.
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, possibly receive positive feedback that makes you feel good. Even for those who won’t appreciate it, you buy them gifts in order to feel wanted, needed, recognized, increasing your feelings of self-worth.
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 is a very common sign of low self-esteem and often stems from a poor self-evaluation or self-criticism that emphasizes a lack of acceptance and can lead to negative thought patterns and negative feelings.
9. Critical, abusive internal dialogue
One of the most damaging signs of low self-esteem is critical, abusive internal dialogue. Whether you scold yourself for making mistakes or call yourself names, this is negative self-talk that will impact your mood and mental health problems.
10 Ways to Build Confidence
Working on building, or rebuilding, your self-esteem can be done! By working to build healthy self-esteem, you will have a much greater sense of life satisfaction and self-regard — and reconnect with your own truth and joy. Here is some of our advice:
1. Seek out professional help
Going to therapy for low self-esteem can help you identify and understand the origins of low self-esteem. Many therapists specialize in the treatment of clients who have low self-esteem; they not only affirm the clients’ positive strengths and emphasize that they deserve happiness but teach them how to recognize harmful cognitive distortions in their own thoughts that detract from their own emotional stability. Building self-esteem with the help of a professional will help you embrace the positive things, break the negative outlook, and avoid the pitfalls of being overly critical when navigating negative feelings during difficult life events.
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!) and may positively affect self-esteem. This could be yoga, sports, jogging, or dancing — anything that puts your body in motion! Exercise results in a positive boost of serotonin levels in your brain to help you feel good, calmer, help you make better decisions, feel stronger, and feel more in control of yourself. Better physical health is closely linked to a positive self-image.
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.
Of course, it is important to be mindful if exercise and eating healthy becomes extreme, compulsive, or interferes with other aspects of life (such as an eating disorder, or body image issues), as this can become detrimental to self-esteem and have other emotional consequences in a person’s life.
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 negative thoughts, other people’s expectations, needs, demands, and requests. When it’s down on paper, it’s more meaningful than when it’s trapped in your head. Focusing on yourself will influence self-esteem because when you complete goals that mean something personally, you have invested in your own well-being while achieving a higher sense of satisfaction.
5. Pause and assess before automatically saying “yes” to a request
Self-esteem plays a role in how you respond to requests. Taking a moment to assess the situation before you say yes 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 reflecting on your answers, you may feel differently.
6. Start lifting yourself up!
Lift yourself up, however that looks! Leave positive feedback and 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! Practicing these bits of self-love is an important part of self-care that breaks down the negative emotions
7. Start meditating, using positive affirmations
Ditch the negative self-talk and start meditation or positive affirmations to raise low self-esteem. 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!). People with higher self-esteem don’t need the validation of others to feel worthy.
9. Find your favorite way to unwind, relax, and pamper yourself
Healthy self-esteem can be achieved by practicing self-compassion. Treat 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, honor your worth, and prioritize self-care.
10. Replace “I’m sorry” with more situationally-appropriate interjections
While you may think you’re presenting yourself as a caring person, saying “I’m sorry” is often sending a message that you lack self-respect. And that kind of negative self-talk does nothing for improving self-esteem. Try out some other situationally appropriate interjections instead. 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.
Over time you will recognize when it’s proper to apologize for something that is actually your fault, and your strong self-esteem will make it easier to say, “I’m sorry,” and mean it.
Work with a therapist to boost self-esteem
People with high self-esteem generally have self-compassion and a belief in themselves that drowns out the critical inner voice that contributes to unhelpful thinking and low self-worth. By acknowledging your positive qualities and understanding that everyone makes mistakes or gets things wrong occasionally, you can stop second-guessing your own thoughts and accept that you feel anxious, depressed, or fearful without assuming they are fatal character flaws.
Understanding where your low self-esteem stems from can help you move away from some of the internally perpetuating patterns and self-criticism, towards self-acceptance and a level of healthy self-esteem. Low self-esteem can come from many places: your upbringing, harmful past relationships, perceived past mistakes, serious illness, the result of ingrained distorted thinking, anything.
Working with a therapist or talking with another mental health professional is a fantastic way to identify and capitalize on your strengths and pave the way for self-empowerment. It’s not enough to just cope with self-esteem issues and low self-worth. By receiving the right advice and treatment, you can avoid feelings of depression and other mental health problems to achieve high self-esteem! 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! Check out some of the therapist introductory videos and reach out when you find one that you like.