What Is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem means having a good opinion of yourself and feeling good about yourself as a person.

People with self-esteem:

  • feel valued and accepted by others
  • feel worthy of being treated with fairness and respect
  • accept and respect themselves, even when they make mistakes
  • believe in themselves, even when they don’t succeed at first
  • see their own good qualities, such as being kind, capable, or fun to be around
  • take pride in the things they do, like passing a difficult math test or mastering a new recipe
  • think positively about themselves

Low self-esteem means having a lower opinion of yourself, and feeling inadequate, inferior, or not deserving of good things. People with low self-esteem:

  • focus on the times they fail rather than the times they succeed
  • feel self-critical and are hard on themselves
  • feel insecure or inferior
  • think of themselves as defective or not deserving of good things
  • expect other people won’t accept them and may allow themselves to be treated badly by others
  • doubt their ability to do well or succeed at things
  • think negatively about themselves

Having self-esteem matters. It can affect almost everything we do. Self-esteem helps us have good relationships with others, gives us the confidence to try new things, and helps us succeed. Low self-esteem holds us back and interferes with our relationships, success, and happiness.

Where Does Self-Esteem Come From?

Self-esteem is the sum of our own ideas, opinions, and feelings about ourselves. Certain things can influence how we learn to think and feel about ourselves, including:

  • Parents, teachers, and others. When we’re little kids, adults can influence the ideas we develop about ourselves. When other people focus on what’s good about us, encourage us, and support us, self-esteem can thrive.

    But if parents spend more time criticizing than praising a child, it can be harder for a kid to develop self-esteem. Ridicule and mean teasing by siblings or peers also can harm a kid’s self-esteem. It’s easy to absorb negative messages so they become part of how we think about ourselves.

  • Our own “inner voice.” We each have an inner voice. Part of that voice reflects the way we think about ourselves. When something doesn’t go well, having a helpful inner voice can remind us to keep things in perspective or encourage us to try again. When we think in kind ways toward ourselves — even when we make a mistake — self-esteem can grow.
    retrain your inner critic
    But some people have a critical inner voice that seems to find fault with everything they do. Over time, listening to a negative inner voice can harm self-esteem just as much as if the criticism were coming from someone else. Some people get so used to their inner critic that they don’t even notice they’re putting themselves down. They mistakenly believe the “I’m-not-good-enough” thoughts about themselves are just the “truth.”
  • Comparing ourselves with others. We each have an image of our “ideal me” — the person we want to be or think we should be. It’s good to aspire to be our best, and other people can be role models for good qualities. But for each of us, being our best means knowing our own strengths and using them. Trying to be the very best me (instead of trying to be like someone else) helps self-esteem stay strong.
    beware the perfectionist
    Comparing ourselves with others, and focusing mostly on ways they seem better, can lower self-esteem. Some people just can’t see their own good qualities and strengths because they’re in the habit of ignoring or downplaying the good — and inflating the negative — when they think about themselves. Focusing on our weaknesses and ignoring our strengths is a recipe for low self-esteem.

What If My Self-Esteem Is Low?

What if your self-esteem is less than it could be? Can you improve it? Yes!

Because self-esteem is a product of your own thoughts and opinions, it is something you can build. It takes effort and practice, but you can train yourself to think in more positive and truthful ways about yourself. You can develop more positive opinions and feelings about yourself.

Start by noticing your inner voice. Is it too critical? Are you too hard on yourself? Pay attention to what you expect from yourself. Replace a need for perfection with an effort to do your best.

Try to be kinder and more accepting of yourself. Allow yourself to feel good about the things you do accomplish, instead of focusing on what you haven’t yet accomplished. Let thinking and feeling good about yourself become a daily healthy habit, like brushing your teeth, exercising, eating right, or getting a good night’s sleep.

Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: April 2015