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Self-esteem is described as a positive and realistic view of oneself. People with self-esteem trust themselves and believe they are worthwhile and equally valuable to others. Having self-esteem does not mean that individuals will be able to accomplish all of their goals—they have realistic views of themselves that are accurate and honest. In addition, they are appreciative of themselves, indicating that they both like and generally feel positive about themselves, even when some expectations about their goals are not fulfilled.

Self-esteem is comprised of many difference facets of an individuals’ life. Each person has unique qualities and characteristics that they may experience as more or less gratifying. Typically, individuals will feel satisfied in some areas of their lives, (academics, athletics) while also feeling dissatisfied in other areas (personal appearance, social relationships). Learning to identify areas of concern related to self-esteem can assist in self-esteem development.

Why Is Self-Esteem Important?

People with low self-esteem can experience suffering in many different aspects of their lives. These individuals may depend on the approval of others to feel good about themselves. They may avoid taking risks because they fear failure. They generally do not have expectations of success. They often put themselves down and tend to discount or ignore compliments from others. By contrast, people with higher self-esteem are willing to risk the disapproval of others because they generally trust in their own abilities. They tend to accept themselves and don’t feel they have to conform to be accepted.Self-esteem can impact various aspects of an individual’s life and overall mental health. People with low self-esteem may experience the following mental health concerns:

  • Symptoms of depression
  • Symptoms of anxiety
  • Physical discomfort.
  • Increased alcohol and drug use
  • Concerns related to eating and body image

How is Self-Esteem Initially Developed?

Many factors affect the development of self-esteem. These can include our early relationships with family, peers, educators and our self. For example, when early relationships provide acceptance, children receive a solid foundation for feeling good about themselves. If these relationships are critical or demanding, children can learn to feel incapable, inadequate or inferior. Individuals with positive role models who have self-esteem are likely to develop self-esteem themselves. In addition, relationships throughout the lifespan (e.g. friendships, romantic relationships, etc.) can impact an individual’s perception of themselves. For example, on college campuses, peers can positively influence self-esteem through providing support and validation. However, peers who are competitive and judgmental can negatively influence self-esteem (e.g. comparing grades, judging body size, etc.).

Most people assume that low self-esteem is related to lack of achievement, ability or recognition. Instead low self-esteem is often the result of focusing too much on perceived, unrealistic expectations or standards from others, especially family and society. Influences such as the media, can alter perceptions of success, beauty and worth. In addition, one’s experiences of bias, privilege, and oppression can impact a person’s perception of themselves.

Self-Defeating Thought Patterns

In response to external influence, people can develop self-defeating thought patterns which can interfere with self-esteem. Below are some common self-defeating thought patterns, with examples and questions to develop alternative thinking:

All or Nothing Thinking.

The process of thinking in extremes. All or nothing thinking puts impossible standards of perfection on the person.

Example: “I am a failure when my performance is not perfect.”

Questions to Consider: Things are rarely completely good or completely negative. Where is this event on the greater spectrum of positive and negative?

Seeing Only Dark Clouds.

Disaster lurks around every corner and comes to be expected. For example, a single negative detail, piece of criticism, or passing comment darkens all reality.

Example: “I got a C on one chemistry test, now I’ll never get into medical school.”

Questions to Consider: Is this thought really helping me? What is most likely to happen? Even if this does happen, is it possible that alternatives could happen in its place?

Focusing on the Negative.

Good things don’t count nearly as much as bad ones.

Example: “I know I won five chess games in a row, but losing this one makes me feel terrible about myself.”

Questions to Consider: Am I only noticing the bad aspects of my situation? Are there other aspects of this situation to consider?

Uncritical Acceptance of  Emotions as Truth.

The process of making feelings out to be fact.

Example: “I feel ugly, so it must be true.”

Questions to Consider: Are my feelings reflective of reality? Do I always feel this way? Have there been times that I have felt differently?

Overemphasis on “Should” Statements.

“Should” statements are often perfectionistic and reflective of others’ expectations rather than expressive of your own wants and desires.

Example: “Everyone should have a career plan when they come to college. I don’t, so there must be something wrong with me.”

Questions to Consider: Are my expectations of myself realistic? Can I replace ‘should’ with ‘would be better’?


Putting Yourself Down could convey a sense of blame.

Example: “I am a loser and it’s my fault.”

Questions to Consider: Is labeling myself this way too extreme? Am I stereotyping myself? Would I say this to a friend?

Difficulty Accepting Compliments.

Discounting other’s positive perceptions or comments.

Example: “You like this outfit? I think it makes me look fat.”

Questions to Consider: Am I minimizing the positive? Can I see the whole picture of myself?

Strategies for Developing Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is unique for everyone. Being aware of your relationship with your self-esteem can help you identify ways in which your self-esteem could be developed. The following is a list of strategies that may help develop self-esteem.

Emphasize Strengths. Give yourself credit for everything you try. By focusing on what you can do, you applaud yourself for efforts rather than emphasizing end products. Starting from a base of what you can do helps you live within the bounds of your inevitable limitations.

Take Calculated Risks. Approach new experiences as opportunities to learn rather than occasions to win or lose. Doing so opens you up to new possibilities and can increase your sense of self-acceptance. Not doing so turns every possibility into an opportunity for failure, and inhibits personal growth.

Use Self-Talk. Self-talk is the ongoing conversations we have with ourselves. Practice catching yourself as you engage in these thought patterns. Then, tell yourself to “stop” and substitute more reasonable alternatives. For example, when you catch yourself expecting perfection, remind yourself that you can’t do everything perfectly, that it’s only possible to try to do things and to try to do them well. This allows you to accept yourself while still striving to improve.

Self-Evaluate. Learn to evaluate yourself independently. Doing so allows you to avoid the constant sense of turmoil that comes from relying exclusively on the opinions of others. Focusing internally on how you feel about your own behavior, work, etc. will give you a stronger sense of self and will prevent you from giving your personal power away to others.

Sense of  humor. Try to develop the ability to laugh at some of the times when you do something “silly” or make a mistake. See these times as part of your humanness. This will help improve your self-esteem and connection with others.

Engage in Daily or Weekly Affirmations. Make a goal to write or say positive things you like or enjoy about yourself daily or weekly. These could be related to your appearance, things that went well during the day, or any small goals met. Spend time enjoying your accomplishments regularly.

Seek Informal or Formal Help. Engaging in conversation with a trusted friend or professional who can assist in better understanding your self-esteem and thought patterns. Friends and counselors can provide support and challenge that will enable you to develop realistic and positive views of yourself.

Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself—we are often our worst critics. Think about the kind, supportive things you would say to a friend who is feeling down and then repeat them to yourself.

Want to Know More?

The Dove Self-Esteem has developed a program focused on developing self-esteem for individuals of all ages. The website includes multiple articles related to self-esteem development, coping strategies and overcoming adversity.

Psychology Today: website includes interesting articles written by renowned psychologists, academics, psychiatrists and writers regarding psychology and mental health. can assist you to find a mental health provider in your area.

Meet Yourself: A User’s Guide to Building Self-Esteem.

Engel, B. (2006). Healing your emotional self: A powerful program to help you raise your self-esteem, quiet your inner critic, and overcome your shame. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

McKay, M. & Fanning, P. (2016). Self-esteem: A proven program of cognitive techniques for assessing, improving, and maintaining your self-esteem. New York: New Harbinger Publications.

Schiraldi, G. R., (2001). The self-esteem workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Oakland, CA.

Get help ASAP

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.