How a person feels about themselves, in terms of value and a sense of worth is known as self-esteem. It is a vital part of our human experience. When people feel unloved, unseen or unimportant, it dominates their behaviour and relationships. Seeing a therapist can help people build up self-esteem.
When a person feels ‘on edge’ in a role or relationship, about to be uncovered as a fraud or undeserving, they might feel like an imposter. ‘Imposter syndrome’ is a recent term to describe feeling unworthy of a position. It differs from humility (when a person is open to learning and making mistakes in a new role or relationship, but acknowledges the skills or experience that make them a good fit).
Vulnerability can be a positive quality, but a person with low self-esteem is at higher risk of being abused, and in rare cases of abuse or bullying others. People with low self-esteem might also be more socially isolated.
Some of the symptoms of depression include feeling bad about yourself, that you have failed somehow or let loved ones down.
We all have standards which we’d like to live up to. But when standards – for oneself or for others – are very high, it can lead to self-isolation, anxiety and depression. Therapists often flag perfectionism as a symptom or risk factor for disordered eating.
Self-esteem problems might stem from feeling unsure or uncertain about one’s worth. Insecurity might also come from a lack of stability in circumstances, for example, if a person worries about their sense of belonging when their family changes, or they move house or change school.
Relationships are vital to our wellbeing but when our self-esteem relies on someone else, such as a child or a partner, it stops us experiencing our own worth. Co-dependence is a particular risk for partners, friends and family of people with alcoholism or substance abuse problems.
When a person appreciates their skills, experience and expertise, it creates self-esteem. A sense of belonging also gives people a sense of self-esteem. Self-esteem from what people can do is known as intrinsic worth. Self-esteem from being seen, heard and loved is known as extrinsic worth.
It is normal for one’s self-esteem to rise and fall a little in line with everyday achievements and failures. Failure and rejection are universal experiences and in themselves are not mental health problems.
People with low self-esteem have trouble appreciating their good sides and difficulties accepting their bad sides. This might lead to rumination. Low self-esteem might also erode relationships.
A person might have low self-esteem if they believe, or are told, that failure or rejection they experience is personal.
It might be that someone’s self-esteem declines because of mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety. Mental health problems are still stigmatised, and mental health symptoms impact on a person’s ability to live and work normally, and to feel a sense of belonging.
Experiences of trauma, abuse and bullying can also undermine a person’s self-esteem.
Sometimes when a person loses their sense of belonging through loss of a job, relationship or community or through bereavement, their sense of self suffers. Likewise, a perceived failure or rejection can make a person question what went wrong, and why they didn’t make the grade.
In many cases, a person can recover their sense of belonging, and weather failures on their own or with the support of people around them. But sometimes, a loss or failure feels more personal, or more painful.
Low self-esteem might feel depressing, sad, bleak or bitter. It might lead to more rumination over past events, and more self-judgement.
Self-esteem makes life more enjoyable and rewarding. When people know their worth it protects them from exploitation. Having a sense of intrinsic worth also helps people recognise that their value does not have to be earned or worked for.
Therapists are ideally placed to help people recognise, treat and recover from periods of low self-esteem.
In therapy, a person with low self-esteem might be encouraged to take small steps to challenge low self-esteem. Spending more time with friends, family or like minded people might give a person a greater sense of belonging. Learning new skills might increase confidence, remind the person of their abilities and values, and demonstrate a commitment to oneself.