Low Self-Esteem

Updated: July 23, 2022

Some might say that at the heart of most therapeutic issues is low self-esteem (LSE).  LSE seems to impact most people, even those who might appear confident.  But what is it exactly, and why does it affect so many people?

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What Is Low Self-Esteem?

It is important to make the distinction between LSE and a lack of confidence.  A lack of confidence relates to our capabilities in some respect.  For instance an individual may feel confident in their work but unconfident in other areas of their life, so it relates to how successful we feel about what we can do.  On the other hand, LSE is about an individual’s core beliefs about themselves.


Our self perceptions develop as we grow, they are impacted by our relationships and experiences and affect the overall opinion we hold about ourselves.  We receive implicit and explicit messages from our environment, which form self appraisals and judgements, and these affect our self worth and value.  When we hold negative self-perceptions, we are talking about LSE.

What Are The Symptoms?

Being Punitive

Due to their own unkind self-perceptions, individuals can become punitive with themselves.  They may believe they don’t deserve to enjoy themselves, or have good things, because they see themselves as worthless and therefore undeserving.

Emotional & Mental Health Problems

Understandably, when one experiences beliefs about their own worthlessness or inadequacy, this impacts their life in many ways.  These beliefs and their consequences for life can lead to difficult feelings like shame, anger, low mood, depression, and anxiety.

Feeling Inferior

LSE means people often have the tendency to make comparisons with others and inevitably fall short in their own view.  They tend to believe that others are better than them which makes them feel worse about themselves, and even impacts how they behave around others.

Minimising & Maximising Tendency

People with LSE often cannot see their achievements and accomplishments, or will play them down when they’re mentioned.  They only see their self-perceived failings, which reinforce their feelings of LSE.

Missed Opportunities

Because their is such a lack of self belief and worth, individuals will often avoid what they perceive to be challenges, because of fear.  Even though these could lead to fruitful life opportunities.  Sadly, this means they may lead a life that is limited in ways.

Negative Self-Bias

Core beliefs are very powerful and when they relate to LSE, they’re incredibly embedded.  So even when individuals with LSE receive positive external feedback, like a compliment, they are unable to accept it.  This counter narrative does not penetrate the wall that maintains LSE, or change negative self-perceptions.

Overly Self-Critical

People with LSE will often blame themselves when things go wrong, and will rarely show themselves any kind of compassion or understanding.


People with LSE might have a tendency to prioritise others at their own expense.  For example, you may do things for people at work because you can’t say no, but in the process feel overwhelmed.  Or, you may ignore your needs in relationships and suffer quietly.  This often relates to low self-worth and fears of abandonment and rejection, at the core level.


Some self-deprecation is not in itself indicative of LSE, however when individuals often say negative things or seem overly critical, and make jokes about themselves, they may be experiencing LSE.


Even though people with LSE can be overly self-critical and judgemental about themselves, they are sensitive to disapproval or criticism from others because this reinforces their negative self beliefs.

What Causes LSE?

Our earliest childhood experiences shape our beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world.  For example, if you experienced neglectful, or abusive relationships, you are likely to have internalised negative messages about yourself, such as “I’m undeserving of love” or “I’m unlovable”.

You may have experienced bullying or exclusion in school, making you feel as though there was something wrong with you.  This kind of belief and feeling does not just go away, it can stay with you on a deep core level and impact your future relationships and opportunities.

Young people, especially teenagers, experience many unhelpful messages via social media.  They see unrealistic ideals and naturally fall short in their own minds as such ideals are unattainable, because they are not real.  But this does not stop the impact on young people, who develop negative beliefs about how they should look and be.

Stressful life events like bereavement, illness, or an unhappy relationship can contribute to feelings of low self-esteem, in direct and indirect ways.  For example, directly if a partner makes you feel insecure by putting you down, or indirectly if you are experiencing difficulties in your relationship which then causes your school/work life to suffer, making your feel bad about yourself.

How Phinity Can Help

You may come to us with LSE, or a problem that is underpinned by it.  We will start by conducting a thorough psychological Initial Assessment to gain a good overall understanding of you and your life context.  This provides a good backdrop for the work ahead.

If you wish to tackle a practical issues that is underpinned by your LSE, we can do this in a strategic way, for example, you may experience problems in social situations and wish to work on this directly.  We may therefore recommend a solution focused approach like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This will help to identify unhelpful thinking styles and make connections between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, so that we can introduce thought and behavioural experiments to break your unhelpful cycles, and create more useful ones.

Alternatively, you may wish to understand what is underpinning the issue you’re having trouble with (for example, social situations), that is, the LSE itself.  For this, we may recommend something like psychoanalysis, the psychodynamic approach, person centred therapy (PCT), or existentialism. These approaches are explorative and help individuals gain insights into themselves, and develop self-awareness and understanding, which can then offer a springboard for healing and change.

Another option might be to take an integrative approach.  This means we integrate different therapies, based on your goals and needs, for example, you may wish to use both a CBT and exploratory approach, to help you deal with the present issues (like difficulties in social situations), and the underpinning issue (LSE).  This is likely to offer a more well-rounded and longer term benefit.

What Causes LSE?How Phinity Can Help


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