The problem of low self-esteem is more common than we think it is. We know that people with low self-esteem feel unworthy, unloved and incompetent. They live unhappy, depressed and unfulfilling lives. However, many people with low self-esteem try to hide behind fame, status, wealth and other accomplishments. Such things may provide them temporary relief and give the impression of content life. However, the worldly indicators of success can’t conquer the inherent problem of low self-esteem. It is only the person experiencing low self-esteem, can testify the brutal pain and suffering she endures in the deep chambers of her soul despite all the medals and praise. No amount of accomplishments can compensate for the lack of self-esteem.
Why is it important to know the causes of low self esteem? Because understanding the reasons of low self-esteem is the first step in the effort to improve it. It is crucial to diagnose and discover the underlying factors of a disease before initiating treatment. Similarly, we need to know the sources of low self-esteem before we start our journey towards improving it. There could be one or multiple reasons for a person’s low self esteem. We all go through different circumstances, events and situations in life. Therefore different factors play different roles for each individual. In most cases, there are multiple reasons which affect the self-esteem of a person.
We can classify sources of low self esteem into three broader categories:
- Thoughts and actions
- Influences of other people
- Events & circumstances beyond control
CAUSES OF LOW SELF-ESTEEM
Here, we will explore major potential culprits that may have deprived you of the joy and freedom which comes with high self-esteem. The following are the major potential sources of low self-esteem:
1. UPBRINGING & FAMILY ENVIRONMENT
If we evaluate all the causes that influence a person’s self-esteem, we will discover that her upbringing has the dominating effect on her self-esteem. This is most crucial factor in determining whether a child develops high self-esteem or suffers from the consequences of low self-esteem throughout her life.
Low Self-Esteem in Parents
If parents have low self-esteem, it is more likely that the children they raise will lack in self-esteem. This is because the first unconscious role models for children are their parents. Children try to imitate their parents and other people around them. They make efforts to behave and act like their parents. When parents are not showing any signs of high self-esteem in their interactions, decisions and actions, the children will not be able to learn that trait, because they are expert in catching subtle cues from their environment.
Lack of Parenting Skills
The above scenario relates to passive learning. However more dangerous problem is lack of good parenting skills. It is almost certain that people with low self-esteem can’t become good parents no matter how hard they try. Low self-esteem parents are unprepared to nourish the self-esteem of their child. They can surely learn a few tricks & techniques of good parenting. However they may not be able to raise confident, assertive, positive, and courageous children when they themselves lack most of such qualities. If they do not know the value of encouragement, praise, unconditional love, forgiveness and self-acceptance, how could they treat their children in the manner that enforces such values?
However, there is also no guarantee that people with high self-esteem will be able to inculcate the same qualities in their children. Ultimately it comes to specific ways in which they treat their children which influence how children view themselves and perceive the world around them. If parents do not treat a child as a respectable individual, if they scold and punish him for tiny mistakes, or some disorganized fun activity children normal get involved in, the child will consider himself unworthy and undeserving of love, respect and enjoyment.
Unconditional Love and Attention
Many parents express their affection and love towards their children only when they act in obedience or do something about which parents can feel proud in the society. The lack of unconditional love from parents is one of the reasons children become unable to love, respect and forgive themselves. This conditioning remains with them throughout their lives. They could neither love themselves or nor anyone else until some arbitrary condition is met to satisfy their ego.
If parents are uncaring of children’s needs and don’t give them proper attention, praise and affection, it make children feel unloved and undeserving. Moreover, constant comparison to siblings in order to shame them or make them do what parents want, have negative consequences on child’s psyche. Labeling a child as stupid, incompetent or disobedient instead of identifying the specific inappropriate behaviors can make the child believe in those labels. It encourages them to start acting in ways in order to prove those labels right.
Lack of Proper Discipline
On the other hand, if parents don’t enforce proper discipline and don’t define clear rules for children to follow, it undermines their ability to understand the consequences of inappropriate behaviors. When there are no consistent rules and boundaries, there will be chaos in the home. If a child is once punished for a bad behavior and other times he faces no consequences, or worse encouraged to do it, he will remain confused and uncertain as to how should he behave and act. The children cannot learn between right and wrong, good and bad, in the absence of well defined rules and principles. This undermines their ability to act confidently and courageously thus creating a loop of low self-esteem.
Whether you are someone suffering the consequences of bad parenting or you yourself is a parent with low self-esteem problem, you still have the opportunity to amend your ways and change the direction of your life.
In case, there were deficiencies in your upbringing and absence of nurturing environment in your childhood, first lesson to improve your self-esteem is to take responsibility for your current circumstances instead of putting blame on your parents. They did what they knew and could do best as parents. You are now in-charge of your life. The people with high self-esteem are responsible people. So accept the challenge to become a Self-Esteemed Living Person (SELP) by doing everything in your power in order to improve your self-esteem.
If you are a parent with low self-esteem, then become more responsible, loving, caring and forgiving towards your children. Furthermore, use all the resources available on this platform to increase your self-esteem and work towards managing your impulses, habits and behaviors that could positively influence self-esteem of your children.
2. NEGATIVE SELF-IMAGE
Self-image is the perception we create in our minds about who we are. It determines how important, worthy, competent, respectable, powerful, good looking and courageous we think we are. It may or may not be based on reality because it is a mental construct or image of our own selves. As self-image can’t be completely objective and accurate due to being just a perception, it may however be positive or negative. Our self-image deeply influences our self-esteem because everything we think about, say or do is somehow influenced by our self image. A person who thinks highly of himself is going to perform better when faced with challenges compared to someone who does not view himself as competent. Therefore positive self-image nurtures high self-esteem whereas negative self-image leads to low self-esteem.
There are many factors that can affect a person’s self-image. The main deciding factor is the thinking pattern because our perceptions come from our thoughts. If general thinking habit of a person is negative, he will probably create a negative image of himself in his own mind. We also derive our self-image from subtle and explicit messages we receive from society whether it is about our capabilities, appearance, status, relationships, habits or achievements. We take cues from other people’s interactions to form opinions about ourselves. Therefore, you may be creating your self-image from your perception about what other people think about you (reflect on it for a moment).
There are many other factors that affect our self-image including childhood experiences, early failures, cultural and religious influences, and feedback we receive from important people in our lives. Our self-image keeps changing with new information we receive & perceive about ourselves.
Your self-image may be coming from your perception about other people’s perception of you.
Generally, the negative opinions of other people hold more power on us than the positive opinions. We are expert in magnifying negative feedback and nullifying positive ones. We are more likely to remember criticism and ridicule and forget praise and encouragement. This negative mental bias creates the destructive self-image which makes us doubt ourselves, our abilities and makes us feel less confident. This pessimistic view of self leads to low self-esteem.
Watch out for your own thoughts and the feedback you receive from other people. Be a guard at the gate of your constant thinking mind. Whenever you start to think negative about yourself and your abilities, divert your focus on something positive about you, your qualities or an amazing past experience.
If you receive negative feedback, instead of taking it personal, make an objective evaluation to see how much of the feedback is based in truth. If you think that the opinion of other person is false, biased or incorrect representation of who you actually are, simply reject that opinion no matter from where it came. However, if you think that it is somewhat accurate and you can do something about it, then try to use that feedback constructively and start working towards improving yourself in that specific aspect of your life. Your efforts towards this goal would be enough to give a boost to your self-esteem.
3. DISAPPROVING AUTHORITY FIGURES
When we investigate the role of other people on a person’s low self-esteem, it reveals that his self-esteem is mostly influenced by those people whose opinions, judgments and feedback he values the most. We all love the praise we receive from the authority figures in our lives whether they are parents, teachers, coaches, trainers, religious leaders or managers. We also despise the most when are unable to fulfill their expectations and attract their criticism.
We are constantly bombarded with messages of approval, acceptance, praise, as well as disgust, rejection and dislike from the authority figures. However the situation becomes problematic when there is imbalance between positive and negative opinions we receive about ourselves. When a person gets constant criticism, scolding, warnings or disapproval with no words of encouragement whatsoever, it will impact his self-esteem in a harmful way.
There is also a problem of unrealistic expectations of authority figures which make the situation even worse. As it is difficult to challenge the opinions or expectations of an authority, a person may start blaming himself by developing belief that he is incompetent, worthless and unrespectable.
There is a need to have a clear mental construct of our own selves so that we don’t allow these messages to define us. We must have a rational filtering system to evaluate the accuracy of feedback we receive. Feedback is important to learn from our mistakes and change future course of action. However, there is always a risk to perceive criticism in a harmful way by attaching our identity to it. This could result in self-loathing which can cause low self-esteem.
Keep your identity separate from the opinions and judgment of authority figures. First remember that they are also human so they can be wrong. They are equally vulnerable to make mistakes just like anybody else. See that their negative feedback may not be about you, it may be about them. It is important to evaluate people’s opinions in right perspective instead of accepting them at face value without challenging it in your mind. If they get mad at you for every little mistake, they may have temper problem. When they blame you for something that happened because of their own fault, it may be because they are insecure and have difficulty accepting their imperfections. Your self-worth does not depend and should not be influenced by someone’s opinion no matter who that person is.
4. LIFE EVENTS & EXPERIENCES
The journey of life is exciting, adventurous and scary at the same time. It gives surprises at every juncture, some good and some really horrifying. A single unfortunate event has the potential to turn our lives upside down and change its direction forever. That is what happens with many people who go through a bad experience and lose their self-esteem in the process. No one is born with low self-esteem; it is mostly unpleasant events and experiences that make people think, believe and act about themselves in some disempowering ways.
Let’s take a look at few of these life experiences that become the source of low self-esteem:
i) Relationship Breakups
It is almost a universal truth that breakup really hurts. It makes us feel rejected, worthless, unlovable and lonely and rightly so. We crave for belonging and acceptance. As per Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs theory, love and belonging stands exactly in the middle of our needs hierarchy just before self-esteem and self-actualization.
If the condition for intimacy, love and connection is not fulfilled, there is no question that our needs for respect and self-esteem are going to be met. They are in a way pre-requisites to self-esteem. That’s why we see that soon after a breakup, most people rush towards forming a new relationship in order to meet those needs.
However, sometimes breakups are so devastating that they leave permanent scars on the heart and soul of a person especially when their partner leaves them silently with no understandable reason. This could create psychological damage to a person’s identity. She may start blaming herself and her imperfections for other person leaving her. She may also stop trusting other people due to one unfortunate event and may find it difficult for form a new relationship in future. So a breakup has the potential to damage self-esteem of a person.
Instead of blaming yourself for your misery, put the blame where it belongs; on the other person for breaking your trust. You may be imperfect but so does everyone else. There is no need to shy away from your mistakes you may have contributed in a relationship; however, you are not responsible for someone else’s decisions and choices even if they relates to you. Do not let a single event define you. Absolve yourself from this responsibility, but assume the task to become a better person and start afresh with new vision and passion. A beautiful and much better life may be waiting for you.
ii) Harassment, Bullying and Humiliation
Harassment is any kind of offensive conduct of physical, emotional or sexual nature to intentionally target someone in order to annoy, torment or terrorize them. It could be unwelcome sexual advances or derogatory remarks based on someone’s race, gender or religion. Most of the time, harassment creates temporary emotional turmoil on the surface; however, its long term psychological effects depends on the intensity of harassment as well as sensitivity of the person towards it. Harassment could create havoc in a person’s life and drastically distort her self-image. Victims of harassment often start believing that there is something wrong with them that led to such outcome. They experience the feelings of insignificance, shame and anxiety which lead to low self-esteem.
Bullying could make permanent damage especially when there is no support available to give encouragement and strength to endure it. Bullying is not a devil reserved for children only. It does happen to adults all the time. There is nobody who has not experienced bullying at least once in childhood and adult life. Children are more prone to the damage from bullying as they have weak or almost no filtering system to know what kind of opinions and behaviors to value and what to discard. They suffer the even greater consequences if parents are nonsupportive, oversensitive or if they downplay the bullying by approaching it as normal thing of childhood.
Bullying comes in many forms; it can be verbal (teasing, name-calling, inappropriate comments), physical (hitting, spitting, rude gestures) or social (creating rumors, lobbying for boycott, public insult or discrimination). Bullying creates the emotions of deep humiliation, shame, depression and loneliness. Self-esteem of a person is severely affected if bulling continues for a longer period of time.
Firstly, you need to realize that your life is not defined by just one unfortunate experience, or even if there had been repeated assaults to your being. You are more than what people believe about you or how they treat you. You are strong enough to endure anything that comes your way. You have the capability to move beyond your past experiences. You just have to awaken that power from within. This belief is the foundation to heal from terrible life experiences.
Secondly, it may feel strange to some people, but you are going to achieve nothing with hate, resentment or anger towards your victimizers. They are themselves victims of inappropriate upbringing, faulty beliefs and flawed way of living. So feel pity for them. Forgive them. Let go of your sufferings by letting go of the need to take revenge from your victimizers. This is difficult but the only permanent solution to heal your emotional wounds and free yourself from the suffering.
iii) Constant Failures
No matter how much effort you put into your work, there is no guarantee that you are going to succeed. Failure is inevitable. However, it is not the failure itself that lowers self esteem, rather the way we perceive it. When we make the mistake of attaching our identity to our failures by considering ourselves as ‘failure’, it hurts us the most. Even the most ambitious and mentally strong people start doubting themselves when faced with constant disappointments. It takes a heavy toll on their self-image which then leads to low self-esteem.
When someone is unable to succeed even after constant efforts over a longer period of time, he is going to become demoralized. It becomes really challenging to come out of pain of constant rejection such as not being picked for a sports team, being turned down when you ask someone on a date, not being invited to someone’s party, not doing as well as you would like at something, such as in an exam or in a music performance or not achieving something you desperately wanted to achieve. All such experiences can make a person believe that he is unworthy, incompetent and undeserving of success and happiness.
The failures and rejections may be due to lack of competence on your part. Actually, most of the time, the lack of skills, preparation, and appropriate effort are the causes of failure. It may also be absence of perseverance, consistency and discipline on your part. Some other factors outside of your control can also play role in the undesired outcome. However, the solution is never the self-pity, blaming someone else or accepting it as your fate. The remedy is to identify the problem and work towards growing out of it. Instead of getting disappointed, consider failures as part of the success journey. Learn from them and keep persisting with improved skills, knowledge and efforts. Never let failures blur your vision and hurt your self-esteem. Remember what Winston Churchill said:
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
5. LIVING INAUTHENTIC LIFE
To be yourself in a world that is trying to make you somebody else is the greatest accomplishment.Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson’s words hold as true today as they were said more than a century ago. Our desire to fit in the society leads us to live unauthentic lives. We choose a certain career based on what status it can earn us in the society, not what our heart wants. We indulge in activities, support causes and attend events just to seek approval, acceptance and respect from other people, by neglecting our true emotional needs. We do things we hate doing, go the places we hate going and meet people we don’t like meeting, in order to look modern and elegant in the eyes of people. The social pressure is so real that we even choose clothing, food and hobbies to impress our immediate circle. With no exaggeration, this is how fake our lives are but we don’t have the courage to accept this truth.
Our social environment gives us subtle signals about our worth and place in the society. You easily observe that people belonging to a specific group behave and act in similar ways. This similarity is not confided to eating, dressing or cultural norms, it also reflects in the thinking and decisions making of people.
Then comes the role of the modern day devil aka social media. The influence social media makes in our lives is shamefully enormous. The media plays a huge role in dictating us who we are and how we should behave, act and live our lives. The desire to keep up with the Joneses is the disease that will eat away your sense of authentic self and make it dependent on how other people are doing.
One reason we struggle with insecurity: We’re comparing our behind-the-scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel.Steven Furtick
Then we wonder where our self-esteem has gone? When we derive our worth and self-respect from number of likes, shares and positive comments on social media, our self-esteem is no doubt in shackles. When a good comment can make your day and a bad one can break it, you are certainly doomed for misery because people are cruel in their opinions.
It requires great amount of courage to live an authentic life because you may have to face disapproval, ridicule, or even hatred from other people. That’s why Emerson considers it a greatest accomplishment. The truth is that there is no quick remedy to become genuine in your words and actions. You need to let go of the need to seek approval and acceptance from society. Instead, derive your worth from the core of your being. Know that you don’t need to impress other people or prove anything to be worthy and respectable. You are an integral and important part of this universe and it is incomplete without you. When you fully realize this truth, you no longer need any outside validation.
Questions to Consider:
- Which of the contributing factors described above, resonate the most with you?
- What specific experiences & events in your life do you think had the biggest negative effects on your self-esteem?
Read this article, if you want to go deeper into improving your self-esteem.