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Low Self-Esteem

Daniel's story

Daniel was the last of four children. Growing up he loved comic books and film, and he went on to study filmmaking at college. Academically he wasn't as smart as his sisters, something which he felt his parents criticised him for. Daniel had a group of friends, but was also bullied at school. He came to believe that he was stupid and 'weird'. He would get flustered when surrounded by people he thought of as more competent, and never felt comfortable around women, he never felt like he fitted in. Daniel became very self-critical. He felt he had to be on the lookout for his flaws to try and correct them before other people noticed.

Caitlyn's story

Caitlyn was from a poor family. She was picked on at school because of this and made to feel different. She had done nothing wrong, but other children made her feel as though she had because of the way she dressed and where she lived. Her mother was busy working to support Caitlyn and her siblings and so Caitlyn kept mostly to herself. In her teens Caitlyn didn't think much of herself. She felt grateful for any attention boys paid to her, even if it was the wrong kind of attention. She had sexual relationships with boys she liked, but never really felt valued.

Low self-esteem means not thinking much of yourself, or not holding yourself in high regard. Having low self-esteem can have dramatic effects upon your life. It can knock your self confidence, and it makes it hard to feel worthwhile. At the centre of low self-esteem are the beliefs and opinions we hold about ourselves. We all hold opinions about ourselves, and many of these are formed early in our lives. These opinions are often held so strongly that they feel like facts.

Significant or early events have big impacts

Significant events in our lives commonly lead to negative beliefs about ourselves. In CBT terms, these 'early experiences' lead to the development of 'core beliefs'. These core beliefs are 'contributing factors' in the development of low self-esteem - holding lots of negative beliefs makes us vulnerable to experiencing low self-esteem later on. Significant events that can have long-lasting effects can include:

  • Not fitting in with a peer group at school
  • Not being able to live up to your parent's expectations
  • Abuse or punishment - particularly if our abuser repeatedly told you "this is your fault", or "I'm doing this because you're a **** person"
  • Not getting enough of something - for example not getting enough praise
  • Being neglected in childhood - not having our physical or emotional needs met
  • Being treated differently from brothers and sisters
  • Being the 'odd one out'
  • Bereavement or other losses
  • Redundancy
  • Being isolated or lonely
  • Trauma - such as being attacked or hurt

Development of low self-esteem

What keeps low self-esteem going?

Low self-esteem is often kept going by a combination of thinking and behaviour. Daniel made overly negative predictions about his abilities (unhelpful thinking) and as a result he was less willing to take risks (unhelpful behaviour). This kept him stuck because he didn't get a real chance to learn about his true abilities. Melanie Fennell, a psychologist, came up with a helpful way to think about what might keep low self-esteem stuck. The diagram below is adapted from her approach:

Maintenance of low self-esteem

How can I overcome low self-esteem?

1. Identifying our negative core beliefs

How we think of ourselves is a product of what we have experienced. A child who is loved believes that she is lovable. A child who is praised believes she is competent. One way to understand our core beliefs is to think about what we experienced, and then ask ourselves "Given this happened, what does it say about me?"

Read the list below and ask yourself: a) whether you experienced any of these, b) what it says about you if you did:

  • Not fitting in with a peer group at school
  • Not being able to live up to your parent's expectations
  • Abuse or punishment - particularly if our abuser repeatedly told you "this is your fault", or "I'm doing this because you're a **** person"
  • Not getting enough of something - for example not getting enough praise
  • Being neglected in childhood - not having our physical or emotional needs met
  • Being treated differently from brothers and sisters
  • Being the 'odd one out'
  • Bereavement or other losses
  • Redundancy
  • Being isolated or lonely
  • Trauma - such as being attacked or hurt

Read 'Children lean what they live' by Dorothy Law Nolte and think about what you experienced, and what you learned.

2. Identifying our negative and self-critical thinking

We can use CBT thought records to identify what negative things we are saying to ourselves.

3. Using a more compassionate tone

It's not just what we say to ourselves that can get us down, it's the way that we say it. The compassionate tone exercises can help you to identify how you are speaking to yourself.

[Compassionate_Tone]

4. Overcoming our biases: Identifying our positive qualities

Our negative core beliefs can keep us stuck. They can distort the way we see the world which can lead to us feeling very stuck. We might not be able to overcome our negative core beliefs overnight, but with consistent practice we can chip away at them. One way to do it is to deliberately try to get around our biases, and to pay attention on purpose to some of the things we do that show we have positive qualities.

Low self-esteem worksheets

Use this to identify your automatic thoughts


Use this to find out what your typical patterns of unhelpful thinking are


Use this to challenge your negative automatic thoughts, and to generate more helpful ways of thinking


References and further reading

Fennell, M. J. V. (1999). Overcoming low self-esteem. London: Robinson