What Causes Low Self Esteem?

Having a high level of confidence impacts every aspect of life, from major moments to everyday interactions. Typically, the more confident you are, the more successful and content you will feel. A lack of confidence in one or multiple areas of your life may not seem like a big deal, but it could potentially lead to something more serious.

It’s normal to occasionally not feel the best about ourselves, but when low self-esteem becomes a long-term problem, it can have a harmful effect on our day-to-day lives. Low self-esteem is more than an unpleasant feeling; it’s an all-consuming negative behavior. Questions on how to overcome low self esteem or where to find therapy for low esteem oftentimes go along with it. But one of the most common questions is what causes low self esteem?

What are the causes of low self esteem? 

So, where does low self esteem come from? The causes of low self esteem are varied, and oftentimes compounded from different sources. Unfortunately, many causes of low self-esteem go undetected for a prolonged period of time, only being realized when a person becomes symptomatic. Here are some examples of potential causes of low esteem:

Authority Figures in Conflict

When parents or other primary caregivers fight or exhibit negative conflict, it can cause children or a young person to absorb the harmful emotions and distrustful situations that have been modeled for them. It can feel scary, overwhelming, and disorganizing for a child. This experience can also occur when only one parent is deeply distraught or acts unpredictably around the child. These experiences as a child can cause symptoms of low self esteem while they’re happening, or they can manifest for years, contributing to low self esteem as an adult. The reason for this is that when a person is subjected to excessive conflicts between authority figures, it can feel as though they are actually part of, or responsible for, a parent’s painful circumstance. Intense conflict can feel extremely threatening to a small child, who can come to believe they are to blame. This feeling of being “tainted” is often carried into adulthood.


Being bullied as a child can leave its emotional marks for a long time, but if you have the support of a relatively safe, responsive, aware family, there is a much better chance of recovering and restoring self esteem. However, if the home life already feels unsafe or unstable, external torture can create an overwhelming sense of being lost, abandoned, hopeless, and feelings of self-loathing. When primary caregivers are otherwise occupied during periods of bullying, a child can struggle with feeling undeserving of notice, unworthy of attention, and resentful at being shortchanged. When the world feels unsafe, shame and pain come to the forefront. These feelings can also arise in situations where parents are distracted by transitional states. If there’s chaos at home, it can be hard for a child to ask for attention and, instead, retreat to become further isolated.

As a child or adult, it can also create a sense of mistrust, feeling like anyone who befriends you is doing you a favor, either because you see yourself as damaged or that most people have predatory, ulterior motives. Without a supportive home life, the effects of bullying can be magnified well into adulthood.

Academic Challenges

Those with a history of academic challenges are at risk to suffer from low self esteem. Feeling incapable of understanding what was happening in the classroom can be paralyzing for a child or teen. As a student falls further behind without anyone noticing or intervening, feelings of stupidity and inadequacy become deeply internalized. As a child or adult, a challenged learner can easily become preoccupied with and excessively doubt their own intelligence and ability to learn, causing them to feel terribly self-conscious about sharing thoughts and opinions. The shame of feeling as if you aren't good enough can be difficult to shake, even after you learn ways to accommodate academic difficulties.


Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse may be the most striking and overt causes of low self-esteem. Being forced into a physical and emotional position against your will can make it difficult to develop trust, which profoundly impacts self-esteem. Many trauma victims struggle with displaced guilt that can further feelings of shame and low self esteem. In an effort to gain control of their circumstances, victims can convince themselves that they were complicit or even to blame. This method of coping with abuse can lead to feelings of self loathing, repulsion, and deep shame. 

Society and the Media

It’s no secret that people in the media are packaged and airbrushed into unrealistic standards of physical beauty. Though the seeds of low and unhealthy self esteem can be sown elsewhere, images and depictions in television, movies, and advertising are pervasive and difficult to avoid. Unfortunately, as media access is available at such a young age, small children are exposed to unfair physical comparisons very early which has been seen to lead to an eating disorder and a negative self image. Feeling like you’re not enough in physical or materialistic ways from a young age can have great impacts well into adulthood that can result in poor self image. 

What are the signs of low self-esteem?

Ultimately, people with low self-esteem feel poorly about themselves and judge themselves to be inferior to others. This type of negative self talk puts them at risk of not fulfilling their true potential in life. It can hinder them from taking initiative to set and pursue personal goals; they may not put any effort into their education or career and accept poor treatment from family, friends and romantic partners. 

More specifically, here are some everyday signs of low self esteem:

  • Deprioritizing your own needs, wants, and feelings
  • Apologizing for things over which you have no control or responsibility
  • Feeling guilty about taking up emotional space 
  • Avoiding being the cause of any conflict 
  • Not feeling deserving of, or capable of, having “more”
  • Difficulty making your own choices
  • Lacking boundaries
  • Going above and beyond or buying gifts excessively for other people in order to be liked
  • Having a negative self-perception
  • Engaging in critical, abusive internal dialogue  

How do you combat low self-esteem?

Once low self esteem issues have been identified, how do you recover and reverse the effects? It’s important for anyone doing this work to remember that in almost every situation or condition, you can make choices that will improve your thinking and improve your life. To boost low self-esteem, it’s important to identify the negative beliefs and then challenge them. These negative feelings relating to self worth can be managed!

Here are some simple self esteem therapy exercises that may help: 

Recognise what you're good at 

We're all good at something, whether it's cooking, singing, doing puzzles or even just being a friend. It’s not a coincidence that we also tend to enjoy doing the things we're good at, which can help boost your mood and self esteem. 

Build positive relationships

Take inventory of the people in your life. If you find certain people tend to bring you down, spend less time with them, or confront their behavior in an effort to course correct the relationship. If they can’t adjust, it might be time to evaluate. Instead, try to build relationships with people who are positive and who appreciate you as you are.

Be kind to yourself

Being kind to yourself means being gentle when you feel self-critical. Think of what you'd say to a friend in a similar situation. We often give far better advice to others than we do to ourselves.

Learn to be assertive

Being assertive is about acknowledging what you need and being bold enough to ask for it. Create a space where it’s ok to prioritize your comfort. 

Start saying "no"

People with low self-esteem often feel they have to say yes to other people, even when they do not really want to. The risk is becoming overcome with feelings of being overburdened, resentful, angry and depressed. For the most part, saying no does not upset relationships. In fact, it can actually strengthen them by creating healthy boundaries.

Give yourself a challenge

We all feel nervous or afraid to do new things at times, but people with healthy self-esteem do not let these feelings stop them trying new things or taking on challenges. Set goals such as joining an exercise class or going to a social occasion. Achieving them will help to increase your self-esteem.

Where do you find help for low self-esteem?

It is possible to feel better. There are plenty of highly reviewed self-help books and plenty of podcasts hosted by real therapists that cover issues like low self esteem. 

Though, if you find that tackling self-esteem issues on your own isn’t getting you the results you want, it might be time to seek out professional support. Psychological therapies like counselling or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help. If you’ve never seen a mental health professional before, a good place to start is your general practitioner. Medical physicians typically have a list of referrals they can offer. If you don’t have a GP, or you’re not comfortable with that option, you can take the time to browse online directories or securely, safely, and quickly get matched with a licensed therapist using our therapy matching service

The sooner you connect with a therapist or counselor, the sooner you can start working toward understanding the sources of your issues and begin the process of repairing your self-esteem.


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