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Self-esteem What is self-esteem, and how does it affect us? Read on to find out more…

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem, in basic terms, is how you view yourself – the value you place on yourself and your own abilities.

 People with high self-esteem tend to like themselves most of the time. They don’t necessarily believe themselves to be perfect, or better than other people. Usually, they just like themselves enough to feel confident most of the time in their ability to navigate life’s ups and downs. They tend to feel positively about themselves and life in general.

People with low self-esteem may doubt their own abilities or expertise, and lack confidence. This can make it difficult for them to achieve their full potential, especially if they avoid challenging situations because of this lack of confidence. People with low self-esteem tend to see themselves and their lives in a negative light. They may feel less able to handle the difficulties life presents us with. They’re more likely to develop unhealthy and unhelpful coping mechanisms, such as smoking and drinking.

Low self-esteem can be a symptom of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. However, not everybody who has low self-esteem has a mental health issue.

Can our self-esteem change?

Yes. Self-esteem levels can change according to circumstances. For example, our self-esteem might lessen if we ask somebody out on a date and are turned down. By contrast, our self-esteem might rise if we do well in exam. The longevity of the change - how long our self-esteem stays high or low- varies.

Self-esteem can also change as we move from one stage of life to another. For example, many young people find their self-esteem initially decreases during puberty, as they find themselves more vulnerable to anxiety surrounding body image and peer pressure.

Here are some areas of life which may affect our self-esteem:

  • Home life
  • School or college
  • Relationships
  • Social media
  • Health

Low self-esteem often begins in childhood.  Largely positive experiences in the areas above are likely to contribute to a high self-esteem. By contrast, largely negative experiences in the areas above are likely to contribute towards a low self-esteem.

Personality can also play a part in one’s self-esteem. Some of us are simply more prone to negative thinking than others.

However, it’s natural for levels of self-esteem to fluctuate, and most people will experience high or low self-esteem at different stages of their lives. It is only if self-esteem is consistently very low (and on rare occasions, very high) that it can pose a problem. This can have a harmful effect on our mental health and our life in general.

Is it important to have high self-esteem?

It’s not crucial to have high self-esteem. However, most psychologists agree that a healthy level of self-esteem is important. A healthy level of self-esteem means you can feel okay with yourself while still treating others well – and that you’ll expect to be treated well by others. This can help you identify and leave unhealthy relationships or dangerous situations.

How can I increase my self-esteem?

There are many different ways you can increase your self-esteem. Chris Williams, Professor of Psychosocial Psychiatry at the University of Glasgow, says you need to identify and challenge the negative beliefs you have about yourself. “You need to look at your beliefs, how you learned them and why you believe them,” says Professor Williams. “Then actively begin to gather and write down evidence that disconfirms them.” Here are just a few ways in which you can improve your self-esteem by developing a more balanced view of yourself:

Choose to believe compliments

One way to improve your self-esteem is by choosing to believe compliments. When someone pays you a compliment, it's easy to tell yourself that the person doesn’t mean it, or that they’re mistaken. However, it’s important to remember that compliments are freely given. The person giving you a compliment didn't need to say anything at all – and most wouldn’t say something if they didn’t mean it.

Knowing you have low self-esteem can be empowering in situations like this. If you doubt the compliment that someone is giving you, try to remember that it’s probably because you have different beliefs about yourself – which aren’t necessarily true. Believe that the person complimenting you is telling the truth and thank them. Gradually, you may find it easier to both accept and believe compliments.

Make a list of your talents and qualities you like about yourself

When your confidence is low, it can be hard to remember reasons to like yourself. Taking stock of things that you like about yourself and things that you’re good at can give you something to look back on. Try writing a list, and if you’re struggling, ask trusted friends and family to suggest things. You could also try thinking about the negative traits that you don't have. The opposites of these bad traits are your good qualities. For example, a bad trait is dishonesty. If you know you’re not often dishonest, you can consider yourself honest – a positive trait.

Think about yourself the way your friends would

If we heard someone talk to our friends the way we talk to ourselves, we'd stick up for them. If we heard our friends talking themselves down, we'd reassure them. Try to value yourself in the way you value others, and challenge negative thoughts that you have about yourself. Remember, thoughts are just beliefs, and beliefs aren’t fact.

Look after yourself

Your mental health and your physical health are closely related. If you’re struggling with mental health issues it can be difficult to look after your physical health. However, improving your mental health can improve your physical health, and vice versa – so it’s really worth prioritizing taking care of yourself. Things that can make a big difference to your well-being include:

  • eating healthily
  • exercising
  • making time for activities you enjoy or find relaxing
  • making sure you are getting enough sleep
  • avoiding drinking too much alcohol

Get support in person

Most universities offer free and confidential counselling to their students. You should be able to find out more about this by looking on the university's website, or by contacting the student services department.

You can also talk to your doctor. Remember, your GP is there to help you with both your mental health and your physical health. You may be offered counselling or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Your GP might also suggest a book on prescription that will help you learn how to improve your self-esteem.

Find your nearest GP.

Get support online or on the phone

You don't have to talk to someone face-to-face to get support. You can also find support online or over the phone. This can be especially useful if you don't feel comfortable talking to someone in person yet, or need support while you are waiting for an appointment.

Many universities have a Nightline. This is a phone number you can call at night if you need somebody to talk to, when other services may be closed and friends or family may be asleep. Nightline is confidential and anonymous - you don't even have to give your name!

If you're under 18, ChildLine is happy to talk about anything that might be troubling you. Other organizations, such as Mind, offer mental health support to people of all ages.

Build better relationships

If certain people make you feel worse about yourself, try to tell them how their behavior is affecting you. In some cases it might be best to simply spend less time with them. If that is not possible, concentrate on building relationships with people who treat you well and make you feel good about yourself.

Leave your comfort zone

If you believe you’re not capable of something, then the only way to prove yourself wrong is by doing it. People with healthy self-esteem experience doubt and fear like everyone else – but they still try new things and leave their comfort zone. This increases their confidence in their abilities, and helps them achieve their full potential. Set yourself goals and work towards them. If you don’t succeed, you can at least feel good about trying in a way you wouldn’t have previously.