Self-esteem is our relationship with self; it is how we talk to ourselves, how we evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, and how we see our overall value. Individuals with high self-esteem are often more successful in work and school, report satisfying social relationships, more well-being, better coping skills, and are more likely to be perceived positively by others. Individuals with low self-esteem often judge and reject themselves, are more troubled by failures, and tend to exaggerate events as negative and threatening.
Self-Esteem Starts Early
Our early life experiences and relationships are important in developing our core beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world; they are persistent, habitual, and self-sustaining. Core beliefs act like a pair of glasses, they determine how we interpret every experience and interaction. A self-critical voice develops that narrates one’s expectations based on our core beliefs, dictating rules for living that include safety seeking and avoidance behaviors. For those with low self-esteem, a core belief like “I’m unworthy” can lead to rules like “I always have to work harder than everyone else,” “Saying no is not an option for me,” or “Never initiate contact with interesting and attractive people.” We protect ourselves and reinforce our core beliefs by running away, using safety behaviors, attacking others, and attacking ourselves.
Self-Esteem and Anxiety
There is a relationship between low self-esteem and anxiety disorders. Low self-esteem can predispose a person to developing an anxiety disorder, and is also a key feature of many anxiety disorders. For example, social anxiety disorder is characterized by fear and avoidance in social situations where there is the danger of scrutiny; self-esteem is an important determinant of how we interpret social situations. Over time, untreated anxiety disorders reinforce low self-esteem by eroding confidence, lowering self-efficacy, and contribute to isolation and interpersonal sensitivity.
Low self-esteem that accompanies an anxiety disorder can be significantly improved with individual and group therapy using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). With CBT, we can identify, understand and ultimately disarm the inner critic. CBT also includes behavioral experiments that involve testing the rules for living created by the critic for their helpfulness, accuracy, and alignment with our values. Treatment can help challenge core beliefs that drive low self-esteem and ultimately replace them with new, empowering beliefs.
The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale can be used to screen for low self-esteem.
References and additional resources:
Fennell, M. J. (1997). Low self-esteem: A cognitive perspective. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 25(1), 1-26.
Keane, L. & Loades, M.E. (2017). Low self-esteem and internalizing disorders in young people: A systematic review. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 22, 4-15. doi:10.1111/camh.12204
McKay, M., & Fanning, P. (2016). Self-esteem: A proven program of cognitive techniques for assessing, improving, and maintaining your self-esteem. New Harbinger Publications.