• Counsellor Yingli Wang specialises in working with women who suffer from low self-esteem and self-worth issues

  • Here she shares the common ways we compromise our self-esteem and how we can rebuild it

  • We have therapists who specialise in working with low self-esteem – find yours here 

What is self-esteem? How does self-esteem differ from self-worth? 

Self-esteem is one of the hottest topics in the mental health field – it is estimated that approximately 25,000 papers have been written on this subject. So what is self-esteem exactly? And what is the difference between self-esteem and self-worth?

People often confuse self-esteem and self-worth because they are closely linked, yet they are quite different. Self-esteem comes from the praise and encouragement we receive from external sources, meaning external validation; self-worth refers to our intrinsic value as human beings and relates to how much worth we feel about ourselves – the inner support we can learn to give to ourselves. Self-worth is an inside job, while self-esteem can be boosted through external validation.

What leads to low self-esteem?

One of the factors that leads to low self-esteem is not being nurtured or celebrated by others in ways that support our development or confidence – put another way, low self-esteem can be the result of the criticism we absorbed from those around us while growing up. For example, if we were told by our parents that we are not good at drawing, and we believed them, then we may have developed a lack of confidence in making art. Similarly, if we were mocked because of our weight – and we internalised that ridicule – then it is likely we would grow up feeling our bodies are flawed.

So, we can say that someone with low self-esteem is someone who has not had their needs met and who has not felt sufficiently celebrated or encouraged by the world around them.

Is having high self-esteem always a good thing? 

We live in a society which promotes the idea that more/bigger/higher is always better. But is this the case with self-esteem?

Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson notes that bullies have higher self-esteem than the average person – they don’t feel bad about themselves when they hit you; rather, they are thinking badly of you. Swedish-Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus, an expert on bullying prevention, also concludes that bullies have inappropriately high self-esteem, which is why they think they are entitled to bully others. It seems that bullies don’t suffer from a neurotic weakness in self-image.

This tells us that it isn’t necessarily healthy for people to always have a good opinion about themselves. Rather, we need to take an objective and accurate look at ourselves – including our strengths and weaknesses, acknowledging that we have areas for self-improvement, while accepting our shortcomings.

5 ways we compromise our self-esteem

  • Pathological self-criticism: Our pathological inner critic undermines our self-esteem by setting unrealistic expectations of perfection, then beating us up for the smallest mistakes. 
  • People-pleasing behaviour: This is when we ingratiate ourselves to others to try and win their approval. When people are angry or disappointed with us, we tend to feel it is our fault or that we are bad people. When we try to please others in these negative ways, we compromise our values and opinions. .
  • Making comparisons: Many of us have a tendency to compare ourselves to others, noticing their achievements and abilities and feeling “less than” they are. Indeed, we live in a culture that does not empower individuals to feel physiologically and emotionally safe, to be bold and creative; rather, we often find ourselves in a state of physiological and emotional vulnerability in which we are always trying to convince ourselves that we have value.
  • Fear of mistakes: We tend to imagine that if we were perfect and correct in every way, then we would feel good about ourselves. In fact, self-esteem has nothing to do with being perfect. Being afraid to make mistakes can lead to decision and action paralysis, which will damage our self-esteem.
  • Disconnection from our life purpose: When we lack passion and feel we have no purpose in life, we can feel a sense of emptiness, and our self-esteem shrinks because we have yet to find our authentic self.

7 ways to build self-esteem

The good news is that we can build up our self-esteem, although it takes time and practice to develop the new thoughts and habits we need in order to have greater confidence. 

1. Understand your stories/narratives via therapy

Many people with low self-esteem had their emotions invalidated in childhood – their feelings were judged or denied, they were blamed for having feelings, their feelings and experiences were minimised. A good therapist can help you to heal by showing you how to validate your feelings. A good therapist will help you to discover how your family history and childhood experiences shaped you – and how you can change for the better.

2. Develop a skill 

It’s hard to feel good and confident about yourself if you have nothing to be confident about. This is nothing to do with your intrinsic value as a person – everyone has intrinsic value – but not everyone has something in their life that makes them feel proud. So, a crucial step to building self-esteem is to nurture those things that make us feel good about ourselves. For example, if you were criticised in childhood for not being good at drawing, it might help undertake art activities that support and stretch you, so you can develop this skill. As you do so, you may feel your ‘inner child’ embarking on a healing journey – and you can also gain confidence from the fact you are learning to overcome your psychological barriers.

3. Learn to handle mistakes 

For self-esteem to grow, we need to learn to handle our mistakes. As mentioned above, when we’re afraid to make mistakes, we can fail to act: paralysis sets in and we feel stuck. But making mistakes at some point in our lives is inevitable: we cannot learn any new task or skill without making some errors along the way!

4. Self-acceptance

Nathaniel Branden, author of The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, says that without self-acceptance, self-esteem is impossible. As a therapist, I’ve noticed a number of clients confuse these two concepts: they fear that if they accept themselves they will lose motivation and their lives will become stagnant – they believe that self-acceptance somehow prevents self-improvement – but, in fact, self-improvement can only follow self-acceptance.

5. Take responsibility for your life

A person who does not take responsibility – who makes excuses, blames others and plays the victim – is a person with low self-esteem. You can’t develop your self-esteem until you acknowledge your own role in the problem and take full responsibility for it.

6. Be assertive and set healthy boundaries

Being really clear about the boundaries you need to set yourself is crucial for building healthy self-esteem. Be clear and assertive when communicating your expectations to others: don’t overly apologise or offer long explanations because this will undermine your inner authority and self-esteem.

Yingli Wang is a verified welldoing.org counsellor in London and online

Further reading

What's the connection between shame and low self-esteem?

5 tips to relax on perfectionism and raise self-esteem

How to nurture more self-compassion

Practising compassion won't make you a pushover

How to be assertive and set healthy boundaries