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Self-esteem refers to your opinion of yourself. Low self-esteem can get in the way of your enjoyment of life and your ability to achieve long- and short-term goals. It can also adversely affect mental and physical health.

In this article, we’ll discuss the characteristics and causes of low self-esteem. We’ll also provide strategies for improving your feelings about yourself.

People with low self-esteem have a poor opinion of themselves. Some characteristics may include that you may:

  • not like yourself very much
  • assume that others don’t like you because you’re unlikeable or damaged
  • think of yourself as unlovable or unworthy of love

Everyone has moments of doubt about who they are and what they’ve achieved. You may do or say something that makes you temporarily ashamed of or annoyed with yourself.

Those temporary or periodic feelings are not the same as low self-esteem.

Low self-esteem refers to long-term negativity about who you are and how you show up in the world. These negative feelings can be persistent and hard to challenge.

For example, if someone compliments you, you may not believe them. If you achieve a goal, you may not allow yourself to take credit for it.

Feelings of self-esteem can change over time by newly manifesting or coming back in adulthood.

You may do something — or have something done to you — that lowers your opinion of yourself at any point during your life. In some instances, this may be linked to behaviors that are out of sync with your value system or personal ethics. It may also be caused by being in an abusive relationship with a romantic partner, boss, or significant other.

The roots of self-esteem are often found in early childhood or adolescence. Genetics may also play a role. In some instances, a combination of genetic and environmental factors may influence a person’s self-esteem.

Early causes

Early negative experiences can cause you to have a poor opinion of yourself.

Yet, people have widely varying levels of resilience to outside circumstances. You can experience one or more causes of low self-esteem without it actually affecting your personal self-esteem.

Potential causes of low self-esteem during childhood and adolescence include:

  • experiencing ongoing harsh criticism from authority figures, such as parents or teachers
  • being raised by emotionally distant parents or caregivers
  • going through childhood trauma, such as parental divorce or sexual abuse
  • having trouble keeping up at school
  • having a physical or mental disability
  • feeling less attractive than the ideal image portrayed in social media

Genetics

Researchers have been studying this issue for many years, but there is not much research published specifically on the genetic causes of low self-esteem.

In this 2011 study, researchers noticed that positive psychological traits — such as high self-esteem, optimism, and mastery — often ran in families. They found that specific variants (alleles) in OXTR, the oxytocin receptor gene, were associated with lower self-esteem, less optimism, and feelings of low personal mastery. Depressive symptoms were also identified in people with this allele.

Oxytocin, the hormone coded by OXTR, is a feel-good chemical produced by the hypothalamus, a part of your brain. It plays a role in sexual arousal, trust, bonding, and romantic attachment.

Researchers from this study stressed that having an OXTR allele was not the sole factor associated with low self-esteem. They also made it clear that this genetic variant did not predict low self-esteem or mean you would absolutely have it.

Plus, the findings from this study are not universally accepted.

In fact, 2018 research disputes those earlier findings, noting that it remains unclear whether genetics play a role in the development of self-esteem.

Ultimately, more research in this area is needed before experts can come to any conclusions.

Characteristics of people with low self-esteem include:

  • having self-deprecating internal conversations with yourself (negative self-talk)
  • comparing yourself negatively to others
  • ignoring your achievements or not believing you are responsible for them
  • blaming yourself for circumstances beyond your control
  • not accepting or believing compliments
  • avoiding challenges or goal setting
  • thinking you don’t deserve happiness, love, or fun
  • not handling criticism well
  • feeling shame and worthlessness
  • focusing too much on physical characteristics, such as weight and height

Having bad feelings about yourself can lead to an increase in anxiety and depression. This can cause self-isolation and poor quality of life. It may also increase the risk of self-harming behaviors such as cutting, substance misuse, and suicide.

A 2019 study on secondary students in Vietnam found an association between low self-esteem and anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Educational stress and emotional abuse by parents or other adults were risk factors for these feelings.

Low self-esteem has also been linked to disordered eating, according to 2021 research.

Self-esteem and self-confidence are connected, but they’re not exactly the same thing. To have confidence in yourself, you need to have at least some level of self-esteem.

If you have high self-esteem, you value yourself, even if you make mistakes or can’t do something specific.

Self-confidence depends on the circumstances at hand. You may, for example, have lots of self-confidence in your ability to address an audience but none in your ability to build a house.

A self-confident person is one who is willing to try new things (within reason). A person with high self-esteem knows they still have value, even if they fail when they try those new things.

Low self-esteem can become a deeply ingrained part of your nature. But by practicing self-care, you can improve low self-esteem and reduce its effect on your daily life.

Self-care and self-affirming behaviors are not one-size-fits-all. Things to try include:

  • letting go of the past and stop worrying about the future through mindfulness and meditation
  • reciting positive affirmations daily
  • journaling
  • practicing self-hygiene
  • utilizing stress reduction techniques such as deep breathing
  • physical activity such as exercising and yoga
  • grounding exercises that quiet negative thoughts
  • socializing with people you trust and feel good about
  • accepting and believing compliments
  • acknowledging your own achievements

Self-care also involves examining your current relationships. You can’t do anything about the past, but you can alter or get yourself out of damaging relationships happening now. In some instances, this may require the support of friends or mental health professionals.

When to seek professional help

Low self-esteem can be challenging to shift. If you have persistent negative feelings about yourself that don’t respond to self-care, consider seeing a mental health professional, such as a therapist. This is especially important if you’re hurting yourself, misusing drugs or alcohol, or having thoughts of suicide.

You should also seek out the support of a professional if your current relationships make you feel worse about yourself.

Low self-esteem often has its roots in childhood trauma. Being in a stressful school environment or having overly critical caregivers can also play a role.

Low self-esteem can be treated and improved. In many instances, self-care will be enough to give you a more positive, realistic view of yourself. If self-care is not enough to provide relief, seeking professional help can be highly beneficial.