High self-esteem can benefit your relationships and your overall well-being — and you can do a lot to boost your perception of yourself and your abilities.
How do you feel about yourself? What do you think about your qualities, characteristics, and identity?
If you have a positive perception of yourself, you might say you have high self-esteem.
Simply put, self-esteem refers to how you feel about yourself, says Dr. Shana Feibel, a psychiatrist at The Lindner Center of Hope and the University of Cincinnati.
Self-esteem differs from both self-confidence and self-worth.
- Self-esteem: This describes your enduring perception of your qualities, abilities, and characteristics.
- Self-confidence: This refers to your belief in your own capabilities or the knowledge that you have the skills to navigate a particular task or situation.
- Self-worth: This describes your perception of your own value and worthiness as a person. Generally speaking, high self-worth means you view yourself as valuable and worthy of respect, love, and belonging.
Feeling less confident in certain circumstances doesn’t automatically affect your self-esteem. For instance, you might not have much confidence when you start painting classes but still feel certain you’ll learn quickly. After all, you’ve done well with every art class you’ve taken before, and you know you’re pretty good at art overall.
When someone cruelly insults your art, you might feel comfortable setting boundaries with them and brushing their comment off, because your self-worth tells you that you deserve respect.
A lack of self-esteem, however, can affect both your confidence in your abilities and your sense of self-worth.
The good news? If you don’t have high self-esteem, you can absolutely take steps to cultivate it.
If you have high self-esteem, it likely takes a lot to shake your self-image.
At school or work
Feibel offers one example to consider: Think about how you might react if you overheard someone making fun of your outfit or the thoughts you shared in your literature class. If you have high self-esteem, the teasing likely won’t bother you much, since it doesn’t affect your internal perception of yourself.
If you have lower self-esteem, however, you might take those remarks to heart. Maybe you start to second-guess your interpretation of the short story. Or, when you get home, you take your once-favorite outfit off and stuff it into a bag to donate.
As another example, say you have a challenging work project. You’ve put a lot of effort into it, but you can’t quite get your results to align with what your supervisor asked for.
If you have high self-esteem, you likely won’t internalize your lack of success, or take it to mean you’re bad at your job or incompetent. You might instead take a problem-solving approach by going back to your boss, admitting you’re stuck, and asking for a few suggestions.
Self-esteem can also come into play in your relationships, particularly when a partner treats you poorly. If you have high self-esteem and your partner tries to put you down, you might find it easy to stand up to them, defend your good qualities, ignore their insults, and ultimately, leave a toxic or abusive relationship.
On the other hand, long-term verbal or emotional abuse from a partner or other loved one can easily wear away at your self-esteem. You might begin to believe them when they say nobody else will want you, or that you deserve their unkind treatment.
People often link narcissism to extremely high self-esteem, but you can absolutely have high self-esteem without having narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), or any traits of narcissism.
First, it’s important to understand there’s a lot more to NPD than high self-esteem. People with NPD also tend to have:
- a sense of superiority
- grandiose or exaggerated fantasies about their abilities and talents
- a strong sense that they deserve admiration and attention
- less empathy for the feelings of others
What’s more, while people with NPD often seem to have high self-esteem on the surface, they may have an internal sense of vulnerability and insecurity.
“Narcissistic people tend to feel hollow and empty inside, while people with high self-esteem do not feel empty and value themselves,” Feibel adds.
Children with narcissism tend to:
- have unrealistically positive, inflated, or exalted views of themselves
- strive for superiority — in short, they aim to rise above their peers and stand out from the crowd
- have a fragile self-concept that easily fluctuates between shame and excessive self-confidence
Children with high self-esteem, on the other hand, generally:
- have positive but realistic views of themselves
- strive for self-improvement and personal growth
- believe in their own worth, even when faced with challenges or setbacks
The researchers also noted that parents can cultivate high self-esteem in kids by:
- prioritizing growth instead of superiority — in other words, emphasizing that it’s more important to learn than to outperform others
- offering realistic and kind feedback instead of excessive or empty praise
- making sure your children know you love and value them unconditionally, not just when they achieve something
Even though this research focused on parents raising children, you can still apply these principles to yourself. In short, it never hurts to focus on growth, assess your abilities realistically, and treat yourself kindly, no matter what.
“High self-esteem can be an integral part of a sense of good well-being and having good mental health,” says Dr. Sid Khurana, a Las Vegas-based psychiatrist.
Indeed, evidence links high self-esteem with better mental health and quality of life outcomes overall. According to 2022 research considering the various benefits of self-esteem, higher self-esteem may lead to improved:
- Social relationships: Higher self-esteem can make it more likely you’ll seek out connections with people who value you as much as you value yourself, which can lead to greater relationship satisfaction. What’s more, high self-esteem may also make it easier to handle rejection in relationships.
- Performance at school: As a natural consequence of high self-esteem, you may feel more motivated and engaged — which can make it more likely you’ll feel invested in studying and completing your assignments.
- Performance at work: High self-esteem may improve your relationships with co-workers and make it more likely that you’ll persist when faced with challenges, so you may feel more satisfied with your job and experience greater success as a result.
- Mental health: Higher self-esteem may lower the chances you’ll experience mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, in part because you’re less likely to engage in rumination. This pattern of fixating on the same dark, unwanted, or upsetting thoughts can factor into both anxiety and depression.
- Physical health: High self-esteem may indirectly boost your physical health because it often translates to strong, supportive social connections. That said, the review authors emphasize the need for more research.
- Antisocial behaviors: High self-esteem may also make it less likely you’ll engage in antisocial behavior, like acts of bullying, violence, or manipulation. People with lower self-esteem may be more likely to use aggressive tactics to earn attention or social power, review authors say, though they emphasize the need for more research.
According to Khurana, your experiences in childhood — such as love and nurture, rules and expectations, rewards, and praise — shape your self-esteem as an adult.
If you have lower self-esteem, Khurana says, you may be more likely to:
- experience self-doubt
- engage in negative self-talk
- compare yourself to others and find that you fall short
- have people-pleasing and approval-seeking tendencies
- have trouble setting boundaries with others
- experience difficulties in your interpersonal relationships
But you can take steps to heal and help your self-esteem flourish. These tips can help:
1. Tune into your self-perception
Self-esteem relates to your perception of who you are, so it may help to consider what you think of yourself. A more thorough exploration of your self-perception can help you begin to develop your self-esteem.
As a start, you might take some quiet time for deep thought or journaling to unpack this question. Digging into your beliefs about yourself can help you learn more about who you are and where your self-esteem may need a bit of gentle tending.
Maybe you feel extremely good when you succeed at work and extremely bad when you don’t. From there, you might ask why your self-perception depends on your work performance. What beliefs about work have you come to adopt over the years? Does any evidence support them?
2. Build healthy relationships
Khurana and Feibel both note that relationships, especially familial relationships, play a major role in the development of self-esteem. Once you become an adult, the people around you may either reinforce low self-esteem or help boost it.
Building positive connections, with new people or people you already know, could go a long way toward helping reinforce your self-esteem. Higher self-esteem, in turn, can help you maintain those relationships.
Wondering what makes a relationship healthy? As a general rule, you’ll:
- feel comfortable discussing your thoughts and feelings
- offer each other mutual emotional support
- handle conflict with kindness and respect
3. Practice positive self-talk
Paying attention to how you talk with yourself can also make a difference.
To check your self-talk, you might ask yourself if you use words that build you up — or bring you down. Would you feel comfortable if someone spoke to your best friend the way you speak to yourself?
Negative self-talk can warp your view of yourself, which may, in turn, have an impact on both your mental health and your relationships with others.
To curb negative self-talk, you can:
- Notice when it happens and name the thought: For example, “I’m useless because I messed up my presentation at work” or “This dinner is a complete failure. Why did I even bother? I can’t do anything right.”
- Challenge the thought with logic: For example, “Everybody makes mistakes — this doesn’t mean I’m a bad worker. Presenting may not be my strong point, but I have plenty of other skills.” Or, “So I was a little ambitious with my cooking plans, but I can probably salvage this. And if not, we can always laugh about it and order a pizza.”
- Repeat: When the thought comes up again, respond with the same logic.
Feibel also emphasizes the importance of treating yourself with kindness, which might involve recognizing and recording your strengths and achievements. This doesn’t mean overpraising yourself with gushing and false enthusiasm, but simply noticing — in a journal or freewriting exercise, for instance — what you’re realistically good at.
4. Cultivate a growth mindset
If you have a fixed mindset, you may feel reluctant to try new things. You may prefer to play it safe by sticking with what you know you can do — since you believe trying and failing would mean you, yourself, are a failure.
But when you have a
This mindset can also help you learn not to internalize your mistakes or use them to bolster negative perceptions of yourself. Rather, you’ll more than likely build resilience and feel more comfortable with new experiences.
Connecting with a mental health professional can have a lot of benefits when it comes to improving self-esteem.
A therapist can offer more support with:
- pinpointing specific beliefs fueling low self-esteem
- recognizing and breaking patterns of negative self-talk
- exploring childhood experiences that shaped your self-esteem
- identifying signs of healthy relationships
Research from 2018 suggests cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may prove particularly helpful for improving self-esteem.
Other approaches to consider include dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and psychodynamic therapy.
Pretty much everyone questions their confidence and abilities from time to time, but if you mostly feel good about yourself and your abilities, you probably have fairly high self-esteem.
If you consistently doubt yourself or have trouble naming any of your strengths or positive traits, you may have lower self-esteem.
There’s a lot you can do to change these perceptions and cultivate a higher regard for yourself, which can make a difference in your overall well-being and your relationships — with others and with yourself.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.