Self-esteem is one of the core concepts in regard to our self-perception, self-worth, and self-understanding. Self-esteem is something that people refer to all the time, be it a mental health professional, a regular person, and everyone in between.
What Is Self-Esteem?
The word esteem comes from a Latin word aestimare, which means to estimate, to value, to evaluate, to judge. Self means that it’s about me, and I’m the one who’s estimating myself.
We estimate ourselves in terms of our worth, actions, skills, abilities, emotions, motives, and various other things. We do it consciously or unconsciously. Our estimation of ourselves can be correct, incorrect, or partially correct.
How Self-Esteem Develops
We are not born already being able to accurately assess the world and ourselves. Self-reflection is something a child starts developing as they become self-aware and develop a stronger sense of self.
In order for a child to develop a healthy and accurate self-esteem, they need mirroring, attunement, and validation from the caregiver. If the child doesn‘t get enough of it, their ability to self-assess is stunted or even damaged.
A big factor in the development of our self-esteem is the fact that as children we are dependent on our caregivers. By the nature of it, our early self-perception is mostly shaped by how we are seen by our primary caregivers and other authority figures. We internalize other people‘s perception of us and eventually it becomes our self-image.
All of this means that if our early environment provides a skewed perception of us, we develop a skewed self-esteem. This impacts our lives as the issues that stem from it follow us into our adulthoods and sometimes last a lifetime.
These issues manifest themselves on many levels: intellectual (false beliefs, magical thinking, unrealistic standards), emotional (depression, chronic shame and guilt), or behavioral (addiction, self-loathing or destructive behavior).
Core Unhealthy Self-Esteem Categories
All self-esteem issues can be divided into two main categories. The first one is self-underestimation, which means that a person sees themselves as worse than they actually are. It relates to low self-worth, a lack of self-confidence, self-doubt, etc.
The second category is self-overestimation, which refers to a person’s tendency to see themselves as better than they actually are. Examples would be shallowness, false self-confidence, fakeness, fixation on social status, and so on.
Below, we will explore five common self-esteem issues people have. Some of them you may notice in yourself while others may apply to people you know or have observed.
1. Never Feeling Good Enough
A lot of people grow up feeling that they are not good enough. If as children we are treated unfairly, like we are worthless or not good enough, then we may grow up believing that we are never enough.
Often such a belief stems from being held to unrealistic standards (perfectionism), being compared to others, and generally mistreated.
Growing up with such a mindset leads us to believe that whatever we are doing is not good enough, that we always have to do more, that we can never relax, and many other false thoughts.
Many people are raised to take care of others and undermine their own needs, wants, preferences, emotions, and goals. Many caregivers wittingly or unwittingly see their child as someone who supposed to meet many of their needs (role reversal).
As a result of such an environment, the child, and later the adult-child, learns to self-sacrifice and self-erase. This leads to strong people-pleasing tendencies, poor self-care, aimlessness, emotional confusion, the inability so say “no,” and detachment from self.
3. Lack of self-love and self-care
People who tend to underestimate themselves often suffer from poor self-care because they lacked love and care growing up. As I write in my book Human Development and Trauma: How Our Childhood Shapes Us Into Who We Are as Adults, “Children who were not properly cared for and didn’t have good examples of self-loving, self-responsible, healthy caregivers often grow up into adults who have difficulties taking care of themselves.“
So now such a person consciously or unconsciously believes that they are unworthy of love and of getting their needs met. Sometimes it comes down to poor self-care skills, but often it comes from a deeper psychological belief that you are not important enough, that you are not worthy of it, that you can’t have it, or that you don’t matter.
A person who believes all of that, then, acts in a self-neglectful or even self-destructive and self-sabotaging manner. Childhood neglect leads to self-neglect.
4. Strong Narcissistic Tendencies
People who strongly over-estimate themselves usually fall into a category that is referred to as narcissism, psychopathy, or sociopathy. While these tendencies are on a wide spectrum, they have certain things in common.
Most common characteristics of a highly narcissistic person are insecurity, poor emotional regulation, black and white thinking, seeing others as objects, self-absorption, manipulation, superficial charm, constant seeking for attention and social status, fakeness, confusion and inconsistency, pseudo-virtuousness, chronic lying and deception, projection, callousness, and a lack of self.
For the most part, narcissistic and otherwise toxic tendencies are defense mechanisms, or adaptations, that a person developed to adapt to their painful and otherwise unbearable environment.
They are extremely difficult to heal because, one, narcissists lack the very self-awareness that is necessary to change; and two, because many of these behaviors and character traits are often socially rewarded, hence there is little or even no incentive to change.
5. Social Anxiety and Psychological Dependency
Since we are highly influenced by others while growing up, many of us grow up being overly sensitive to other people’s perceptions of us. This manifests itself in numerous anxious thoughts and beliefs later in life: “What if they think I’m stupid?” “They think I’m ugly.” “What can I do for them to like me?” “What if they will think I’m a bad person?” “I don’t want to appear weak.” And so on.
A lot of people are dependent on other people’s validation and opinions. They either seek positive validation, or try to avoid disapproval and invalidation. This psychological dependency on others creates a lot of social anxiety and often results in dysfunctional behavior.
Summary and Closing Words
Self-esteem is a crucial element in our mental health and our overall well-being. How we see ourselves is significantly shaped by our early environment and our relationships with our primary caregivers. Later, it also involves other authority figures, peers, and similar influencers.
The more accurately we see ourselves, the more accurate our self-esteem is. As children, we start internalizing how others see us, and it becomes our self-perception. In many cases and in many aspects, this self-image is significantly skewed, which results in numerous psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems.
As adults, we can explore our self-perception and our ability to evaluate ourselves. Then we can correct the things that are untrue and problematic and develop a healthier self-esteem.
Photo by Alba Soler
Did you recognize any of this in your own upbringing? How did it affect you? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.