NHS Lothian

An overview of Self-esteem

2 min read

What is self-esteem?

Your self-esteem can be described as the opinion that you have of yourself, including the thoughts and beliefs you hold about your own value and self-worth. The bottom line is that you will define your self-esteem by the value you think you have as an individual. Having low self-esteem isn’t a mental health problem in itself, but it can overlap with some psychological difficulties such as anxiety, depression or traumatic stress. People with low self-esteem frequently ignore or undermine their own achievements or positive qualities, and criticise themselves and their actions or abilities excessively. Your self-esteem can vary a lot depending on the situation. For example, you may feel okay about how you handle yourself at work, but you might feel insecure about your relationships.

What’s it like to have low self-esteem?

People who struggle with low self-esteem often have long-held negative beliefs about themselves and the type of person they are. They are likely to accept their negative beliefs as absolute certainties, even in the face of praise, compliments or evidence to the contrary. If a person has low self-esteem, they might be prone to saying or thinking negative things about themselves, such as: “I’m no good”, or “I’m so stupid” or “I’m worthless.” They might feel inferior to other people, find it hard to assert themselves in situations, seek lots of reassurance from the people around them, or be overly self-conscious. They’ll also often put themselves down, criticise themselves or blame themselves for things that aren’t their fault.

What causes low self-esteem?

Experiences in early life have a huge influence on how self-esteem develops. The environment and the treatment you receive from the people around you growing up (e.g. parents, relatives, teachers and friends) play a huge part in determining whether you come to view yourself in a positive or a negative light as an adult. Other influences, such as social media and TV, will give other messages about what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that can affect how you feel about yourself.

Some of the experiences that can shape self-esteem in a positive way include:

  • Being treated with respect and being listened to
  • Having your needs properly attended to
  • Feeling loved, accepted or cared about
  • Receiving adequate praise and encouragement from caregivers

There are lots of possible causes for low self-esteem. These can happen in childhood or later in life. They include:

  • Experiencing neglect, abuse or mistreatment
  • Experiencing stigma or discrimination
  • Being bullied or ignored
  • Being criticised or punished for failures or mistakes
  • Being made to feel unworthy of love or unacceptable the way you are
  • Having an illness, disability, physical or mental health problems
  • Experiencing problems with learning at school or at work


Low self-esteem can also be a consequence of other problems, such as depression, anxiety, or severe stress. It’s important to know that low self-esteem can develop at any age as a result of your circumstances, but by tackling the cause you can often improve your self-esteem.

How common is low self-esteem?

Most people feel dissatisfied and unhappy with themselves at some point in their lives. Sometimes life events such as job loss, relationship breakdowns, or illness can dent self-esteem until the situation improves or resolves. For the majority of people, however, these dents to self-esteem are temporary.

Urgent Help


If you, or someone you know, is in crisis and in imminent danger of causing harm to themselves or others, call 999 immediately

Help within 24 hours