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Top Ten Facts about Low Self Esteem

Mark Tyrrell
Article by Mark Tyrrell
Therapist trainer of 25 years
Co-founder of Hypnosis Downloads

Uncommon facts about self esteem that will help you feel better now

If you suffer from low self esteem (or have been told you do), or treat people with low self esteem (or think you do), please read on. There are a fair few myths that can block your progress if you're trying to lift self esteem.

The good news is, low self esteem has been scientifically studied and the findings of this research helped inform the facts you'll find here. (1)

1) Low self esteem is not to blame for being bad!

Firstly people with genuinely low self esteem, a poor self image and low confidence, have been insensitively lumped together with bullies, narcissists, criminals and child abusers. No, really!

A popular assumption was that people did bad things to other people because they, themselves have low self esteem. But fear not. All the evidence points to the conclusion that low self esteem is a distinct condition, so if you do have low self esteem you don't have to feel that you are in the same group as bullies or abusers.

Research has found that people with genuine low self esteem tend to treat themselves badly, not other people. Stopping people being bullies by trying to lift their self esteem may be like trying to get an obese person to lose weight by feeding them lots of cake.

In the 1980s there was a movement to raise self esteem in schools in the belief that this would stop bullies bullying and prevent future crime in society. But peer reviewed research has shown schools trying to raise self esteem don't prevent bullies bullying (2) (because low self esteem wasn't causing them to bully).

Artificially and ineffectively focusing on lifting self esteem doesn't raise academic performance either (3). As you'll see, the 4 methods schools used may have even damaged the sense of self worth in those suffering genuine low self esteem.

Low self esteem is not to blame for nearly as many problems as has traditionally been thought. It was also assumed that self esteem could never be too high...

2) Too high self esteem is linked to criminality

It is now clear that too high self esteem or 'High Self Esteem Disorder' is often more of a problem. (This is NOT merely a 'disguised' form of low self esteem, as commonly thought). So, if you are the victim of a bully then you can rest assured you don't have to feel sorry for them.

Hundreds of pieces of reliable research now show that bullies and many criminals are much more likely to suffer from unrealistically high self esteem and impulse control problems than low self esteem.

An exaggerated sense of entitlement - expecting much from many situations - is more likely to lead to frustration and aggressive, antisocial, or even criminal behaviour.  It was a crazy and unwarranted assumption that all human behaviour could be explained away by low self esteem.

So what are the symptoms of real low self esteem?

3) Characteristics of genuinely low self esteem

  1. Social withdrawal
  2. Anxiety and emotional turmoil
  3. Lack of social skills and self confidence. Depression and/or bouts of sadness
  4. Less social conformity
  5. Eating disorders
  6. Inability to accept compliments
  7. An Inability to see yourself 'squarely' - to be fair to yourself
  8. Accentuating the negative
  9. Exaggerated concern over what you imagine other people think
  10. Self neglect
  11. Treating yourself badly but NOT other people
  12. Worrying whether you have treated others badly
  13. Reluctance to take on challenges
  14. Reluctance to put yourself first
  15. Reluctance to trust your own opinion
  16. Expecting little out of life for yourself.

So what is likely to cause very low self esteem? Take a look at how to build self esteem. But one major factor is history.

4) Child abuse increases likelihood of low self esteem

People who were abused as children (physical beating or sexual abuse) are more likely to suffer low self esteem as adults (6). They have learned that they are of little value in themselves or just an object to be used. They have been 'brain washed' by constant criticism or abuse that they are a certain way.

When a person begins to question this former conditioning or brainwashing then a healthier and more accurate sense of self can begin to emerge. This happens in a similar way to how people may break away from the brainwashing of a cult.

There are other forms of abuse and certainly a history of being heavily criticized or unfavorably compared to others can lead to low self esteem ("why can't you be more like your brother!").

Former abuse may lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which maintains the sense of "damage" and low self worth. Once traumatic memories are dealt with effectively the mind becomes clearer to form a better self esteem. So what else does the low self esteem sufferer need?

So past conditioning (often but not always from childhood) can produce low self esteem in adults. But why didn't the drive to raise self esteem in school kids (starting in California with a legislature to raise self esteem) prevent childhood depression and low self esteem from increasing?

5) You can't argue someone better!

The 1980s drive to raise low self esteem in schools backfired (4). Why? Well it was based on the idea that low self esteem can be successfully treated by a bombardment of "positive messages".

But research has shown that positive affirmations actually worsen the mood of people who already have low self esteem (5). It seems that positive thinking as a "blunt instrument" used repetitively to try to brainwash people to feel better about themselves is too superficial an approach. And the person with low self esteem senses this.

Telling someone they are great or wonderful when they are constantly negative about themselves will not work. Imagine if you really detest yourself and someone tells you that you're lovely even as they are telling everyone else the same thing.

In fact people with low self esteem can be upset by disconfirming feedback. Healthy self esteem needs to emerge subtly, not as a sudden result of hearing you are 'really special' or 'fantastic'.

Paradoxically, being "too nice" to someone with very low self esteem can drive them away. People need to develop better self esteem gradually, through "proof" in the real world. Just being repeatedly told (by someone who doesn't know you that well) that "you're wonderful" has never been found to work in lifting low self esteem.

Whenever we're highly emotional our perception is distorted. When people calm down around the idea of themselves then a healthier self esteem can emerge like a green island coming into view when mist clears.

What else do those with low self esteem need?

6) A little more uncertainty can help

Contrary to popular opinion, people with low self esteem tend to be very sure of themselves. That's the problem. This manifests in their conviction that they are worthless or inadequate. As you will know if you have ever tried to argue with someone who puts themselves down continually, it is very hard to do!

When someone with low self esteem starts to become less sure of their own opinion of themselves and therefore begins to assess counter evidence regarding their worthlessness, their self image begins to become more healthy. At first the "ugly" duckling was certain it was a failed duck but that misdirected certainty had to loosen before its true life direction could become clear.

Good self esteem is actually a by-product of living in a healthy way. So rather than trying to raise it directly it's easier to focus elsewhere (such on what a person does) and let self esteem rise as a happy side effect of a change in living. What do we all need in life that will help us incidentally feel better about ourselves?

7) Build on solid foundations

For anyone to be psychologically and physically healthy then core needs have to be fulfilled. Being clear about what you need and making efforts to meet those needs constructively means you'll naturally have better self esteem as a by-product of living well.

This is useful list of primal human needs:

  1. The need to give and receive attention
  2. The need to look after your body.
  3. The need for meaning, purpose and goals.
  4. The need for a connection to something greater than ourselves
  5. The need for creativity and stimulation
  6. The need for intimacy and connection to others.
  7. The need for a sense of control
  8. The need for a sense of status and recognition from others.
  9. The need for a sense of safety and security.

Of course, it is likely that at any one time, one or more of these may be slightly lacking in your life, without dire consequences. However, in the long-term, they must all be catered for one way or another.

Something else the "low self esteemer" needs is the capacity to focus off their own emotionality and merge with experience so they gain more enjoyment from life.

8) Healthy pleasures are vital

When you have a healthy level of self esteem (not self hating but not narcissistically self involved either) then you find it easier to actually forget about yourself. You'll only think about your toe if it's in pain or if you are obsessively proud of it - otherwise it can take care of itself. It's the same with your sense of self.

We all need to engage in activities which we enjoy and in which we can 'lose ourselves' regularly.

Someone's mental and even, to some extent, physical health can be directly related to how 'self-referential' they are in their conversation - as people become healthier they use the 'I' word less (7), in the same way that when your knee stops hurting you don't need to rub it any more. People should be encouraged to focus their attention away from themselves and this becomes easier once they have met their own basic emotional needs in healthy ways.

We all amplify some parts of our experience and minimize others. But if we habitually do this by expanding the bad stuff and linking that to self esteem whilst belittling the good stuff, distancing positives from self esteem, then it doesn't take a rocket scientist (or even a psychologist) to see that low self esteem will result.

9) Make the most of success

Low self esteem requires a particular attitude towards success. Whenever you succeed at something, you must 'write it off' as good luck, chance, or someone else's responsibility.

To gain a more realistic view of yourself, you need to take appropriate credit for your successes. In the Self Confidence Trainer, we call this skill 'Converting'.

This involves learning how to convert real successes into statements about your self. The other part of the picture is to view perceived failures as temporary and not statements manifestations of your 'core identity'. When you stop discounting things that go well and magnifying stuff that doesn't go so well you are less likely to be depressed or suffer low self esteem. Period.

Low self esteem treatment should consist of a balance between teaching new thinking, emotional and behavioural skills. Ultimately a healthy balance should be encouraged, as should the development of real practical skills such as how to be assertive and build a social life.

10) It's not just about positive thinking!

Positive thinking can be useful in that it challenges you to form a different view on things. However, most of the time it just takes the form of arguing with yourself, and as we've seen from 4) above, this doesn't work.

Low self esteem may drive us to constantly and negatively compare ourselves to other people. As self esteem rises to a healthy level you'll find that you do this much less. Check out 'do you have an inferiority complex?' for more ideas on how to stop negatively comparing yourself to others.

To change your self image and improve low self esteem, you need to believe in an alternative opinion of yourself through experience, not just repeat platitudes about how great you are really! After all in the words of someone wise: "If you are not for yourself then who else will be?"

10 Steps to Solid Self Esteem

10 Steps to Solid Self Esteem course

Vanquish that critical inner voice and discover how much easier and happier life is with healthy levels of self esteem...

Read more about the course


  1. Late in 2001, thinking about 'low self esteem' changed worldwide. The Rowntree Report
  2. The costs and causes of low self esteem) paved the way for more effective, research-based identification and treatment of low self esteem.
  3. See: Baumeister, R., Smart, L., & Boden, J. (1996). Relations of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103, 5-33.
  4. Baumeister, R. (1996). Should schools try to boost self-esteem? Beware the dark side. American Educator, 20, 14-19.
  5. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that depression is on the increase in all age groups but specifically young adults and children.
  6. Canadian researchers found those with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves. They said phrases such as "I am a lovable person" only helped people with high self-esteem. The study appears in the journal Psychological Science. The researchers, from the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick, asked people with high and low self-esteem to say "I am a lovable person." They then measured the participants' moods and their feelings about themselves. In the low self-esteem group, those who repeated the mantra felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not. However people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement - but only slightly.
    The psychologists then asked the study participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves. They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts. Writing in the journal, the researchers suggest that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as "I accept myself completely," can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem. Such negative thoughts can overwhelm the positive thoughts. If people are instructed to focus exclusively on positive thoughts, negative thoughts might be especially discouraging.
  7. See the Nicolas Emler: “The Emler report 2001, The causes and consequences of low self worth.”
  8. Mark Schaller a psychologist at the University of British Columbia studied the lyrics of Curt Cobain (the rock star who committed suicide)-Cole Porter and the short story writer John Cheever. He wanted to investigate whether there was an increase in personal pronouns (I, me, myself, mine etc.) before and after they became famous. He surmised that narcissists use more personal pronouns and fame makes people more narcissistic.
    He did, indeed, find an increase in self referential statements after fame. His paper (1997 'The psychological consequences of fame: three tests of the self consciousness hypothesis, journal of personality,65,2,291-309) He seemed to find a correlation between high self referential statements both before fame AND after fame and later mental problems and suicide (such as the case with Kurt Cobain, Michael Hutchins and other famous suicides)
Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Self Esteem