What Is Self-Esteem?

A personal perception of self-concept, which can vary from positive to negative

Self-esteem is how a person thinks and feels about their own qualities and characteristics. This is described as either high or low—that is, a person has either high self-esteem or low self-esteem.

More specifically, a person who has positive thoughts about their qualities and characteristics would have high self-esteem, whereas a person with negative thoughts about their qualities and characteristics would have low self-esteem.

This is important because higher levels of self-esteem translate into improved mental health, and lower levels of self-esteem are related to mental health conditions such as depression.

This means self-esteem is an important component of overall health and well-being.

self-esteem mental health

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Self-Esteem and Self-Concept

Self-concept is the way a person evaluates their own psychological characteristics, physical characteristics, qualities, skills, roles, and other things that make them who they are. This relates to self-esteem because self-esteem is the level they positively or negatively perceive their self-concept.

Self-esteem is subjective; it comes from how the self-concept of a person relates to their own measures of success, values, and who they want to be.

For example, a person may have a self-concept that they are physically large and a belief that they need to be small. In this case, it would be likely that their self-esteem would be low. However, if their belief were that they need to be large, it would be likely that their self-esteem would be high.

The beliefs of others can impact self-esteem, too. Self-esteem is likely to be higher when a person receives positive feedback from people in their lives and through societal messages. This positive feedback can be anything that helps to form or reinforce positive beliefs about their qualities or characteristics.

The reverse is also true. Negative feedback from others can lead to lower self-esteem.

Signs of Low Self-Esteem

The specific signs of low self-esteem depend on the type of low self-esteem, or the area of self-concept or life related to the negative beliefs. However, some signs can help to identify general low self-esteem.

Low Self-Esteem Signs

Someone may have low self-esteem if they are experiencing:

  • Inner voice of self-talk that is negative
  • Difficulty accepting or responding to compliments
  • Difficulty accepting or responding to constructive criticism or feedback
  • Unhealthy methods of coping, such as overeating, drinking, or smoking
  • Avoidance of social gatherings or situations
  • Avoidance of challenges or difficult situations
  • Focus on what is unwanted more than what is wanted
  • Hesitance to try new things
  • Low level of confidence
  • Excessive sensitivity
  • Intense focus on personal problems
  • Mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or eating disorders

The earlier signs of low self-esteem, if not addressed, could lead to more serious concerns, including mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, harmful habits such as smoking or drinking, or other negative effects on health and life.

Common Areas of Low Self-Esteem

Low self-esteem is something that can impact people of all ages, including children. However, young adults tend to have lower self-esteem than older adults, and women tend to have lower self-esteem than men.

Beyond these trends, many different circumstances, thoughts, and beliefs can impact self-esteem throughout life. A person could have general low self-esteem, or low self-esteem in all areas. It is also possible to have low self-esteem in only some areas, but that low self-esteem can carry over into other areas as well.

Self-esteem can be impacted by different areas of a person and their life, and self-esteem affects all areas of life.

Academic or Intelligence

There is a relationship between self-esteem, measured intelligence, perceived intelligence, and academic performance. Higher levels of intelligence and academic achievement have been linked to higher levels of self-esteem.

This relationship has been shown to go further with higher levels of general, educational, social, and public self-esteem all being linked to increased academic achievement. This means that high self-esteem in specific areas is related to positive outcomes in those areas. In fact, high general self-esteem provides benefits in a variety of areas.


Self-esteem can play a role in career progression. Low self-esteem can compromise belief in ability to make decisions related to careers and the intensity of searching for jobs. Additionally, high levels of self-esteem are linked to being more likely to apply for jobs, more likely to receive job offers, and greater career advancement.

Physical Abilities

Low-self esteem in the area of physical ability is something that can begin in childhood with physical education in schools, extracurricular sports, and activities with peers. It can also continue into adulthood. This may become related to low self-esteem in the area of physical appearance with weight gain associated with avoidance of physical activity.

Those who are more physically active have been found to have higher self-esteem, higher levels of perceived physical fitness, and a more positive body image.

Physical Appearance

Physical appearance, body image, and weight are all linked to self-esteem. Low self-esteem in these areas impacts many teens and adults.

More positive body image is associated with higher self-esteem and decreased risk of harmful effects such as eating disorders. Higher body mass index is associated with more negative body image, lower self-esteem, and increased risk of turning to cigarettes and other unhealthy coping behaviors.

These connections show how low self-esteem in one area can impact other areas and overall health and well-being.

Associated Conditions

Low self-esteem is linked to many mental health concerns. An increased risk of anxiety, depression, and addiction is seen with low self-esteem, as well as poor relationships and decreased overall quality of life.

Low self-esteem is also a common component of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Increasing Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is something that changes over time. Additionally, there are things that can be done intentionally to increase self-esteem, such as working with a mental health professional who uses a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This may include focusing on specific areas where self-esteem is particularly low, or working on general self-esteem.

How to Increase Self-Esteem

There are multiple methods that can help improve self-esteem:

  • Seek CBT talk therapy
  • Eat healthy foods
  • Exercise regularly
  • Meditate
  • Join a support group
  • Connect with friends and family
  • Volunteer

A Word From Verywell

Low self-esteem can be unpleasant on a daily basis, and it can lead to negative effects in all areas of life. If you struggle with low self-esteem, there are things you can do to increase your self-esteem and improve the areas of life and well-being that are impacted. Talk to your primary care practitioner, or reach out to a mental health professional, for support and guidance.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ashley Olivine, Ph.D., MPH
Dr. Ashley Olivine is a health psychologist and public health professional with over a decade of experience serving clients in the clinical setting and private practice. She has also researched a wide variety psychology and public health topics such as the management of health risk factors, chronic illness, maternal and child wellbeing, and child development.