Self-esteem is integral to identity and relationships, because it so deeply affects how you experience yourself and others. People often describe self-esteem as a sense of confidence and adequacy. These are elements of self-esteem, but there are others.
Elements of Self-Esteem*
Sense of self-worth
You feel you are valuable and that your existence is worthwhile, to yourself, others and the world. This sense of value is realistic; it is neither overblown nor self-diminishing. You feel adequate, successful, and deserving of happiness and joy. You can experience rejection or humiliation without feeling overwhelmed.
Sense of agency
You experience yourself as active, effective, and in control of your life and yourself. You do not feel helpless or at the mercy of others. Being a victim is not appealing. You are able to assert yourself where appropriate. The prospect of making desirable changes does not feel overwhelming.
Sense of competency
You feel confident that you can survive and navigate the challenges of life, even in novel or challenging situations. You recognize that sometimes you will need help, but you trust your ability to obtain what you need, when you need it, and to face difficulties with resilience. Being flexible and adaptable contributes to your “can-do” attitude.
Sense of self-efficacy
You experience your mind as an effective tool for navigating the world and making sense of it. You are able to discriminate between good and bad, right and wrong, etc. with a sense of clarity. You have confidence in your own judgment, and you trust yourself to make appropriate decisions and to control your own behavior.
Similar to a sense of identity, self-esteem develops during childhood and adolescence, and is impacted by various experiences – of family, school, friends, activities, and others.
It is important to address low self-esteem as soon as possible, as its relentless message of “I’m not good enough” does not fade with age, or even success. Some of the most successful people we hear about in the news every day suffer from low self-esteem.
Low self-esteem is also problematic because of the self-destructive ways we try to manage it, such as:
- Taking too few risks to avoid failing
- Altering appearances to feel more desirable (not eating, dangerous cosmetic procedures, obsessing over looks, etc.)
- Using drugs or alcohol to numb feelings of inadequacy
- Insisting on personal perfection or success at the expense of other important aspects of your life
If you suspect that your self-esteem is low, effective therapy is an integral part of the solution. Simply exercising the courage to come to therapy, with all of its inherent unknowns, can be a meaningful step towards enhancing this vital capacity.
Adolescents (approximately age 13 – 24) naturally experience fluctuating self-esteem. But if it gets too low they may require help.
Low self-esteem comingles with many mood disorders, which can make it challenging to identify.
Indications that your adolescent may be experiencing low self-esteem include:
- Difficulty adapting to new or difficult situations
- Changes in sleep or eating patterns
- Reduced school attendance or performance
- Lowered interest in hobbies or social activity
Low self-esteem can also cause depression, anxiety, and the symptoms listed above. If not addressed, it can persist through adulthood.
If you suspect your adolescent is struggling, it is important that you talk to your child and consider seeking professional help. For advice on how to speak to your teenager more effectively, click here.
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* The definition and description of self-esteem has been largely abstracted from, Branden, N. (1992), The power of self-esteem, Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications; and Lingiardi, V. and McWillliams, N. (Eds.) (2017) Psychodynamic diagnostic manual: PDM-2 2nd Ed., New York, NY: Guilford.