It’s easy to discount the importance of having high self-esteem. However, having positive personal regard can be the difference between feeling good about and taking care of yourself and not. We’ve likely all heard the advice to believe in yourself, value yourself, be your own cheerleader, and that you can’t fully love others until you love yourself—and all of that is true. But what exactly does that really mean in real life? Essentially, having high self-esteem is vital to a successful, happy life.
But how exactly do you know if your self-esteem is high enough? Below, we’ll take a look at what self-esteem is, why it’s important, and how to build yours up. We’ll also break down the negative effects of having low self-esteem, the difference between occasionally being down on yourself and truly having poor self-esteem, whether your self-esteem can be too high, factors that contribute to low self-esteem, and tips for cultivating a more positive self-outlook and self-respect.
What Is Self-Esteem?
In order to have high self-esteem, it’s important to understand what self-esteem really is. Firstly, esteem means having admiration and respect.
High self-esteem is not just liking yourself but generally affording yourself love, value, dignity, and respect, too. Positive self-esteem also means believing in your capability (to learn, achieve, and contribute to the world) and autonomy to do things on your own. It means you think your ideas, feelings, and opinions have worth. In other words, self-esteem is how you feel about yourself (inside and out), encompassing what you think about and value in yourself and how you relate to others. It’s also related to how you feel others view, treat, and value you. This is why those in abusive situations or who have experienced trauma (particularly as children) are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, concurrently and in the future, as a result.
Self-esteem isn’t dependent entirely on one thing or set of thoughts. Instead, a person’s self-esteem is made up of your view of all the things that define you as a person, including your personality, accomplishments, talents, capabilities, background, experiences, relationships, and physical body, as well as how you perceive others see you.
High self-esteem means generally holding yourself in positive regard. This doesn’t mean you love everything about yourself or think you are perfect. On the contrary, even for those with high self-esteem, it’s common to be self-critical and have some parts of yourself that you are less proud of or happy with than other elements. High self-esteem can fluctuate depending on the circumstance. Essentially, high self-esteem is a frame of mind that lets you celebrate your strengths, challenge your weaknesses, and feel good about yourself and your life. It allows you to put daily ups and downs in perspective because, at your core, you value, trust, and respect yourself.
High self-esteem also helps you understand that everything isn’t about you, enabling you to not take everything personally and not be overly reactive. Strong self-respect lets you see beyond yourself and feel confident of your place in the world. Interestingly, having high self-esteem does not always align with the circumstances or qualities that you might objectively assume should correlate with feeling good about yourself.
Why High Self-Esteem Matters
Having high self-esteem is key to positive mental health and well-being. High self-esteem matters because it helps you develop coping skills, handle adversity, and put the negative into perspective. If you have a higher self-concept you also don’t tend to put the undue focus, blame, self-doubt, hopelessness, or weight on the parts you aren’t happy about. You’re also better able to cope with stress, anxiety, and pressure, whether from school, work, home, or peers.
Instead, rather than feeling hopeless, stuck, or unworthy due to any perceived “failings,” a person with high self-esteem is more likely to look for what they can change or improve upon than to feel like a “failure” or hopeless. Conversely, someone with low self-esteem is more likely to become entrenched in negative feelings about themself. In fact, research shows that feeling positive and respectful about yourself, particularly as a child, goes a long way in helping you adapt and adjust to the challenges of life.
The Risks of Low Self-Esteem
Like many elements of mental health, researchers often describe self-esteem as existing on a spectrum. Like anything in life, your self-image is prone to change and grow as you mature and live your life, and in response to key life events. However, it’s also true that people tend toward a certain set-point of self-esteem that can be persistent, whether high, low or somewhere in between. Social interactions, attention, emotional regulation, decision-making, and life satisfaction are all impacted by lower self-image.
As noted above, when you have high self-esteem, you’re better able to shake off unfavorable events and the negative judgments or moods of others that may be directed your way. Conversely, when you have a lower self-concept, you’re more likely to take criticism or rejection personally and to assume someone else’s problems are about you. This combination can make people with low self-esteem more reactive to day-to-day circumstances and personal interactions. Those with lower self-esteem are also less likely to keep their emotions in check, cope well with challenges, and look at life from a healthy perspective.
Often low self-esteem means small things become blown up into bigger issues that can feel insurmountable, further ratcheting down self-regard.
Feeling Down vs. Poor Self-Esteem
Essentially, low self-esteem isn’t just having a bad mood or a bad day. Everyone feels down when negative things happen but these feelings typically pass and, especially for those with positive self-esteem, don’t have a drastic impact on self-worth. Instead, low self-esteem is a chronically negative self-image that, while it may ebb and flow with the positive and negative events in your life, for the most part, stays with you over time, regardless of life circumstances.
Your level of self-regard may be, in part, a function of the natural variation in personality types, affect, genetics, and/or in response to upbringing, peers, and life events. However, when self-esteem is particularly low, as noted above, it can put you at risk of many mental health challenges.
Can You Have Too Much Self-Esteem?
An unrealistic or overly elevated self-concept may be as unhealthy as a negative one. However, it’s important to distinguish between healthy high self-esteem and arrogance. High self-esteem is not being egotistical, thinking you are infallible, or better than others.
Cultivating High Self-Esteem
Cultivating high self-esteem (and resiliency) is no easy task, but it’s certainly possible and within your grasp—and can make a huge difference in your life. As noted above, it’s key to understand that a significant component of self-esteem is your thought patterns, what you focus on, and optimism rather than simply on objective facts or events of your life. Building up your self-esteem takes work, determination, and a willingness to examine and counter negative thoughts about yourself—and to actively bolster your self-image with positive ones. It’s vital to give yourself grace, to let go of certain things that bother you as well as to work on those areas that you can (and want) to change.
If you value yourself and have high enough self-worth, you also know that you deserve to take care of yourself, which then can contribute to trying to do things to improve your self-esteem. It’s difficult to take care of yourself if you think poorly of yourself.
Ways to Improve Self-Esteem
As noted above, improving your self-esteem takes practice and intention but is well worth your efforts, as there is a clear link between high self-esteem and quality of life. Some strategies that can help you think more favorably about yourself include the following:
1. Accept Compliments
Notice the urge to deflect praise and instead, hear it and let it in. Interestingly, research shows that difficulty accepting compliments is directly correlated with low self-esteem.
2. Give Yourself a Break
Forgive yourself for mistakes and squash your negative self-theories and self-talk. No one is perfect or loves everything about themselves. Don’t expect that of yourself. When you start on a negative spiral, ask yourself if you’re being fair to yourself or realistic.
3. Love Yourself—Flaws And All
Yes, you may have things you wish were different, want to change, or just plain aren’t happy with, but love and respect yourself anyway.
4. Value the Person You Are
Aim to accept and find worth in who you are right now. Seek out and feel pride in what makes you unique, happy, and valued.
5. Recognize the Importance of High Self-Esteem
Once you begin to see how your view of yourself impacts life satisfaction and well-being, you may be more motivated to alter your thinking and value yourself more.
6. Start a Gratitude Journal
In a gratitude journal, write down all the positive things in your life, the things you like about yourself, the accomplishments or qualities you are proud of—then read it over whenever you’re feeling down about yourself.
7. Work on Yourself
If there are things about yourself or your life that you don’t feel good about, consider what changes you can make. Then, make a plan to put those changes into action.
High self-esteem is key to life satisfaction. For some, this frame of mind comes easily, for others it’s more of a struggle. Luckily, wherever you may be on the self-esteem spectrum, you can work on improving your vision, support, compassion, and love of yourself.
After all, the relationship you have with yourself may ultimately be the one that matters most—it gifts you the resiliency, confidence, kindness, motivation, and love that informs the rest of your life and helps you be the best person you can be.