Steve's mind wanders as he does his homework. "I'm never going to do well on this history test," he thinks. "My dad's right, I'm just like him — I'll never amount to much." Distracted, he looks down and thinks how skinny his legs are. "Ugh," he says to himself. "I bet the football coach won't even let me try out when he sees what a wimp I am."
Julio is studying for the same history test as Steve, and he's also not too fond of the subject. But that's where the similarity ends. Julio has a completely different outlook. He's more likely to think, "OK, history again, what a pain. Thank goodness I'm acing the subject I really love — math." And when Julio thinks about the way he looks, it's also a lot more positive. Although he is shorter and skinnier than Steve, Julio is less likely to blame or criticize his body and more likely to think, "I may be skinny, but I can really run. I'd be a good addition to the football team."
We all have a mental picture of who we are, how we look, what we're good at, and what our weaknesses might be. We develop this picture over time, starting when we're very young kids. The term self-image is used to refer to a person's mental picture of himself or herself. A lot of our self-image is based on interactions we have with other people and our life experiences. This mental picture (our self-image) contributes to our self-esteem.
Self-esteem is all about how much we feel valued, loved, accepted, and thought well of by others — and how much we value, love, and accept ourselves. People with healthy self-esteem are able to feel good about themselves, appreciate their own worth, and take pride in their abilities, skills, and accomplishments. People with low self-esteem may feel as if no one will like them or accept them or that they can't do well in anything.
We all experience problems with self-esteem at certain times in our lives — especially during our teens when we're figuring out who we are and where we fit in the world. The good news is that, because everyone's self-image changes over time, self-esteem is not fixed for life. So if you feel that your self-esteem isn't all it could be, you can improve it.
Before a person can overcome self-esteem problems and build healthy self-esteem, it helps to know what might cause those problems in the first place. Two things in particular — how others see or treat us and how we see ourselves — can have a big impact on our self-esteem.
Parents, teachers, and other authority figures influence the ideas we develop about ourselves — particularly when we are little kids. If parents spend more time criticizing than praising a child, it can be harder for a kid to develop good self-esteem. Because teens are still forming their own values and beliefs, it's easy to build self-image around what a parent, coach, or other person says.
Obviously, self-esteem can be damaged when someone whose acceptance is important (like a parent or teacher) constantly puts you down. But criticism doesn't have to come from other people. Like Steve in the story above, some teens also have an "inner critic," a voice inside that seems to find fault with everything they do. And, like Steve, people sometimes unintentionally model their inner voice after a critical parent or someone else whose opinion is important to them.
Over time, listening to a negative inner voice can harm a person's self-esteem just as much as if the criticism were coming from another person. Some people get so used to their inner critic being there that they don't even notice when they're putting themselves down.
Unrealistic expectations can also affect a person's self-esteem. People have an image of who they want to be (or who they think they should be). Everyone's image of the ideal person is different. For example, some people admire athletic skills and others admire academic abilities. People who see themselves as having the qualities they admire — such as the ability to make friends easily — usually have high self-esteem.
People who don't see themselves as having the qualities they admire may develop low self-esteem. Unfortunately, people who have low self-esteem often do have the qualities they admire. They just can't see that they do because their self-image is trained that way.
Why Is Self-Esteem Important?
How we feel about ourselves can influence how we live our lives. People who feel that they are likable and lovable (in other words people with good self-esteem) have better relationships. They're more likely to ask for help and support from friends and family when they need it. People who believe they can accomplish goals and solve problems are more likely to do well in school. Having good self-esteem allows you to accept yourself and live life to the fullest.
Steps to Improving Self-Esteem
If you want to improve your self-esteem, here are some steps to start empowering yourself:
- Try to stop thinking negative thoughts about yourself. If you're used to focusing on your shortcomings, start thinking about positive aspects of yourself that outweigh them. When you catch yourself being too critical, counter it by saying something positive about yourself. Each day, write down three things about yourself that make you happy.
- Aim for accomplishments rather than perfection. Some people become paralyzed by perfection. Instead of holding yourself back with thoughts like, "I won't audition for the play until I lose 10 pounds," think about what you're good at and what you enjoy, and go for it.
- View mistakes as learning opportunities. Accept that you will make mistakes because everyone does. Mistakes are part of learning. Remind yourself that a person's talents are constantly developing, and everyone excels at different things — it's what makes people interesting.
- Try new things. Experiment with different activities that will help you get in touch with your talents. Then take pride in new skills you develop.
- Recognize what you can change and what you can't. If you realize that you're unhappy with something about yourself that you can change, then start today. If it's something you can't change (like your height), then start to work toward loving yourself the way you are.
- Set goals. Think about what you'd like to accomplish, then make a plan for how to do it. Stick with your plan and keep track of your progress.
- Take pride in your opinions and ideas. Don't be afraid to voice them.
- Make a contribution. Tutor a classmate who's having trouble, help clean up your neighborhood, participate in a walkathon for a good cause, or volunteer your time in some other way. Feeling like you're making a difference and that your help is valued can do wonders to improve self-esteem.
- Exercise! You'll relieve stress, and be healthier and happier.
- Have fun. Ever found yourself thinking stuff like "I'd have more friends if I were thinner"? Enjoy spending time with the people you care about and doing the things you love. Relax and have a good time — and avoid putting your life on hold.
It's never too late to build healthy, positive self-esteem. In some cases where the emotional hurt is deep or long lasting, it can take the help of a mental health professional, like a counselor or therapist. These experts can act as a guide, helping people learn to love themselves and realize what's unique and special about them.
Self-esteem plays a role in almost everything you do. People with high self-esteem do better in school and find it easier to make friends. They tend to have better relationships with peers and adults, feel happier, find it easier to deal with mistakes, disappointments, and failures, and are more likely to stick with something until they succeed. It takes some work to develop good self-esteem, but once you do it's a skill you'll have for life.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: March 2009