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Low Self-Esteem: What Causes It and What Keeps It Going?

Updated: May 30

notebook cover that says "you're capabe of amazing things"
Photo by Alysha Rosly on Unsplash

***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services

Self-esteem refers to what you think about yourself – whether you hold yourself in high regard or see yourself negatively.

Many of us struggle to give ourselves credit for what we do well, accept compliments, or acknowledge our efforts. We are more likely to praise others for the same qualities or achievements that we have and ignore these attributes in ourselves.

It’s important to know that you are capable of building your self-esteem so that you can learn how to view yourself more positively.

Before you do this, it may be helpful to start with understanding why your low self-esteem may have developed in the first place.

Why do I have low self-esteem?

Early life experiences


Our childhood experiences can have a significant impact on the rest of our lives – how we see ourselves, others, and the world.


The context of these experiences can be in connection to our relationships with our parents and trusted others.


For example, if you received negative messages about yourself from your parents or other important adults in your life -- that you're a bad child, that you aren’t good enough, that you're ugly, or other harmful statements -- then you may have internalized them and started to believe this about yourself.


You may have also dealt with consequences for not meeting your parents’ expectations or standards, such as disapproval, criticism, withdrawal of affection, and other responses. These negative outcomes may have impacted how you view yourself. You may start to think that you don’t deserve love, kindness, support, or good things in your life.


Traumatic experiences, including abuse, neglect, experiencing or witnessing distressing events or situations, loss of a parent or loved one, living in a war-torn country, experiencing poverty, being affected by natural disasters, and other types of stressful situations and events can lead children and youth to develop negative views about themselves, other people, and the world.

If this describes your childhood, you may feel that you somehow contributed to these challenging situations and have feelings of self-blame that you weren’t good enough to help change the situation you were in or the outcome.


Later life experiences


Just as early life experiences can cause us to develop low self-esteem, so can significant experiences later in life.


For example, if you are bullied as a teenager, harassed in the workplace by a coworker or manager, abused by a romantic partner, or have faced other chronic difficulties or hardships as an adult, this can chip away at your self-esteem over time. Additional stressors can continue to break down your confidence to the point that you can’t see good things about yourself -- or choose to push these thoughts aside.

Understanding why you have low self-esteem is an important first step. It’s equally necessary to figure out what keeps low self-esteem going.

What keeps low self-esteem going?

Here are some examples of factors that contribute to low self-esteem being maintained:

  • unrealistic self-expectations

  • being exposed to situations that trigger self-doubt (e.g. performance-based scenarios)

  • self-limiting beliefs around being unworthy, unlovable, incompetent, etc.

  • thinking traps (e.g. jumping to conclusions, mind reading, minimizing positives, all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophic thinking, etc.)

  • engaging in self-sabotaging behaviours to protect yourself from your negative self belief (putting other people’s needs first to avoid feeling unlovable, working extra hard and having unrealistic standards to avoid a fear of failure, not speaking up about your needs in relationships because you feel unlovable, etc.)

  • avoiding change and challenges due to a lack of belief in your capacity to cope and your anxiety around trying something new

  • predicting bad things will happen and interpreting situations negatively by excluding positive information

  • low mood – leads to low motivation and a lack of taking action – further reinforces low self-esteem

A few of the above points could stand out to you based on your own life experiences. Take some time to reflect on if these or other issues that may not have been mentioned above could be affecting your ability to view yourself in a more balanced way.

Final Thoughts

We can't always control the challenging events and situations that come up in our lives. But we can control how we react to it.

If you've internalized a negative self-perception, there are ways you can change how you think about yourself and improve your quality of life.

The next post focuses on 12 Tips for How to Build Your Self-Esteem. Please read that for more ideas about how to improve your sense of self-worth.

Wishing you well on your mental health journey.



Davina Tiwari  MSW, RSW, CSFT

Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist

If you are an adult in Ontario or Alberta seeking online therapy and would like to request a free 15 minute phone consultation, please Book An Appointment.

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