Low Self Esteem – How Does it Develop?


Self Esteem is about how we think, evaluate and feel about ourselves.  When we have a generally negative view about ourselves this can be termed as Low Self Esteem.   It means we can ignore or be unaware of our positive traits, have negative and self-limiting beliefs, lack self care, and experience an inner negative voice (inner self critic).  These unhelpful thoughts and experiences can also lead to difficult feelings eg sadness, guilt, anger and shame, which can contribute to depression.


Low Self Esteem can develop from childhood,  when we repetitively experience:

– criticism, judgement, lack of acceptance

– negative and abusive relationships

– absence of positive support and feedback

– not fitting in at school or bullying

– an inability to express our emotions

– an inability to have our needs met on a ‘good enough basis’


Low Self Esteem is maintained from negative thinking, relationships and environments.  Working with self esteem in Counselling includes:

– becoming aware of unhelpful thoughts and how they developed

– challenging negative thoughts and reframing with more balanced views

– being able to value positives qualities

– learning to be true to self rather than to external expectations

– developing a supportive inner voice

– addressing unrealistic expectations

– supporting emotions to be expressed and needs to be met

– addressing self care, negative relationships and negative environments

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What is self esteem

Self Esteem is about how well we think about ourselves, respect and value ourselves.   It is the way we talk to ourselves on a day to day basis ie ‘self-talk’ and ‘inner dialogue’.
We all have a right to self-esteem, to be respected, and we are all of equal worth although it may not feel like that.

How does self esteem develop

We learn how to experience different levels of self esteem depending on:

  • how we have experienced others around us in the past
  • the way we experience others around us in the present
  • the way others talk, behave and treat us
  • the way we talk, behave and treat ourselves
  • current and past negative experiences affect our self esteem and we can develop negative thinking and feelings.
  • childhood experiences are fundamental in our learning about ourselves.  However, our learning about ourselves is not always the truth about what we really are.

Improving Self Esteem

To improve our self-esteem we need to work on the following aspects of our lives:

  • re-examining the negative beliefs we have about ourselves and where they have come from
  • re-framing beliefs so that they are more supportive and self-caring
  • noticing our inner negative dialogue and understanding where these unhelpful thoughts are coming from
  • regaining our power of choice so that we do not continue to feed our negative thoughts and beliefs that do not serve us
  • making informed choices about the people we connect to in our lives, are they supporting our well-being eg are they coming from a calm, respectful, kind and understanding place
  • giving ourselves caring, accepting, supportive attention, and healing our inner child
  • exploring your self-esteem issues in therapy for support towards change




The mind and body can experience stress day to day as demands are made upon it.  It is healthy and normal to be dealing with a certain amount of stress as this alerts us and motivates us to make decisions, and take action.  If we are dealing with high amounts of stress over  long periods of time then we can sometimes start to suffer with our stress and maybe experience physical ailments.



It is not always what is happening  that is the problem but how we respond to it, or how we think or react that can increases our stress response.  Certain ways of thinking and acting are really unhelpful and increase the difficulties we are having; so it is useful to try and think and respond in self supportive ways.



Stress can often be linked with fear, anger  or threat…. eg I might loose my job or my partner might leave me.  In stressful situations, the body automatically alerts the survival response in the fight and flight system which enables us to physically fight or run away from the threat.   This was necessary in the days of hunting animals, and also now if we are dealing with a physical threat eg  a burning building – we need to be able to run away (flight).  However, much of the threats/fear/stress we might be dealing with on a regular basis is often more psychological or emotional and we are not actually at any risk of dying but the body does not differentiate between a real survival threat and a perceived one.

When we are experiencing the fight and flight response in stress we are producing chemicals preparing the body for action which often do not get used.  The body goes up a gear in preparation, and without the action it can get stuck in this less relaxed position.   What also happens is that the body needs to reserve energy by shutting down less important functions like the immune, and digestion etc.  The side effect of this is that we can experience aches and pains, tiredness, headaches, stomach upsets, colds, and more serious illnesses.



Also under stress we may reach out to coping mechanisms which may be unhealthy or unhelpful eg over eating, alcohol, smoking, drugs, excessive exercise, caffeine, sugar, and fatty foods, all of which might feel helpful in the short term but are adding stress to the body in the long term and becomes a negative cycle of stress.



–  exploring issues around boundaries, self care and self esteem

–  looking at unhelpful thinking and behaviours

–  working through suppressed or difficult emotions

–  looking at choices, decisions and responsibilities

–  develop healthy coping strategies