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Self-esteem and mental health

7-minute read

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is the way we think about ourselves and the value we place on ourselves.

We all criticise ourselves from time to time, but if you often think badly about yourself or judge yourself negatively, you may have low self-esteem. You may not know the cause of your low self-esteem, but there are steps you can take to improve it.

Self-esteem is different to self-confidence. Confidence relates to a person’s ability in a particular area of their life. A person can be very confident about their particular abilities, but still have low self-esteem. Achieving confidence in a particular area of life won’t necessarily improve self-esteem.

What are the signs of low self-esteem?

Signs of low self-esteem include:

  • saying negative things and being critical about yourself
  • joking about yourself in a negative way
  • focusing on your negatives and ignoring your achievements
  • blaming yourself when things go wrong
  • thinking other people are better than you
  • thinking you don’t deserve to have fun
  • not accepting compliments
  • avoiding challenges for fear of failing
  • being overly upset by disapproval or criticism
  • feeling sad, depressed, anxious, ashamed, angry or worthless

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the anxiety, stress and depression Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes low self-esteem?

Low self-esteem may stem from experiences in early childhood. If you didn’t fit in at school, had difficulty meeting your parents’ expectations or were neglected or abused, this can lead a person to have negative core beliefs about themselves. These are ingrained beliefs a person has about themselves.

Teenagers, especially young girls, may be subject to unhelpful messages and ideals on social media and in the media generally, that lead them to believe that their worth is based on how they look or behave. This may lead to low self-esteem and negative thoughts about their self-worth. Performing poorly at school or being bullied can also cause low self-esteem.

Stressful life events, such as an unhappy relationship, a bereavement or serious illness, may also cause low self-esteem.

What are the effects of low self-esteem?

If you have low self-esteem you may have difficulty with relationships and problems at work or school. You may become very upset by criticism or disapproval and withdraw from activities and people. You may avoid doing anything where you may be judged or measured against other people.

Some people with low self-esteem stop looking after their appearance; others may over-compensate by always being perfectly groomed.

You could also have problems with your body image, drink too much alcohol or take drugs and you might not stand up for yourself when you are bullied or abused.

Teenagers with low self-esteem may use alcohol or drugs to feel better or to fit in, may have poor body image, and may have sexual activity earlier than their peers.

What health problems are associated with low self-esteem?

Low self-esteem may be associated with health problems such as depression and anxiety, eating disorders, social phobia, attention deficit disorder and substance abuse.

How to improve your self-esteem

To improve your self-esteem you can:

  • think about things you are good at — what are your strengths?
  • celebrate the small things in your life — give yourself a pat on the back when you achieve even a small thing
  • challenge your negative thinking — look for alternative explanations and put things into perspective
  • think about things you can change — don’t worry about things you can’t change
  • avoid trying to do things perfectly — perfection is not possible
  • stop beating yourself up if you make mistakes — everyone makes mistakes
  • do things you enjoy — it’s easier to be positive when you are doing things you like
  • be with people who don’t bring you down
  • volunteer to help people — this can make you feel better about yourself
  • exercise — it can improve your mood

Where to get help

If your low self-esteem continues, talk to your doctor, a counsellor, a close friend or a member of your family.

You may want to seek advice from:

  • MindSpot (anyone suffering from anxiety or depression) — call 1800 61 44 34
  • Beyond Blue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) — call 1300 22 4636 or chat online
  • Black Dog Institute (people affected by depression and extreme mood swings) — online help
  • Lifeline (anyone experiencing a crisis or thinking about suicide) — call 13 11 14 or chat online
  • Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) — call 1300 659 467
  • ReachOut (online mental health services for young people and their parents)
  • Headspace (mental health information, group chat, and online communities)
  • SANE Australia (mental health information, peer support and counselling support)
  • MensLine Australia (telephone and online counselling service)
  • Kids Helpline (telephone and online counselling for ages 5 to 25) — call 1800 55 1800
  • Head to Health  (for advice, assessment and referral into local mental health services) - call 1800 595 212 from 8:30am to 5pm on weekdays (public holidays excluded)

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2021

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