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8 Common Causes of Low Self-Esteem

Taking Charge of Your Own Worth
Part 1 of 2

“Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it. ”
M. Scott Peck

Self-esteem is simply how you feel about yourself and how you judge your worth. This evaluation has a profound impact on the choices you make since it determines, to a great extent, what you consider yourself capable and worthy of doing. The quote above by psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck shows the cyclical relationships between self-esteem and our actions. If we value ourselves and, therefore, our time, we’ll do things that are meaningful, which in turn makes us more valuable to ourselves (as well as the world around us). Without a proper amount of self-valuing, we don’t pursue meaningful activities. Instead, we get stuck in a cycle of de-valuing ourselves and not doing anything meaningful to boost our sense of self-worth.

People with low self-esteem – who feel poorly about themselves and judge themselves to be inferior to others – are at risk, then, of not fulfilling their true potential in life. They may not take the initiative to set and pursue personal goals; they may not put any effort into their education or careers; they may accept poor treatment from family, friends and romantic partners. For example, DoSomething.org reports that teen girls with low self-esteem are four times more likely to participate in activities with boys that they later regret. The National Association for Self-Esteem has linked low self-esteem to a number of negative behaviors among teens, including:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Teen pregnancy
  • Dropping out of school
  • Earlier sexual activity
  • Criminal behavior
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Cutting
  • Disordered eating

Low self-esteem is more than an unpleasant feeling. It takes a toll on our lives.

It’s hard to measure exactly how common low self-esteem is, but several studies have found that levels plummet as young people approach the teenage years, more so for girls than boys. Again, according to DoSomething.org, 70% of girls believe they don’t “measure up” or aren’t “good enough” in some way, including physical appearance, school performance and relationships. The numbers for boys are not too far behind.

Low self-esteem can easily carry on into adulthood, interfering with a person’s ability to lead a fulfilling, healthy life. One of the most important things to know is that low self-esteem is not an accurate reflection of reality or something set in stone. Sometimes the cause of low self-esteem may be rooted, to some degree, in reality, but the idea that your feelings about yourself can’t be changed is simply not accurate.

Self-esteem is a state of mind, and it can be changed. However, you can only improve your self-esteem if you’re first willing to challenge the negative feelings and judgments you have toward yourself. No matter how convinced you are of your current evaluation of yourself, you have nothing to lose and the world to gain by considering that you have much more control over your self-esteem than you think. Making the choice to challenge your thinking may change how you think and what you do, now and in the future.

The following section explains some common causes of low self-esteem in young people and is meant to help you identify potential sources in your life. Part 2 of this series will provide you with tools for raising your self-esteem, so be sure to spend some time reviewing that, too. You can feel better about yourself; you can raise your sense of worth. You can make the choice to put yourself in a better position to lead a healthy, productive and meaningful life.

Causes of Low Self-Esteem

“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”
August Wilson

As playwright August Wilson indicates in the quote above, taking a good, hard look at the darker parts of your life, and your own self, will allow you to combat the things in your life that destroy self-esteem. Then and only then can your strengths emerge and be put to use. The causes of low self-esteem can be hard to identify; there is no one cause for everyone, and some people suffer for a variety of reasons. But the following are some common situations that factor into self-esteem, and getting familiar with them can help you identify at least some of the causes in your life. 

  1. Uninvolved/Negligent Parents.  In many cases, and particularly when we’re young, our feelings about ourselves are heavily influenced by how others feel about and treat us – especially our parents or guardians. Everyone deserves a loving family, but some young people have the misfortune of not getting adequate support at home. Parents or guardians with mental health issues, substance abuse issues or other challenges may not be able to provide their children with the care, guidance and attention they need and deserve. This can cause significant self-esteem problems for young people, as those who are supposed to care for them most may not seem to.

  2. Negative Peers.  Just as the way we’re treated by parents or guardians can greatly influence our self-esteem, so can the way we’re treated by peers. Being part of a social group that brings you down – by not respecting you, by pressuring you to do things you’re not comfortable with, by not valuing your thoughts and feelings, etc. – can cause you to feel like something is wrong with you, or that the only way for you to be liked is to do what others want and not listen to your own heart and mind. This is very damaging to how you see yourself.

  3. Trauma.  Abuse – whether physical, emotional, sexual or a combination of these – often causes feelings of shame and even guilt. A person may feel that he or she did something to deserve the abuse, that he or she was not worthy of the respect, love and care of the abuser. People who have suffered abuse may have a significant amount of anxiety and depression associated with the event as well, which can interfere with a person’s ability to lead a fulfilling life.

  4. Body Image.  The University of Washington’s Teen Health and the Media webpage reports that 53% of girls surveyed were unhappy with their bodies, a number that rises to 78% by the age of 17. In her book, I’m, Like, SO Fat!, Dianne Neumark Sztainer reports that 50% of teen girls and 30% of teen boys practice unhealthy behaviors in an effort to lose weight, including skipping meals, vomiting, smoking cigarettes, fasting and using laxatives. 

    Body image is a huge factor in young people’s self-esteem, especially that of young women. From the moment we’re born, we’re surrounded by unrealistic images of what women should look like, what the “ideal” body type is. Women’s bodies are constantly objectified in the media, making it seem as though their bodies exist for others to look at, touch, use, etc. When puberty comes around and our bodies start to change, they don’t change into what we see on magazine covers or in music videos. This can lead to feeling unattractive and inadequate, on top of the profound disempowerment that comes with seeing your body as an object for others to behold.

    While young women are disproportionately affected by body image messages, young men aren’t immune. Many young men struggle with low self-esteem associated with weight and body composition – particularly concerning muscle mass. The body of a man is not so much treated in our culture as an object for others, but as a sign of his masculinity. Young men may feel pressured to develop large muscles as a show of strength and manliness; they may also feel self-conscious about their height.

  5. Small Fish, Big PondIt’s easy for young people to feel swallowed up in a world beyond their control. This leads to feelings of ineffectiveness, powerlessness and worthlessness. Though most people don’t experience it until adulthood, it’s possible for young people to go through the infamous “existential crisis” – a time when the meaning of his or her life is called into question. Why am I here? What do I matter? An inability to answer these questions can pose a significant challenge for one’s sense of self-worth.

  6. Unrealistic GoalsWhether the pressure comes from themselves, authority figures or peers, some young people expect way too much of themselves in terms of school achievement, extracurricular involvement and/or social status. Those who struggle academically may think they should be getting straight A’s all the time; those who perform well academically may try to take on too many other activities and expect to be “the best” at all of them. Young people who crave popularity may expect everyone to like them – something that simply doesn’t happen, because, no matter who you are, you can’t please everyone. The inevitable failure to meet unrealistic goals may lead to the feeling that you are a failure in general.

  7. Previous Bad ChoicesSometimes we get locked into a certain pattern of decision-making and acting. Perhaps you haven’t been a very good friend in the past. Maybe you didn’t apply yourself in school. Maybe you participated in risky behaviors like drug use or unprotected sex. You might think you’re just “the kind of person” who behaves in those ways. You may even dislike yourself significantly because of past choices, but don’t think you can change courses now. Therefore, you won’t try. You’ll continue making choices that reinforce your own negative self-view. 

  8. Negative Thought PatternsWhen you get used to feeling, thinking and talking about yourself in a particular way, it becomes habit. You’ve probably heard of muscle memory – once you’ve performed a certain physical activity like riding a bike over and over again, your brain automatically signals your muscles to do whatever that activity requires – keeping you balanced on the seat, for example. Your thoughts and feelings actually work in the same way sometimes. If you have often felt that you’re worthless or inferior, if you constantly think negative thoughts and say negative things about yourself, then you’re likely to go on feeling and thinking the same way unless you break the cycle by challenging your negative thoughts and feelings about yourself. Just as our muscle memory can learn the wrong way to perform a physical activity, our thought and feeling memories can learn inaccurate patterns.

The above eight causes of low self-esteem aren’t the only ones, but they’re fairly common. The last one – the development of negative thought patterns – may be responsible for the persistence of low self-esteem in most people, regardless of the initial causes. Young people should examine situations in their lives – at home, in school, social spheres, for example – as well as their own attitudes and thoughts – about their bodies, goals, past choices and sense of purpose, for example – to identify potential sources of low self-esteem.

Your Choices Can Improve Your Self-Esteem

The important thing to remember while you are doing this self-evaluation, which may extend over a period of months or even years, is that in almost every situation or condition, you can make choices that will improve your thinking and improve your life.  Whether you believe it at this very moment or not, you have unique interests, strengths, skills and feelings that suit you for many purposes and, in the long run, can be of great benefit to you and those around you. As you think about who and why you are, be sure to be on the lookout for these unique aspects of yourself – they will speak to you if you listen for them. And when you do, when you feel in synch with what makes you unique, your self-esteem meter just might register some of its all-time highest ratings.

We are each gifted in a unique and important way.
It is our privilege and our adventure to discover our own special light.”
Mary Dunbar

There are steps young people can take to either change situations in their lives that put a damper on self-worth or to change the way they think and feel in response to those situations. See Part 2 of this series for actions you can take, here and now, to boost self-esteem.

Written by Amée LaTour
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- OTHER PART IN THIS SERIES -

Part 2:
8 Easy Ways to Boost Your Self-Esteem
Taking Charge of Your Own Worth

Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

“Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it. ” M. Scott Peck