How does self-esteem develop & how does it impact your life? [A Mini Guide]
Do you like yourself?
Simple question, but you probably hesitated before answering that.
Lots of my clients and friends will get all rational and logical when answering this question. “Yeah… I probably do… because… I uh, I think I’m good at Math, at least..?”
And if you’ve responded to the question in the same manner, you are not alone! Plenty of us aren’t even sure whether we really like ourselves. And that has everything to do with our self-esteem and how it has been shaped over the years.
Having a healthy sense of self-esteem is everything. When you have a healthy sense of self esteem (and self), it means you are clear where your strengths and limitations lie, you pursue goals fearlessly and you attract outcomes that you desire.
So how do you develop a good sense of self then? Before we come to that, let’s understand how self-esteem develops and sustains itself throughout your lifetime. Understanding its mechanisms will empower you and give you the tools you need to move towards developing a healthy level of self-esteem that will enable you to soar in life.
What is self-esteem? What does Self-esteem mean?
Lots of people confuse self-esteem with the other “selfs” – self-confidence, self-respect, self-image, self-love, self-efficacy, self-belief etc. They are all related but are still very much distinct concepts.
So what is self esteem? Here are a few definitions:
Self-esteem is the degree to which people accept and value themselves, thus achieving a basic feeling of self-worth. To have low self-esteem means that the individual has a negative image of the self, which tends to be global, persistent and enduringMelanie Fennell, 1997
And here is another:
Self-esteem refers to an individual’s subjective evaluation of his or her worth as a personDonnellan, Trzesniewski, & Robins, 2011; MacDonald & Leary, 2012
Self-esteem is incredibly important in developing and maintaining good psychological health as it is the overall opinion we have of ourselves and the value we place on ourselves as individuals.
When you have a healthy level of self-esteem, you feel that you are “good enough”. You don’t carry around feelings of inferiority or superiority, you simply just accept yourself as you are. You love yourself for who you are – flaws, warts, moles and all.
So important question to ask yourself at this point – do you feel good enough?
How does self-esteem develop over our lives?
Self-esteem develops through the vast number of experiences that we’ve had since childhood. Childhood is an incredibly vital time in developing our sense of self. Children are sensitive souls and internalise alot of what happens to them.
Being talked to respectfully, being taught boundaries, having things explained to you, being shown affection and encouraged at downpoints creates a psychologically safe environment that encourages the sense of self to blossom.
But not all children had a very loving growing up environment. Some were abused and did not experience a very safe environment in childhood. There could also have been other experiences occurring during that time in life that taken together, aids in forming our psyche or sense of self:
- (Negative) comparisons and competition with peers in school
- Academic achievement throughout childhood and the amount of challenge and support rendered by parents and teachers
- Peer friendships – how many, whether you were in a “cool” group or not, did you experience bullying etc
My Not-so-rosy Childhood Experiences
As a still-recovering former low self-esteem sufferer, I experienced some of these in my younger years which went on to greatly affect my sense of self as I grew up. It didn’t help that I was a particularly sensitive child who absorbed much of what went on in my environment and I internalised much of that as well (not all of them was positive). Here are some of what I went through:
- People telling me that I lacked in some way, was never going to be good enough
- Incredibly high expectations on me and always had a need to be perfect because of the competition faced in school (and everywhere else)
- Being told that I didn’t look very good or that my personality is very acceptable in my culture
- Was bullied in school and in random places outside for my mixed ethnicity
- The culture that I grow up in prizes achievement, conformism and perfectionism – an incredibly toxic mix which stamps out any form of personality and ostracises people who do not value these things. Rebelling against it (which I did) will lead you to being ostracised in some way
- Not being chosen for special occasions (i.e. a school performance) because some teachers just didn’t like that I wasn’t a super goody-goody girl and that I had a quiet personality
- I have a rather unconventional personality and outlook towards life but this wasn’t encouraged, but seen as something to stamp out (especially by teachers)
I’d have to say that the stamping out of my personality plus the constant commenting on my looks and the toxic perfectionist national culture and society that I live in contributed in large part to my low self-esteem for many years, right up to my early 20s.
If you take a minute to look back at your own childhood right now, there were probably similar experiences that gave you pause and changed the way you thought of yourself.
At the heart of self-esteem are your beliefs about yourself as a person
Whenever you say something like “I’m stupid”, it’s a statement or opinion and not fact. It is a conclusion you came to about yourself as a result of your experiences in your life as well as the messages that you’ve been getting from people.
Over time, as you reinforce these thoughts and statements, they start to solidify into beliefs. This is further solidified due to our self-fulfilling prophecies. How so?
When you think that you are a poor writer, for example, you will be more on the lookout for experiences and examples in your life that highlight this. A stray comment from a colleague “this report wasn’t structured too well” or from your own experiences. Perhaps, you took 5 days to write a 300-word article for example. When you have a belief like what you already hold, these things will stand out more to you and will stick out in your memories too, further proofing your initial belief.
Your beliefs drive your behaviour and how you perceive the world. It is the basis for how some of your thoughts form. If you have unsupportive beliefs, your thoughts will go a certain way and after a long time of repetition and internalisation, you will start seeing yourself that way, hugely influencing your self-esteem.
The role that self-evaluations play
Besides self-beliefs, evaluations play a HUGE part in self-esteem. Evaluating yourself and internalising others’ evaluations of you have a big impact on what you think of yourself. They are the conclusions you draw about yourself based off your experiences.
Let’s think of an example, say, you’ve gotten a really low grade on a test you’ve studied really hard for.
What conclusions will you draw of yourself? Will you tell yourself you are stupid and that you deserve these grades? OR will you tell yourself you will just work harder next time around?
Imagine your friend looking at your test results and then passing a comment like “wow that’s a really bad score. you’re almost at the bottom of the class! maybe you just suck at Math” – what would you do with this comment? Take it as fact or simply your friend’s opinion?
Over the years, as a former low self-esteem sufferer, I’ve noticed the degree to which you internalise such evaluations is one of the keys to determining your level of self-esteem. If you’ve gotten a really shitty end of the stick in life – how do you evaluate that experience, how do you evaluate yourself post-experience and do you internalise – meaning, do you take those evaluations as the be-all and end-all? As fact? Or a datapoint in the many datapoints about us?
Impact of self-esteem on your person
Having a high or low self-esteem will affect several things about you. These include:
- Your internal thoughts and statements (especially towards yourself and also to others)
- Perceptions of others behaviour and thoughts (and interpretations of what they say)
- Your behaviour in general
- Your emotions
- Your physiological state
Let’s talk this through these briefly
Your internal thoughts and statements
When you have high self-esteem you are able to soothe yourself, when you suffer from lower self-esteem, you tend to criticise yourself alot. and harshly. Your internal thoughts and statements will lean towards the accusatory and negative towards yourself. You will tend to engage in self-criticism, self-blame and shame and even guilt yourself into doing/not doing something. You will have lots of rules for yourself.
Perceptions of others
Your self-esteem sometimes acts as a lens through which you perceive other people’s behaviours and comments. It can result in you taking things personally, or interpreting quite neutral, innocuous statements as being directed to you with ill-intention. You will find yourself trapped in a victim mentality or playing the victim role. You may be distrustful of others’ intentions. If you have higher self-esteem, it may manifest in a opposite way.
Self-esteem also manifests in how you carry yourself. Do you stand tall and carry yourself well? Are you self-conscious in public? Do you try to keep yourself small and invisible? When you attend a gathering, do you try to hide yourself and stay on the fringes or do you give out the proper green light signals for people to approach you?
Do you constantly find yourself spending time in negative emotional states or positive? If something unpredictable happens that thwarts your plans, how do you react to that – do you mope, get upset, blame yourself? Or do you not allow yourself to mope around so much and instead seek to find solutions?
Your physiological state
Your self-esteem may manifest in certain physiological issues in your life. The way you think, perceive and feel can manifest itself in your physical health. When I was doubting my capabilities and frustrated with life, negative tapes played on loops, this manifested in headaches, moodiness, anger and lots of other health issues. It is a wake-up call from your body to stop and consider what has been going on in your life currently that could be manifesting in physical health issues.
Impact of self-esteem on your life
Self-esteem can impact the different areas of your life. It can affect your perception of success, can affect how you react to setbacks and how you deal with it subsequently.
Let’s take a look at the possible impact on the different areas in our lives:
Setting & achieving goals
Self-esteem can affect the types of goals we set, and how we go about achieving them. It can affect our beliefs reading whether we will successfully achieve them. And if you are given a difficult, challenging goal – do you feel like you are able to achieve it or are you already thinking of 100 ways of failing without having even lifted a finger?
When you do not believe in your capabilities, you may tend to self-handicap. A psychological response to a fear of failure. I will explore this concept in-depth in a later post.
Your self-esteem may affect your capabilities in earning money or managing the finances. You may or may not feel like you can earn the desired salary you want. If you are wanting to start out a business, your beliefs around money and business may affect how you approach things. You’ll find that your beliefs around money will affect how you see spending and saving, and these things are influenced by your self-esteem.
Ooh this is another tricky area in life that can be influenced largely by your self-esteem. Do you think you can find the partner you want or desire? Do you always feel like you are lacking or inferior to your partner in relationships? Do you constantly feel insecure? Do you find yourself attracted to men who match your levels of self-esteem and the way you feel about yourself? Do you feel you deserve better or less?
This is one area in life where we can see our self-esteem manifest in its truest form, an incredible interesting area to look at, if you haven’t already.
Your self-esteem will determine the sorts of behaviours and treatment you put up with at work. Do you draw boundaries or allow yourself to be pushed around? Do you continue working in a toxic environment knowing that your colleagues and bosses are full of s***, knowing you will not get an increase?
Do you believe you deserve to be pampered? Do you deserve rest? Are you worthy of a massage/manicure/expensive haircut etc? Should you treat yourself? Our self-esteem can lead to some very interesting behaviours manifesting in how we treat and rewards ourselves, in how we have fun. So how are you treating yourself today?
Self-esteem is very much driven by your evaluations and beliefs of yourself, your capabilities, your limits and the world. Its impact can vary depending on how you react to situations and how you deal with it.
Take some time today to look back at your life experiences. Do certain experiences, particularly from your childhood, stand out in a good/bad way? How did those experiences lead to the development of your self-esteem? How can you start to love and like yourself more?
We will continue our exploration of self-esteem through the many articles on my site, and if you do want a more in-depth understanding of how to build your self-esteem, do sign up for the 5-day Bootcamp below.
With 10 years of experience as a Researcher (MSc) in Psychology, Neuroscience, Mental Health, Consumer and Organisational Behaviour; I help action-oriented, time-strapped people and solopreneurs crush their inner critics, navigate toxic workplaces and relationships and build their self-esteem so that you can have the freedom, happiness and confidence you desire. I spend the rest of my time daydreaming and downing cups of tea/coffee – my life’s vice.