Why It's Important to Have High Self-Esteem

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It's easy to discount the importance of having high self-esteem. However, having positive personal regard can be the difference between feeling good about and taking care of yourself and not.

We've likely all heard the advice to believe in yourself, value yourself, be your own cheerleader, and that you can't fully love others until you love yourself—and all of that is true. But what exactly does that really mean in real life? Essentially, that having high self-esteem is vital to a successful, happy life.

But how exactly do you know if your self-esteem is high enough? Below, we'll take a look at what self-esteem is, why it's important, and how to build yours up.

We'll also break down the negative effects of having low self-esteem, the difference between occasionally being down on yourself and truly having poor self-esteem, whether your self-esteem can be too high, factors that contribute to low self-esteem, and tips for cultivating a more positive self-outlook and self-respect.

What Is Self-Esteem?

In order to have high self-esteem, it's important to understand what self-esteem really is. Firstly, esteem means having admiration and respect.

Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is giving respect and admiration to yourself. The American Psychological Association defines self-esteem as "the degree to which the qualities and characteristics contained in one’s self-concept are perceived to be positive."

High self-esteem is not just liking yourself but generally affording yourself love, value, dignity, and respect, too. Positive self-esteem also means believing in your capability (to learn, achieve, and contribute to the world) and autonomy to do things on your own. It means you think your ideas, feelings, and opinions have worth.

In other words, self-esteem is how you feel about yourself (inside and out), encompassing what you think about and value in yourself and how you relate to others. It's also related to how you feel others view, treat, and value you. This is why those in abusive situations or who have experienced trauma (particularly as children) are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, concurrently and in the future, as a result.

Self-esteem isn't dependent entirely on one thing or set of thoughts. Instead, a person's self-esteem is made up of your view of all the things that define you as a person, including your personality, accomplishments, talents, capabilities, background, experiences, relationships, and physical body, as well as how you perceive others see you.

Each person may put a particular emphasis on certain areas that impact self-esteem, such as putting extra importance on your looks, relationship status, talents, or professional accomplishments (or lack thereof), when forming your self-image and how you feel about it.

Self-Esteem vs. Depression

Note, too, that low self-esteem is not the same as depression. While the two concepts overlap, low self-esteem is considered a risk factor for depression (see more on this below) rather than being the same thing.

While depression is a mental health condition that impacts the mind and body, self-esteem describes the way you think and feel about yourself. Additionally, some people have more stable self-esteem, while other's feelings about themselves are more mood- and life event-reactive—and more prone to plummet.

Remember, whether your self-esteem is high or low is influenced by the many factors that make you, you—some of which are in your control, some are not.

Ultimately, what matters most is what you focus on from those many factors and how much grace and compassion you afford yourself with regard to the things you're less thrilled about.

Whether you realize it or not, your self-esteem is the picture you paint of yourself, the parts of you that you choose to emphasize. Essentially, as famed naturalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said, "The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

High-Self Esteem

High self-esteem means generally holding yourself in positive regard. This doesn't mean you love everything about yourself or think you are perfect. On the contrary, even for those with high self-esteem, it's common to be self-critical and have some parts of yourself that you are less proud of or happy with than other elements. High self-esteem can fluctuate depending on the circumstance.

However, if you have high self-esteem the positive thoughts about yourself outweigh the negative—and the negative doesn't make you discount your worth as a person.

Essentially, high self-esteem is a frame of mind that lets you celebrate your strengths, challenge your weaknesses, and feel good about yourself and your life. It allows you to put daily ups and downs in perspective because, at your core, you value, trust, and respect yourself.

High self-esteem also helps you understand that everything isn't about you, enabling you to not take everything personally and not be overly reactive. Strong self-respect lets you see beyond yourself and feel confident of your place in the world.

Interestingly, having high self-esteem does not always align with the circumstances or qualities that you might objectively assume should correlate with feeling good about yourself.

For example, some research shows that physical attractiveness does not predict high self-esteem. In fact, one study showed that teens with "facial attractiveness" scored lower on self-esteem ratings than their peers. In other words, the person who seems to have it all—great job, romantic partner, beauty, fit body—may not see it that way.

Why High Self-Esteem Matters

According to the American Psychological Association, having high self-esteem is key to positive mental health and well-being. High self-esteem matters because it helps you develop coping skills, handle adversity, and put the negative into perspective.

If you have a higher self-concept you also don't tend to put undue focus, blame, self-doubt, hopelessness, or weight on the parts you aren't happy about. You're also better able to cope with stress, anxiety, and pressure, whether from school, work, home, or peers.

Instead, rather than feeling hopeless, stuck, or unworthy due to any perceived "failings," a person with high self-esteem is more likely to look for what they can change or improve upon than to feel like a "failure" or hopeless.

Conversely, someone with low self-esteem is more likely to become entrenched in negative feelings about themself. In fact, research shows that feeling positive and respectful about yourself, particularly as a child, goes a long way in helping you adapt and adjust to the challenges of life.

A healthy self-concept and self-respect can enable you to realize that it's not the end of the world if something goes wrong, someone rejects you, you make a mistake, or you have some faults.

Self-Esteem and Prosocial Behavior

High self-esteem is also linked to prosocial behavior (actions with the intent to benefit others, such as generosity and qualities like empathy), flexibility, and positive familial relationships. In fact, a 2014 study found that college students with higher self-esteem and more loving and supportive relationships with their families were more successful at school and adapted better to the social adjustment of living in a new environment.

Self-Esteem and Stress

How you experience stress is also strongly related to your level of self-esteem. Prosocial behavior (which, as noted above, is more likely with higher self-esteem) is known to reduce the negative impact of stressors on daily life, helping you to manage stress more effectively. Studies have also found a positive relationship between positive self-esteem and motivation to accomplish goals, self-efficacy, and self-control. Higher levels of self-esteem are also predictive of greater academic success.

High Self-Esteem Boosts Overall Well-Being

Additionally, high self-esteem is considered to be protective against many mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. In fact, studies show that having high self-esteem is directly correlated to your satisfaction with your life and to the ability to maintain a favorable attitude about yourself in challenging situations.

Research also shows that people with higher self-esteem are happier in their jobs, have better social relationships, and generally, a more positive sense of well-being.

The Risks of Low Self-Esteem

Like many elements of mental health, researchers often describe self-esteem as existing on a spectrum.

Like anything in life, your self-image is prone to change and grow as you mature and live your life, and in response to key life events.

However, it's also true that people tend toward a certain set-point of self-esteem that can be persistent, whether high, low, or somewhere in between. Social interactions, attention, emotional regulation, decision-making, and life satisfaction are all impacted by lower self-image.

Reactivity

As noted above, when you have high self-esteem, you're better able to shake off unfavorable events and the negative judgments or moods of others that may be directed your way. Conversely, when you have a lower self-concept, you're more likely to take criticism or rejection personally and to assume someone else's problems are about you.

This combination can make people with low self-esteem more reactive to day-to-day circumstances and personal interactions. Those with lower self-esteem are also less likely to keep their emotions in check, cope well with challenges, and look at life from a healthy perspective.

Often low self-esteem means small things become blown up into bigger issues that can feel insurmountable, further ratcheting down self-regard.

Feeling Down vs. Poor Self-Esteem

Essentially, low self-esteem isn't just having a bad mood or a bad day. Everyone feels down when negative things happen but these feelings typically pass and, especially for those with positive self-esteem, don't have a drastic impact on self-worth. Instead, low self-esteem is a chronically negative self-image that, while it may ebb and flow with the positive and negative events in your life, for the most part, stays with you over time, regardless of life circumstances.

Your level of self-regard may be, in part, a function of the natural variation in personality types, affect, genetics, and/or in response to upbringing, peers, and life events. However, when self-esteem is particularly low, as noted above, it can put you at risk of many mental health challenges.

Susceptibility to Depression

The link between low self-esteem and mental health conditions is particularly strong. Interestingly, research shows convincingly that poor self-esteem contributes to depression, rather than the reverse. This means that depression doesn't create low self-regard. Instead, thinking poorly of yourself makes you more vulnerable to depression.

Additionally, studies indicate that higher self-esteem offers protection from mental health conditions, likely due to the improved coping skills, higher positivity, and resiliency that comes with this more accepting and affirmative self-talk. Essentially, low self-esteem begets feeling bad about yourself, which makes leading a fulfilling life, reaching your goals, and having positive social and intimate relationships harder.

Critically, studies show that low self-esteem is highly correlated to depression, anxiety, emotional problems, substance use, stress, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. Research also shows a strong correlation between low self-esteem and anxiety disorders, particularly with social phobias and social anxiety disorder.

If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Risky Behaviors

Studies also show a link between poor self-esteem and an increased risk of risky health behaviors, particularly in teens, such as drug and alcohol use, drunk driving, self-harm, smoking, and carrying a weapon. Essentially, those who value and respect themselves the least are more willing to make more dangerous choices that may impact their health and safety.

Additionally, improvements in self-esteem are shown to be helpful in the recovery from addiction. In fact, studies show that this relationship of low self-esteem and poor choices is particularly evident in adolescents who already are at a disadvantage for decision-making due to their still-developing executive function skills. Research has also found a link between low self-esteem and risky sexual behaviors in teens.

Low Self-Confidence

Research also finds a clear correlation between low self-confidence and low self-esteem, as well as the reverse. Additionally, having high self-confidence encourages self-reliance, self-advocacy, and trust in yourself and your abilities, all factors that bolster high self-esteem—and create a framework for positive mental health and quality of life.

Can You Have Too Much Self-Esteem?

An unrealistic or overly elevated self-concept may be as unhealthy as a negative one. However, it's important to distinguish between healthy high self-esteem and arrogance. High self-esteem is not being egotistical, thinking you are infallible, or better than others.

High Self-Esteem vs. Arrogance and Narcissism

Arrogance is when a person's self-concept veers from reality and becomes the dominant force in their life, and we might assume that too much self-esteem equals an inflated ego.

However, this type of narcissistic self-concept isn't necessarily a natural progression from healthy self-esteem, which values the self but not above all others.

Instead, narcissism or arrogance describes a person who focuses primarily on themselves, considers themselves more important or worthwhile than others, and often, doesn't even think about how their actions impact those around them. Really, it can be argued that what looks like "too much self-esteem" is actually the opposite.

In fact, while narcissists may seem to have high self-esteem, studies show that grandiose beliefs about yourself often actually mask a poor self-image, feelings of shame, and self-directed anger hiding underneath.

People with narcissistic personality disorder are also more prone to comorbid mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, experience feelings of helplessness, and have unstable personal relationships.

Contributing Factors of Low Self-Esteem

While, as noted above, a complex web of influences combine to shape your identity, personality, and self-concept, there are specific factors that predict high or low self-esteem. Namely, factors that impact self-esteem include whether or not you had a supportive upbringing, where your needs, thoughts, feelings, contributions, and ideas are valued. Positive thinking, heredity, personal outlook, your peers, and other role models all matter a lot as well.

Experiencing challenging life events or trauma like divorce, violence, racism, neglect, poverty, a natural disaster, being bullied, or otherwise treated poorly can also contribute to low self-esteem.

The effectiveness of your coping skills, the relative positivity of your personal outlook, and general resiliency, all factors that can be innate or learned, greatly impact the influence negative experiences may have on your self-esteem as well.

Cultivating High Self-Esteem

Cultivating high self-esteem (and resiliency) is no easy task, but it's certainly possible and within your grasp—and can make a huge difference in your life. As noted above, it's key to understand that a significant component of self-esteem is your thought patterns, what you focus on, and optimism rather than simply on objective facts or events of your life.

In other words, it's about what you see (and say to yourself) when looking at your physical self, skills, accomplishments, or future potential.

Building up your self-esteem takes work, determination, and a willingness to examine and counter negative thoughts about yourself—and to actively bolster your self-image with positive ones. It's vital to give yourself grace, to let go of certain things that bother you as well as to work on those areas that you can (and want) to change.

If you value yourself, and have high enough self-worth, you also know that you deserve to take care of yourself, which then can contribute to trying to do things to improve your self-esteem. It's difficult to take care of yourself if you think poorly of yourself.

Studies show that forgiving yourself for things you regret can also help improve self-esteem. Essentially, it's about accepting and loving yourself as you are.

When to Get Help

If you have low self-esteem, it can be helpful to work with a counselor or other mental health professional to begin changing your negative self-talk and improve how you see and value yourself.

Ways to Improve Self-Esteem

As noted above, improving your self-esteem takes practice and intention but is well worth your efforts, as there is a clear link between high self-esteem and quality of life. Some strategies that can help you think more favorably about yourself include the following:

Accept Compliments

Notice the urge to deflect praise and instead, hear it and let it in. Interestingly, research shows that difficulty accepting compliments is directly correlated with low self-esteem.

Give Yourself a Break

Forgive yourself for mistakes and squash your negative self-theories and self-talk. No one is perfect or loves everything about themselves. Don't expect that of yourself. When you start on a negative spiral, ask yourself if you're being fair to yourself or realistic.

Love Yourself—Flaws And All

Yes, you may have things you wish were different, want to change, or just plain aren't happy with, but love and respect yourself anyway.

Value the Person You Are

Aim to accept and find worth in who you are right now. Seek out and feel pride in what makes you unique, happy, and valued.

Recognize the Importance of High Self-Esteem

Once you begin to see how your view of yourself impacts life satisfaction and well-being, you may be more motivated to alter your thinking and value yourself more.

Seek Support

Therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can help you work on issues that may be impeding your positive self-outlook and help you build skills to disrupt negative self-talk and attain a more optimistic view of yourself.

Start a Gratitude Journal

In a gratitude journal, write down all the positive things in your life, the things you like about yourself, the accomplishments or qualities you are proud of—then read it over whenever you're feeling down about yourself.

Take Note of Your Thoughts

When negative ones arise, actively choose to either work productively on the issues or decide to let them go. When you have positive thoughts, aim to amplify them, particularly whenever less favorable thinking pops up.

Think of Yourself as a Friend

You're likely to be more patient, forgiving, kind, encouraging, supportive, and proud as you assess a friend than you are of yourself. So, next time you're beating up on yourself, step back, shift your perspective, and look at yourself as you would a friend.

Work on Yourself

If there are things about yourself or your life that you don't feel good about, consider what changes you can make. Then, make a plan to put those changes into action.

A Word From Verywell

High self-esteem is key to life satisfaction. For some, this frame of mind comes easily, for others it's more of a struggle. Luckily, wherever you may be on the self-esteem spectrum, you can work on improving your vision, support, compassion, and love of yourself.

After all, the relationship you have with yourself may ultimately be the one that matters most—it gifts you the resiliency, confidence, kindness, motivation, and love that informs the rest of your life and helps you be the best person you can be.

You might also want to consider reaching out to a therapist to help you learn the skills needed to build your self-esteem.

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