We hear the words “self-esteem” a lot. From the time we’re young, we’re told that we need have a good sense of self-esteem, and that if we don’t, we may have problems.

But this can lead to confusion. What exactly is self-esteem? How can you know if you have low self-esteem? And if you do have low self-esteem, how can you change?

Maxwell Maltz (1889-1975), author of “Psycho-Cybernetics” said, “Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-break on.”

How can you be sure you’re not living your life with the “hand-break” on?

Here, we walk you through the how, what and why of self-esteem. We’re going to help you determine whether you have low self-esteem and give you suggestions for improving it.

How to Know If You Have Low Self-Esteem

“Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” —Sam Walton

It can be difficult to know if you’re experiencing low self-esteem or just having a “down” period in your life. Evaluate yourself against the criteria below to determine where you fall.

Being Self-Critical

Self-esteem is confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; it’s self-respect. If you criticize yourself habitually, you will constantly be unhappy with who you are. You don’t have confidence in your worth and abilities, and you don’t respect yourself.

Plus, when you’re being critical, you’re usually exaggerating little mistakes or behaviors in an unhelpful way that doesn’t reflect reality.

Not Responding Well to Criticism

Not only will you not respond well to your own criticism, but if a friend offers constructive criticism, you won’t take that well. If you have low self-esteem, you’ll be hypersensitive to that type of thing, leading to the feeling of being attacked or being the victim.

Fear of Making Mistakes and Failure

Another indicator of low self-esteem is fear-driven decisions or lack of decisions.

Oftentimes, if you feel stuck because you can’t make a decision, it’s due to the fear of making mistakes. You don’t have confidence in yourself and your abilities. You don’t think you have the capacity to make smart decisions so you don’t make any decisions at all.

If you constantly avoid difficult decisions because you’e afraid of failing, it’s an indicator that you probably have self-esteem issues. Many people are afraid of failing, but they push forward anyway because they know that their value doesn’t depend on their success or failure.


Perfectionism, on the surface, seems like a noble thing. You won’t turn that paper in until you’ve spent another five hours combing through it for grammar mistakes and rewriting it until you think it’s perfect.

But perfectionism is often closely connected to low self-esteem. Instead of being confident in your God-given gifts and abilities, you find value in what you produce. If what you produce isn’t perfect, you feel less valuable.

Feeling Insignificant

If you feel like people don’t find you significant or if you feel less worthy than those around you, you may have low self-esteem. If you feel like you don’t matter that can lead to not enjoying friends, family and your life to the fullest.

We’re not saying that you should narcissitically see yourself as the center of the universe, but you should know that you matter, that you’re just as valuable as everyone else. If you are convinced that others are more worthy of attention or love or respect, that’s a sign of low self-esteem.

How Low Self-Esteem Affects Your Life

“You are loved just for being who you are, just for existing. You don’t have to do anything to earn it. Your shortcomings, your lack of self-esteem, physical perfection, or social and economic success—none of that matters. No one can take this love away from you, and it will always be here.” —Ram Dass

Now that you know the characteristics of someone with low self-esteem, you should have a pretty good idea of where you stand. And that’s a great first step.

But you still probably don’t understand just how detrimental low self-esteem is to your life. Until you grasp the severity of the problem, you won’t take action toward change.

If low self-esteem goes unchecked, it can lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

In worst-case scenarios, low self-esteem can eventually lead to tolerating someone who mistreats you or even harming yourself or others. This desire for self- and others-harm can from a deep desire to be loved and for people to pay attention to you or to numb some sort of emotional pain.

What You Can Do to Improve Your Self-Esteem

“Most fears of rejection rest on the desire for approval from other people. Don’t base your self-esteem on their opinions.” —Harvey Mackay

Your self-esteem won’t improve simply through understanding. You need to take specific actions to improve it. Here are some actions you should begin taking immediately.

Care for Yourself

Sometimes those with low or no self-esteem are so hard on themselves that they don’t care about caring for themselves. But nothing could be more important.

Remember Hygiene

This one might seem obvious, but a shower can do wonders. It’s very important to keep up with basic hygiene—brush your teeth, take a bath, comb your hair, etc. When you don’t practice proper hygiene, you are in essence saying, “I’m not worth taking care of.” Fight back against this by caring for your body.

Eat Health Food

When you don’t value yourself, you don’t care about what types of food you put in your body. To combat this, work hard to eat foods that will provide your body with proper nutrition. Eat fruits, veggies, protein, etc. You have so much to offer the world but you can’t do that if you’re not properly feeding your body.


In order for you to bless the world with your gifts and talents, you need to be in good health. When you exercise, you’re saying, “I have things to offer the world, and I’m going to make sure my body is in tip-top shape so I can do that.”

Yes, this one may sound a tad overwhelming, but you don’t need to go to the gym in order to get your heart rate up. Get some hand weights and start lifting. Drop to the ground and do some pushups. Stretching is even a great habit to start.

Spoil Yourself

Remember, you’re valuable. In light of this, spoil yourself every once in awhile. Have that extra scoop of ice cream. Buy that shirt. Take a night off from school work and watch a movie with friends.

You can’t do this all the time, but do it occasionally to lift your spirits and remember that you’re worth it.

Ignore the Peanut Gallery in Your Head

If you have low self-esteem, you have an inner critic who is constantly belittling you, insulting you and telling you that you won’t succeed. The inner critic says things like:

  • “This is too hard.”
  • “You’ll probably mess it up.”
  • “These people don’t even want you here.”

Tell your inner critic to take a hike and replace self-defeating thoughts with thoughts like:

  • “I have the ability to make this happen.”
  • “I have friends and family who truly love me.”
  • “I have God-given gifts and abilities to share with others.”

Invest in Others

If you invest your life with a community of trusted friends and family, your self-esteem can greatly improve. You have support when you need it. You’re reminded that people love you. You belong. And, you’re saying to yourself that you have something to offer others.

One thing that helps you be happy with who you are and confident in yourself is if loved ones are happy with who you are and are confident in you. Take time to be with your community, whoever they are.

Strive for Optimism

Finally, remember to think positively about yourself. Be optimistic about who you can become and what your life could look like.

Yes, you may have problems. We all do.

But despite those, you are not exactly like any other person on the planet. You have value and worth. Remember these things.

Boost Your Confidence With a Degree

As Mister Rogers used to say at the end of his show, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.”

Even though that may seem a little childish, given the nature of the show, there is a deep and profound truth in those words. There really is no one exactly like you. You are unique, with particular gifts and abilities.

Don’t dismiss those things. Embrace your gifts and strengths and then share them with the world.

When you choose to pursue your personal and professional goals with an education, you enhance your knowledge, skills and abilities to thrive wherever you are.

Learn more about our adult programs

Learn more about our graduate programs