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The Origins of Low Self-Esteem

Hard data on self-esteem is hard to come by. Humans are infallible beings with large egos, so admitting that we have low self-esteem can feel like a failure and, ironically, decrease self-esteem even further. A report by the charity GirlGuiding found that a growing number of 16-18 year old girls are unhappy with how they look. A stark 75% of girls who are unhappy with themselves engage in negative activities like cutting, bullying, smoking, drinking, or disordered eating. Seven in 10 girls believe that they are not good enough or don’t measure up in some way, especially in regard to ability and appearance. Boys are similarly afflicted, with 38% of middle and high school boys admitting to using protein supplements to bulk up, and 6% admitting to steroid use to change how they look.

Low self-esteem is strongly associated with a host of negative behaviors or conditions, including alcoholism, drug use, poor relationships, promiscuity, depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, self-harm, and so much more. Psychologists have distilled the causes of low self-esteem into the classic "nature vs. nurture" categories, which is less profound than you might think. The following two factors have been shown to be major contributors to low self-esteem.


Dr. Jim Taylor, Ph.D. identifies the source of low self-esteem in childhood. Often, parents instill false self-esteem by protecting their children from anything bad, and showering their children with excessive affirmations. This is commonly known as "helicopter parenting," and results in overly-sheltered young adults who have no coping skills, or at least, no healthy coping skills. Taylor writes that schools and youth sports have followed suit by taking away grading scales (so children don't experience failure) and distributing trophies or medals to all athletic participants, simply for showing up. Unfortunately, the real world doesn't reward anyone just for "showing up," and children who grow up never experiencing failure often have a fractured sense of self and a low sense of self-worth.

Conversely, overly critical parents, family members, teachers, or coaches can negatively impact the emotional health and development of their children. Bullying from peers is damaging, but bullying from adults, who are authority figures children look up to, can be worse. Childhood trauma-physical, sexual, economic, or emotional-can also greatly decrease self-esteem in children, and some of what molds self-confidence actually exists at birth. Studies have shown that our genetic makeup can influence the amount of "feel-good" chemicals like serotonin (the "happiness" hormone), and oxytocin, which helps with social bonding, sexual reproduction, and childbirth. For instance, mothers with lower levels of oxytocin are more apt to suffer from postpartum depression, simply due to genetic predisposition.

Social Media

Social media has been proven to affect our brain chemistry. According to Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes, receiving a social media notification triggers the release of dopamine, which feels really good. Dopamine is associated with food, exercise, love, sex, gambling, and drugs, which can all be addicting. Social media was specifically designed to be addicting too, but it often has negative effects because, as one psychologist put it, "Comparison is the thief of joy." When we see other people having fun, traveling, or happily in love on social media, we feel like our lives are worse in comparison. Social media is also linked to higher levels of loneliness, envy, anxiety, depression, narcissism, and decreased social skills. In a recent study of men and women between ages 28-73, researchers found that 60% reported decreased self-esteem, and 50% reported negative effects on relationships.

Further, many media messages, especially from influencers on social media, are designed to make the viewer feel bad. Companies sell us products by introducing problems we never knew we had, to be fixed by products we never knew existed. Hairlines, nail beds, chins, ears, lips, cheeks, butts, thighs, stomachs, feet, veins, noses, arms, knees, cellulite, fine lines, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. These kinds of messages reinforce perfectionism (which is unobtainable), and leads to low-self esteem. Social media, and the widespread advertising from peers reinforcing perfectionism, has a very clear and direct negative impact on self-esteem. Steve Furtick said, “One reason we struggle with insecurity is that we’re comparing our behind-the-scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Understanding the causes of low self-esteem can help you overcome self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. There are millions of tips and tricks floating around online about how to increase your self-worth, how to love yourself, how to be kind to yourself, et cetera. Guy Winch, a licensed psychologist, has a popular Ted Talk called, "Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid" (view it HERE or purchase his book, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, and Failure, HERE).


Sarah Rose

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