Low Self-Esteem: Thoughts + Thinking Styles


Many of us may be familiar with the concept of low self-esteem, but what does it really mean? Essentially, it refers to having a less-than-favourable opinion of yourself. We can examine at self-esteem from different angles [1], including:

  • Our global or trait self-esteem (how we generally feel about ourselves across most situations),

  • Evaluations of ourselves in specific domains (for example how we feel about our performance at work versus how we feel about ourselves as a worthy partner or even our level of body-confidence)

  • Our self-worth in response to events

From the above, we can see that low self-esteem can have its origins in our childhood through messages we receive from parents, teachers, or kids at school (e.g. bullying). It can also be triggered later in life in response to events that we face (e.g. unemployment, divorce).


Low self-esteem is linked with many of the issues that we see in our work as clinical psychologists. Consider how it presents in the following difficulties:

SOCIAL ANXIETY  Feeling inadequate can lead us to worry about being evaluated negatively, resulting in us feeling anxious in front of others.

DEPRESSION  It can be hard to see a positive future when we don’t feel good about ourselves. When things look that futile, our mood usually follows.

PERFECTIONISM   Feeling inadequate can sometimes push us to set unrealistically high goals in the belief that by attaining these goals we prove to ourselves and others that we’re worthy.

BODY IMAGE + EATING DISORDERS  How we look may, for some, have a significant impact on self-esteem. Taken to the extreme, we may see eating disorders emerge as people strive towards what they consider to be an ideal figure.

RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMS + ASSERTIVENESS  Self-esteem can lead to issues within your relationship including problems asserting yourself because you don’t believe in your own rights. 

Low self-esteem may also present in issues such as anger, panic attacks, drug and alcohol use, risky behaviours, and poor health choices. 


Many individuals with low self-esteem hold the core belief that “I’m not good enough”. In the various areas of their lives these thoughts may take on a slightly different form.

For example, in relationships and friendships, someone with low self-esteem may think that they are not important enough or special enough in order to be deserving of their partner or friends. As a result, they consider themselves lucky to have company, and may be less likely to voice displeasure when they feel taken advantage of.

In a work situation someone may think that they’re not clever enough or a good enough worker if passed over for a promotion. Or, in their studies they may think that they’re not smart enough or talented enough in comparison to others. These may then create a relentless pursuit of achievement.


Thinking styles help reinforce these thoughts that are found in low self-esteem. Some time ago we blogged about Thinking Styles that sabotage mental health here. Let’s take a closer look at how these apply to you when it comes to low self-esteem.

NEGATIVE FILTER  Any small negative outcome affects your view of entire events. So, while the rest of a presentation that you gave at work went quite well, you allow the small slip up that you made at the start of it to colour how well you think the entire presentation went.

EMOTIONAL REASONING  Because you feel down about yourself, you believe that this accurately reflects how you are in real life. For example if you feel inadequate after having made one small mistake in your work, you may then take this as a sign that you’re a failure.

PERSONALISATION  You automatically assume things are your fault and discount the contribution of external factors, or you shoulder far more responsibility for the outcome than is warranted. So, while you may have had a disagreement with a friend, you assume that it is your entire fault, and ignore how they treated to you.

SHOULDS + MUSTS  By setting rigid standards for yourself, with no room to move, you may be setting yourself up to fail or be disappointed. So, you may believe that in order to be a success in life you must work in a particular profession, be a certain weight, dress a particular way, have a certain number of friends, earn a particular salary…the list can go on and on. Set these standards too high and you set yourself up for likely failure and a knock to your self-esteem.

LABELLING  Mistakes on your part aren’t due to situational factors but instead due to stable internal qualities. So, rather than recognising you didn’t do well at soccer because you’re out of practice, you label yourself as clumsy and useless. By telling yourself that the reason why things don’t work out is because of stable, internal qualities, will that give you a sense that change is possible?

MINIMISING THE POSITIVES  For people with low self-esteem sometimes the issue isn’t that you’re not good enough at things, but rather anything that you did well on doesn’t count in your opinion. So, if you scored well on an exam you brush it off by saying that it was a fluke or that the questions were super easy.

MIND READING  Assuming that others think the worst of you is something that people with low self-esteem commonly experience. The difficulty with this is approach that you don’t bother to check to see if the assumptions are correct, and instead hold onto the belief that others have that opinion of you.


Sometimes when you hold a mirror up to how you see yourself it can be daunting to see how entrenched your thoughts and thinking styles are. The challenge of changing these entrenched thoughts and thinking styles can also be quite deflating. Let's break it down by looking at three lines of questioning to get us started.

Where did the messages come from? What was your earliest recollection of feeling this way about yourself? Do these messages still apply in your life today?

Have there been any examples, however small, that contradict how you see yourself? For example, if you feel that you're a terrible worker, ask yourself if it is the case that you have never received positive feedback at work.

What thinking styles are at play? Are your reinforcing your negative self-view by tuning out any positives? Are you setting yourself up to feel down about yourself by having unrealistic expectations? Are you assuming what others think of you without stopping to think if your thoughts are accurate?

Make a start on changing how you see yourself using the above questions. If you’re after a more tailored approach and would like to make an appointment, (and you’re local to us!), feel free to contact us.



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[1] Brown, J.D., Dutton, K.A., & Cook, K.E. (2001). From the top down: Self-esteem and self-evaluation. Cognition and emotion, 15, 615-631.