What is self-esteem and how to build it as an adult?

What is self-esteem and how to build it as an adult?

Self-esteem is deeply linked with your quality of life. Studies have shown that it is one of the most dominant and powerful predictors of your well-being and happiness¹⁻². Too little self-esteem can lead you to always assume the worst about yourself and lack the confidence to pursue what truly matters to you.

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem refers to an individual’s subjective evaluation of their worth.³ What exactly does this mean?

Self-esteem is commonly referred to as the feeling that one is ‘’good enough’’⁴. It may not necessarily reflect a person’s objective talents and abilities, or even how others evaluate that person.

Your self-esteem is defined by many factors, including:

  • Self-confidence
  • Sense of belonging
  • Identity
  • Feelings of competence

Positive self-esteem is critical for mental health. It contributes to better health and positive social behavior as a buffer against negative influences.5

What impacts self-esteem?

The development of self-esteem during childhood and adolescence depends on various intra-individual and social factors. Some of the main determinants of self-esteem include:⁶

  • Approval and support, especially from parents and peers. Receiving unconditional parental support is critical during the early phases of self-development. It allows us to  better internalize the positive views others have of us. Different studies have shown that negative self-esteem emerges as an outcome of low maternal acceptance, negative parenting practices, child maltreatment, negative feedback from significant others on one’s competence, and family discord and disruption.⁷
  • Self-perceived competence. A large discrepancy between how valuable someone perceives a particular area of competence and how competent they feel within that area often also leads to lower self-esteem.

Why is self-esteem important?

Self-esteem is deeply linked with your well-being and happiness. Poor self-esteem can diminish self-appreciation and create self-defeating attitudes, psychiatric vulnerability, and social problems or risk behaviors. ⁵

How can I tell if I have issues with self-esteem?

Low self-esteem doesn’t have a single manifestation, but it can be visible through several signs:

  • You often think that others are better than you
  • You have difficulty expressing your needs
  • You more often that not focus on your weaknesses
  • You frequently experience fear, self-doubt and worry
  • You have an intense fear of failure
  • You have difficulty setting boundaries and saying no
  • You struggle with confidence

Studies suggest that low self-esteem is related to depressed moods, depressive disorders, and even suicidal tendencies. ⁸⁻⁹

Meanwhile, people with higher self-esteem are more resilient and less likely to initiate various risk behaviors. Positive self-esteem is considered a protective factor against substance abuse. Adolescents with more positive self-concepts are less likely to use alcohol or drugs. ¹⁰

Self-esteem can change — it’s not static.

Here are a few ways to explore building more positive self-esteem:

  • Find and practice something you’re good at. Often our self-esteem is hampered by doing things that we perceive as ’failing’ at. Playing to your strengths and doing something you have an innate capacity for will most likely result in growth and better performance. This positive feedback will will build your confidence and in turn lead to greater self-esteem.
  • Surround yourself with people who support you. Your feedback from the people you care about matters.¹²
  • Change your way of thinking. You might be stuck in negative patterns of thought that diminish your self-worth. If you habitually catch yourself habitually in negative self-talk, such as thoughts of being ’not good enough’, it’s good to take pause. Look for evidence that challenges these thoughts. Along with challenging negative thoughts, you can practice positive self-talk by focusing on your good qualities that are more empowering.¹¹
  • Your diet and sleep matter. Healthy foods and proper sleep will improve your overall wellbeing and also boost how you feel about yourself.
  • Practice self-compassion. Various studies show the importance of self-compassion in in boosting feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. (e.g., Gilbert, 2009; Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen, & Hancock, 2007.) Self-compassion better places you in a position whereby you can accept your limitations, without being defined by them.


  1. Evans, D.R. (1997) Health promotion, wellness programs, quality of life and the marketing of psychology. Canadian Psychology, 38, 1–12.
  2. Zimmerman, S. L. (1999). Self-esteem, personal control, optimism, extraversion, and the subjective well-being of midwestern university faculty. Andrews University.
  3. Donnellan, M. B., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Robins, R. W. (2011). Self-esteem: Enduring issues and controversies. In T. Chamorro-Premuzic, S. von Stumm & A. Furnham (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of individual differences (pp. 718–746). Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell
  4. Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  5. Mann, M. M., Hosman, C. M., Schaalma, H. P., & De Vries, N. K. (2004). Self-esteem in a broad-spectrum approach for mental health promotion. Health education research, 19(4), 357–372.
  6. Harter, S. (1999). The Construction of Self: A Developmental Perspective (Guilford, New York).
  7. Garber, J. and Flynn, C. (2001) Predictors of depressive cognitions in young adolescents. Cognitive Theory and Research, 25, 353–376.
  8. Dori, G.A. and Overholser, J.C. (1999) Depression, hopelessness and self-esteem: accounting for suicidality in adolescent psychiatric inpatients. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 29, 309–318.
  9. Overholser, J. C., Adams, D. M., Lehnert, K. L., & Brinkman, D. C. (1995). Self-esteem deficits and suicidal tendencies among adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 34(7), 919–928.
  10. Carvajal, S.C., Clair, S.D., Nash, S.G. and Evans, R.I. (1998) Relating optimism, hope and self-esteem to social influences in deterring substance use in adolescents. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 17, 443–465.
  11. Cascio, C. N., O’Donnell, M. B., Tinney, F. J., Lieberman, M. D., Taylor, S. E., Strecher, V. J., & Falk, E. B. (2016). Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(4), 621–629.
  12. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.
  13. Merianos, A. L., Nabors, L. A., Vidourek, R. A., & King, K. A. (2013). THE IMPACT OF SELF-ESTEEM AND SOCIAL SUPPORT ON COLLEGE STUDENTS'MENTAL HEALTH. American Journal of Health Studies, 28(1).
  14. Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind. Robinson.
  15. Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Batts Allen, A., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: the implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(5), 887.