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What are the causes of low self-esteem?
You know you are worthy, but you can’t see your worth. Why is this so?
When do you start seeing yourself in a negative light?
People who have low self-esteem, sometimes frustrate or annoy others when they can’t see their own worth. Especially in a relationship, it’s difficult to love someone who doesn’t love themselves. Their partners see positive traits in them, but they don’t trust and look at themselves the same way. This demands a lot of energy from their partners to supply them with love and convince them that they are worthy of love.
And how about good-looking people who distance themselves from others because of their low self-esteem? They give others the wrong impression that they are snobs when in reality, they are just afraid that others would reject them.
Why do some people have low self-worth?
Low self-esteem is an inaccurate, biased view of yourself. It’s a judgment on your own self-worth. It’s a belief about oneself. People who don’t have low self-esteem would find it difficult to understand why others have low self-esteem because they don’t share the same perception as us.
To better understand why we can’t see our own worth, let’s explore where our low self-esteem comes from and how it is developed.
Why Do You Have Low Self Esteem?
People who have low self-esteem are very certain they are unworthy. Where did this certainty come from?
It came from our childhood.
Low self-esteem is a result of our childhood experience.
Our self-esteem is mostly determined in childhood. As soon as we are born, we try to make sense of who we are from our parents, caretakers, friends, and teachers. They influenced how we view ourselves.
There must be a recurring series of events when we are young which caused us to misinterpret and conclude that we are unworthy. Sometimes, one traumatic event such as physical abuse might be enough for us to conclude we are not lovable. But for most people, it’s a result of many repeated, similar events.
For example, being constantly scolded by our parents may cause us to believe that we aren’t good enough.
Understanding From a Child’s Perspective
Some of us don’t think such events would have any impact on us. Scolding by parents is common. Children don’t understand the mechanics of the world and they need someone to guide and direct them.
However, you have to understand that the perception of a child and the perception of an adult is different. Right now in hindsight, it’s easy for us to understand where our parents are coming from. But as children do we know that our parents care for us and want the best for us? Do we know that our parents had good intentions but had executed them poorly?
Being children, we don’t have the knowledge like an adult to know what is going on with our lives. To us, being scolded by our parents is a big deal at that moment. It’s easy for us to misinterpret that there is something wrong with us.
Children won’t understand their parents’ intentions if they aren’t shared.
Like in my case, I used to think that my parents don’t love me. I had a difficult time in secondary school and I wanted to change school. But my parents didn’t allow me to change. They think the school is good for me and I should learn how to get along with others better.
Now, as adults, of course, I understand my parents’ point of view. Giving up and avoiding something is not the best way to solve an issue. But at that time, no one explained that to me. No one tried to understand what I was going through and feeling. I felt powerless and unimportant. I felt that my parents didn’t care for me. And that has a huge impact on my self-worth growing up.
Furthermore, even if the parents were to share their intentions with their kids, it doesn’t mean that their kids would necessarily understand. From the parents’ perspective, studying is good for their children’s future. But their kids may not understand the impact of their studies on their lives now. So misinterpretations and misunderstandings are bound to happen when we were children.
The Psychology Behind Low Self-Esteem
How Negative Self-Beliefs Are Created
When we keep forming negative interpretations such as “I’m not good enough”, we start to form negative beliefs about ourselves. This works the same for positive beliefs. Beliefs are formed when our minds keep giving the same meanings to events we experienced until it became certain to us that it is the truth.
But are they the truth? No.
The events were misinterpreted in the first place.
Beliefs are what our minds perceive to be true.
Furthermore, our brains love to conserve energy. Once “I’m not good enough” becomes a belief, our minds automatically reject or filter any contradicting information directed to us. Our minds are not going to take their time and energy to examine each event for what it is when it can just assign the meaning, “I’m not good enough”.
It’s like when we learn how to type on the keyboard. In the beginning, it’s very difficult because it’s new to us. We are unsure where all the alphabets on the keyboard are. So we spent time and attention to get familiar with it. But soon our minds memorize the pattern, we don’t have to look at the keyboard to type anymore. It became automatic.
Beliefs work the same way. When we formed the meaning, “I’m not good enough” the first time, we didn’t believe it wholeheartedly. But as more events occurred and we gave the same meaning, we started to believe that about yourself. It became second-nature to us and we feel unworthy all the time.
The brain is a system. It’s good at creating habits and automatic responses.
Even now as an adult, you could be better looking, smarter, and more competent, but somehow you still feel you aren’t good enough. That’s because the feelings and beliefs are still there locked in your mind and body. To change the way you look at yourself, you will have to change the system
What Causes Low Self-Esteem?
The common causes below are to show you that low self-esteem isn’t your fault. It’s part of past conditioning. I invite you to break free and challenge your beliefs about yourself. If you are a parent reading this, I hope this also serves as a guide on how your actions could affect the development of your children’s self-esteem.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the parents are at fault here. Whether a child grows up to have low self-esteem or not really depends on their interpretations of events.
The same event could mean different things to different children.
The causes below don’t necessarily result in low self-esteem. In fact, it may result in high self-esteem. A kid who is constantly criticized by their parents might see nothing wrong with themselves. Instead, they may see their parents as being bad, mean, or unkind. So they protect themselves by maintaining high self-esteem while devaluing people around them.
As parents, you can’t control how your children interpret the events. What you can do is be aware of events that may cause misinterpretation and explain to them what your true intentions are. And hopefully, they would understand.
Below I have grouped the common causes of low self-esteem into three big groups:
- Parent and caretakers (Item 1 to 4),
- School and peers (Item 5 to 6),
- Major events in your life (Item 7 to 8).
Self-esteem issues may be a result of one or more causes below.
Here Are 8 Common Causes of Low Self-Esteem:
1. Your parents had too high expectations for you.
Some parents treat their children like adults. Not only do they have high expectations for their kids, they expect them to be able to do what adults can do.
They expect their children to know when to keep their mouth shut. They expect their children to hold stuff properly with their tiny, little hands without dropping them. When their children show them their artwork, they either think it’s ugly or think they can do much better. They are using their adult perception to judge their children’s artwork. Doing this will discredit their work and creativity.
High expectations can come in two forms: criticisms or absence of praise.
Excessive criticisms and punishment from our parents for not meeting their standards can make us feel bad about ourselves. But the absence of praise can also lead to low self-esteem.
Children are always seeking approval from their parents to get a sense of worthiness. If children aren’t praised when they are seeking for affirmations, they may wonder what do they do wrong or what’s wrong with them. For most children, the last thing they want to do is to disappoint or be disapproved of by their parents.
If your parents want you to be someone you can’t be, wouldn’t disappointing your parents make you feel bad about yourself?
2. Your parents were too busy for you.
If you have parents who are always busy with their work and have no time for you, you are likely to feel unloved.
To be fair, kids do demand a lot of attention from their parents. They want to tell their parents every little thing that happens in school. For adults, this can be a little annoying at times, especially when they have a tiring day at work. They may end up being frustrated with all the insignificant details and react negatively. Or they may not pay attention to what their children are saying at all.
Children feel unimportant when they don’t get the attention they need.
When they see their parents working all the time, it’s easy to misinterpret that their parents’ work is more important than them. Children don’t just want your financial support. They need their parents to be present with them.
So if you felt neglected in your childhood, there’s a high chance, it caused your low self-esteem.
3. Your parents were too protective of you.
Over-supportive and protective parents can be a bad thing for your self-esteem too. At a certain stage of your life, you need to go out and interact with others, be it for school or work. People outside your family aren’t always as supportive as your parents. Being over-protected leave you feeling unprepared when you interact with the world.
Since what works at home, should what in school, right? Wrong!
Children who are over-protected are likely to become the target for bullies because they don’t understand school isn’t the same as home. They haven’t received guidance from their parents on what’s appropriate to do or not to do in a social setting. And this will affect their self-esteem growing up when they can’t interact well with the other kids. They may wonder, “Why do I do all the right things, but no one in school likes me?”
Your parents do all the work for you makes you feel that you can’t do anything yourself.
The lack of freedom to explore on your own may also result in low self-worth. You feel that you aren’t good enough to do anything and that’s why your parents are doing everything for you. You don’t learn to take initiatives and make mistakes. Too safe an environment actually hampers your growth as a person.
4. Your parents argued all the time.
When two parents argue, some children may feel responsible for the conflicts as though they have contributed to the fights. Children are very sensitive in that way. Especially if the arguments are centered around money and parenting styles, some children may see themselves as burdens and liabilities to their parents. Or when the children’s names are mentioned in the fights, they may get the wrong meaning too.
Divorce is a concept beyond children.
If your parents are divorced when you are young, this may be the cause of your low self-esteem too. Again, you may not see the impact now using from an adult’s perspective. But as a child, having divorced parents is traumatic. There’s a feeling of rejection, insecurity, and fear. It’s as though one of your parents didn’t want you anymore.
Children at that age don’t understand what divorce is. They don’t understand why their parents need to be separated. They don’t want to take sides, but they are forced to take sides. It’s a painful experience for the kid. And not all parents do a great job of conveying the message to their kids.
With all these doubts and questions unanswered, it’s very likely you saw yourself as the cause of the conflict or divorce when growing up.
5. You were the odd one out (or it felt that way).
The main cause of my low self-esteem is actually from school. That coupled with my parents not understanding my challenges in school, caused my negative self-perception. Plus, at that time, I didn’t know that I have an INFJ personality and INFJs are only 1% or less in the whole population. So I didn’t have role models I could look up to or find anyone similar to me in class.
I didn’t understand why I was different from everyone in the school. I didn’t know what introversion is, why I prefer to stay quiet and be away from people. That didn’t make me feel good about myself. I mistook my introversion as being anti-social and I judged myself for that.
Being different is never easy in an environment where everyone wants to be accepted.
Being different as an entrepreneur, writer, or working adult now sets you apart. But being different in school makes you the target of bullies. Even if you are not bullied, classmates might pass some snide remarks to shame you or judge you based on their belief system. And that makes you doubt your own belief system and your sense of self.
6. You compared yourself with other people.
The school environment is different from a work environment. Your mind can’t help but compare you with other people. And it’s not just because you are at an age of developing your sense of self. Most people around you are your peers, they are of the same age as you.
You are more likely to compare with your peers than with someone older than you.
If you see someone who has a lot of money but is 10 years older than you, you don’t feel so bad. In your mind, you still can envision you getting rich 10 years later. But if you see someone who has a lot of money but is the same age as you, you can’t help but feel jealous or not so good about yourself. You think you should achieve that status too.
When we are teenagers in schools, we can’t help but compare our academics, our looks, our wealth with our classmates. But this constant need for comparison with others creates a low perception of ourselves. We will always find students who have better grades, better looks, and richer than us. There’s no incentive to compare, but we still do it as our mind needs information to make sense of who we are.
7. You once experienced a traumatic event.
Trauma could be experienced in both your childhood or adulthood. Both can result in low self-esteem. Someone who has healthy self-esteem as a kid may end up with low self-esteem because of traumatic experiences in adulthood.
Some examples of trauma which leads to low self-esteem include:
- Abuse of any kind such as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse,
- Life-threatening events such as accident, disaster, and war,
- The sudden death of someone close, and
- Serious injuries and illnesses.
After a traumatic event, we store disturbing images, thoughts, and emotions in our brain and negative thoughts get a replay in our brain whenever it triggers. What we used to derive our sense of self gets distorted. For example, rape victims would feel their bodies were tainted and have trouble loving themselves because they feel ashamed of their bodies. The same goes for someone who lost their leg in a car accident or illness. They may not view themselves as complete.
Powerlessness can also lead to low self-esteem.
Victims of traumatic events usually feel a sense of powerlessness and this can lead to low self-esteem too. Not being able to save themselves from the situation affects how they view themselves. They may see themselves as weak or blame themselves for what happened. This also applies to witnesses of traumatic events too. For example, disaster, war, or when you witness someone close to you die and you can’t do anything to help or save them, you may end up blaming yourself for being a bad brother, sister, parent or etc.
8. You made a bad choice in life.
Past mistakes, behaviors, and bad choices may also affect your self-esteem. Perhaps you took drugs in the past, perhaps you were once jailed, or perhaps you did something you aren’t proud of. All these could affect how you view yourself now if you can’t let go of your past.
Perceived bad choices can also trigger low self-esteem.
And sometimes, it doesn’t even have to be a direct cause or an action we took that make us feel unworthy about ourselves. Our brain may link a cause and effect together even though it doesn’t have any relationship with each other. For example, the death of a child may upset a mom. She thinks if she didn’t work so hard and spend more time with her child, her child wouldn’t have died. She isn’t the cause of her child’s death, but she thinks she was.
Our mind is far from being perfect. It misinterprets meanings and intentions and leads to wrong self-perception. So it’s important to be mindful of our thoughts and not believe them all the time.
To learn how to be mindful of yout thoughts and make peace with your inner critic, you can read my book, The Disbelief Habit.