Low self-esteem: 6 warning signs to look out for, and how to handle it

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According to exclusive research commissioned by Stylist, only one in 10 women between the ages of 25-40 have high levels of self-esteem – a statistic which is likely to have worsened during the pandemic thanks to rising levels of anxiety, low mood and loneliness. So what can we do about it? 

Despite all the messaging about self-kindness and the importance of loving yourself we see on social media, many women are still struggling with low self-esteem behind closed doors.

According to research commissioned by Stylist earlier this year, only one in 10 women aged 25-40 report having high levels of self-esteem, with three in 10 women having low or “less than average” levels. Although the popular conversation may suggest the opposite, low self-esteem is still an issue of massive proportions – and it’s a problem which is likely to have worsened during the pandemic.

Why? Because on top of the fact that the coronavirus crisis has triggered rising levels of anxiety, low mood and loneliness, the fall out of the pandemic – including widespread job loss and financial stress – also has the power to negatively impact the way we see ourselves. 

The number of women dealing with low self-esteem is a problem not only because it has the power to negatively impact our mental health, but also because it can inhibit women from reaching their full potential; a lack of self-belief can hold people back from putting themselves forward for opportunities at work, make them feel insignificant or unimportant and lead them to become self-critical. 

Indeed, as the NHS puts it, “when we have healthy self-esteem, we tend to feel positive about ourselves and about life in general… when our self-esteem is low, we tend to see ourselves and our life in a more negative and critical light. We also feel less able to take on the challenges life throws at us.”

A woman drinking wine
Signs of low self-esteem: “When our self-esteem is low, we tend to see ourselves and our life in a more negative and critical light.”

In this way, self-esteem – or a lack of it – can play an integral role when it comes to our mental health. When we have high levels of self-esteem, we are better able to deal with the challenges that life throws at us, making us more resilient to events which have the potential to impact our mental health. However, when we have low self-esteem, we are more likely to blame ourselves when things go wrong and engage in unhelpful coping mechanisms. 

But dealing with low self-esteem is a tricky business. For many of us, our self-esteem isn’t something many of us think about that often, making it difficult to realise when our self-esteem levels could be getting low. 

Sometimes, when we’re dealing with low self-esteem, we may start believing the negative self-talk we’re feeding ourselves, damaging our self-esteem even further and making it harder to challenge and escape that cycle. Indeed, identifying low self-esteem can be difficult as we may believe our low levels of self-confidence are warranted and reflective of reality when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

But there is something we can do to address – and deal with – our self-esteem levels. Identifying low self-esteem may be difficult, but there are a few signs that we can all keep an eye out for both in ourselves and the people we love. And once we’ve identified low self-esteem, we can begin dealing with it.

What are the signs of low self-esteem?

Low self-esteem can manifest in a number of different ways, but there are some key signs we can all keep an eye out for.

“Some of the signs that we might be dealing with low self-esteem include feeling impatient, irritable, as well as being highly self-critical, as well as critical of others,” explains Dr Janina Scarlet, author of the upcoming book Super-Women: Superhero Therapy For Women Battling Depression, Anxiety and Trauma.

A woman at home lying on a bed
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 “The potential impact of having low self-esteem can also include withdrawing from social events, avoidance of engaging in meaningful activities, as well as depression, and in some instances, suicidal thoughts or self-harm.”

On top of these signs, the NHS says that low self-esteem can lead us to stop trying new things and make us afraid of challenges, as well as leading us to develop unhelpful habits, such as drinking or smoking too much, as a way of coping. Other signs can include physical symptoms (such as headaches or fatigue) as well as feelings of anxiety.

“In the short term, avoiding challenging and difficult situations makes you feel a lot safer,” Chris Williams, Professor of Psychosocial Psychiatry at the University of Glasgow tells the NHS.

“In the longer term, this can backfire because it reinforces your underlying doubts and fears. It teaches you the unhelpful rule that the only way to cope is by avoiding things.”

In Stylist’s research, other symptoms included trouble sleeping and not wanting to have sex.

The six key signs of low self-esteem we should keep an eye out for are:

  • Feelings of impatience and irritability
  • Being highly self-critical
  • Avoiding or withdrawing from social events
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, trouble sleeping, fatigue and low sex-drive
  • Fear and avoidance of difficult and/or challenging situations
  • Feelings of anxiety and depression

How to deal with low self-esteem

When it comes to low self-esteem, identifying the issue is half of the problem. Once you’ve realised that your self-esteem needs a bit of a boost, you can take action to address the negative thoughts you’re experiencing.

“One of the best ways we can support ourselves when we are struggling with low self-esteem is through self-compassion,” explains Dr Scarlet. “Self-compassion refers to treating ourselves in the same way as we might treat a dear friend. In this instance, it would mean noticing what harsh language we might be using toward ourselves, recognizing that everyone struggles with similar difficulties, and practicing supporting ourselves through kind words and actions.”

She continues: “For example, self-compassion might include us saying to ourselves, ‘I am having the same old thought again, that I am worthless and no one cares about me. Everyone struggles with thoughts like these. If my friend were struggling with this thought, I would tell them that I care about them and that they are important to me. It is therefore possible that my friends feel the same way about me.’

“In addition to practicing self-compassion, it is also important to share our experiences. When we are feeling low, we might also feel alone in our experience. Sharing our experiences with trusted support groups, such as friends, trusted family members, or mental health professionals, can allow us to see that we are not alone and to gain a different insight as to how people see and feel about us.”

Another way to challenge the negative thoughts that come with low self-esteem is to write them down and challenge them by looking at the evidence.

A notebook
How to deal with low self-esteem: write down and challenge your negative thoughts with evidence.

As the NHS suggests: “Start to note these negative thoughts and write them down on a piece of paper or in a diary. Ask yourself when you first started to think these thoughts.

“Next, start to write down evidence that challenges these negative beliefs: ‘I’m really good at cryptic crosswords’ or ‘My sister calls for a chat every week’.

“Write down other positive things about yourself, such as ‘I’m thoughtful’ or ‘I’m a great cook’ or ‘I’m someone that others trust’. Also write down good things that other people say about you.

“Aim to have at least 5 things on your list and add to it regularly. Then put your list somewhere you can see it. That way, you can keep reminding yourself that you’re OK.”

Mental health charity Mind also recommends taking the time to look after and be kind to yourself (doing so can challenge negative thoughts and beliefs that you don’t deserve these things) and setting yourself a challenge and/or small goals to give you something to work towards and eventually achieve.

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For far too long, the representation of women by both mainstream and social media has failed to reflect who we see in the mirror, and its impact on our mental health is worrying. Stylist’s Love Women initiative promises to change that. As well as the launch of our Love Women series, we’ve partnered with Dove, whose latest project (in conjunction with photo library Getty Images) aims to increase the supply of diverse pictures of women – which we will be using going forward.

Our editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski has also made five pledges to Stylist readers:

1. We will ensure the women you see on our pages represent all women – inclusive of ethnicity, body shape, sexuality, age and disability. When we create content and ideas, we will ensure that all women are represented at the table. We commit to featuring one fashion or beauty photoshoot a month that uses real, diverse women.

2. We will ensure that we never sell an impossible dream. We believe in aspiration, but not in selling a lie. We will work with influencers, celebrities and other partners to encourage them to reveal their truths, too.

3. We will celebrate the so-called flaws of women to prove the normality in all of our bodies. We will run videos, photoshoots and honest accounts of our bodies and how they behave.

4. We will hold regular huddles with our advertisers and brand partners to challenge the way they portray and reflect women in their branding and advertising. We will call out and challenge brands, media and people who refuse to represent women with respect and truth. We will call on the government to support our goals.

5. Through insight and anecdote, we will teach everyone about the issues facing women, what needs to be done and how we can all work together to resolve this self-esteem crisis.

Find out more about Stylist’s Love Women initiative here.

Main Image: Tess Emily Seymour on Pexels

Other Images: Unsplash

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