Self-esteem plays an important role in many aspects of our lives; our relationships, job, schoolwork, even our day-to-day happiness. Self-esteem can also vary at different times in our lives; when a relationship or a job ends, our self-esteem can take a hit. If you think your child, partner, or a friend has low self-esteem or their self-esteem has recently been damaged, it can help to know what to look for. Look for these signs of low self-esteem. We’ve also included low self-esteem examples to better illustrate these signs.

How to Spot Low Self-Esteem: Signs and Examples

It’s important to remember that there are differences between confidence, self-esteem, and self-image. There is some overlap between these things, but there are also distinctions.

  • Self-image is how a person sees themself. This might include objective measures like “I am a student” and it might also be reflective of self-esteem, like “I am a bad student.”
  • Confidence reflects a person’s certainty that they can complete a task or do an activity. Low confidence doesn’t always reflect low self-esteem. Someone who has never practiced soccer might have understandably low confidence about their soccer abilities.
  • Self-esteem is a person’s view of their own worthiness of love, respect, acceptance, and inclusion. Someone with healthy self-esteem generally feels that they are a good, valuable person. Someone with low self-esteem might have trouble agreeing with such a statement.

There are some signs of low self-esteem to look for if you think a loved one’s view of themself has been hurt. Keep in mind that these are not universal. Everyone is different, and you’ll want to consider your loved one’s personality, behavior, and history before deciding if their self-esteem is hurting. If you think a loved one needs your support, there are ways to help someone with low self-esteem as well.

1. Negative Events

As previously mentioned, our self-esteem is not static. Just as we grow and change, and our self-image, interests, hobbies and lifestyle change, our self-esteem can change too. Sometimes, this is not permanent, and we can return to our previous state after some time passes. Other times, a negative event or a series of negative events can start to erode our self-worth.

Adolescence can be a trying time for self-esteem. Teenagers are beginning to form an independent sense of self, there is more pressure to behave “like an adult,” physical changes can be disorienting, and it can be harder to fit in or compete with peers. This is a particularly good time to watch for signs of low self-esteem.

Example Signs of Low Self-Esteem: Negative Events

Before starting high school, Mari was a happy, energetic, talkative child, but she’s recently become quiet and withdrawn. Her parents have noticed a number of negative events happening around her; she’s had a falling out with her friends, she didn’t get on the track team, and she didn’t get the grade she expected on a science test. This combination of social, athletic and academic rejection may have her questioning her abilities and worthiness.

2. Not Setting Boundaries

Healthy self-esteem assures us that we deserve to be treated well, and helps us distance ourselves from harmful people or situations. Sometimes, this means setting boundaries or saying ‘no.’ Someone with low self-esteem may have trouble setting boundaries because they feel that another’s happiness is more important than their own. When this behavior repeats, it’s sometimes called people-pleasing.

Sometimes, we all have to do things we might not want to. But chronically, repeatedly agreeing to things that are frustrating or hurtful, not speaking up, or not stating one’s own needs, are signs of low self-esteem.

Example Signs of Low Self-Esteem: Not Setting Boundaries

When coworkers ask Dale to work extra hours, he always agrees. He’s afraid his coworkers won’t like him if he refuses. When Dale’s dad makes negative comments about his appearance, he doesn’t ask him to stop. He feels similarly about his appearance, and thinks his dad might be right. When Dale’s friends ask him to go out late at night, he agrees, even if he’s too tired. He’s afraid his friends will think less of him if he refuses. Dale is repeatedly neglecting boundaries because he’s not confident in his position at work, his appearance, or his friendships.

3. Taking Blame

Someone with low self-esteem often doesn’t feel that they have valuable skills or that they deserve to be treated with respect. When something goes wrong, a person with low self-esteem might immediately think they’re to blame. Or, they might take the blame in order to help or protect others. This might be another people-pleasing behavior or self-sabotage.

Example Signs of Low Self-Esteem: Taking Blame

Kiran cannot attend their sister’s birthday party because they have to work. Kiran’s mother accuses them of “always ruining plans” and being selfish. Kiran apologizes again, and feels guilty for ruining the day. At work, a customer is unhappy, even though Kiran delivered their order as requested. The customer says Kiran is “not paying attention.” Kiran apologizes; it seems like they can’t do anything right. Kiran is taking the blame for things that aren’t their fault because they don’t think they’re a very good family member or a competent worker.

4. Not Participating

As previously mentioned, there is a difference between confidence and self-esteem. However, these things are closely connected. Someone with healthy self-esteem is more likely to feel confident about the skills or activities that they regularly practice. For someone with low self-esteem, years of practice won’t help their confidence, because they don’t believe in their overall competence, value or skill. This negative view of self can cause a person to withdraw from activities or events that they might otherwise enjoy. Repeatedly not participating or withdrawing from events can be a sign of low self-esteem.

Example Signs of Low Self-Esteem: Not Participating

Mai has taken art lessons and practices painting and drawing with a lot of her free time. Friends and even strangers have asked her for paintings or drawings. However, when opportunities arise for Mai to display her work or continue her artistic education, she withdraws. She doesn’t often talk about her talent or interest in art, and prefers to keep her work to herself. Mai is objectively a good artist, but isn’t confident in her skills and isn’t participating in opportunities or events that could make her happy.

5. Abuse or Bullying

When someone frequently hears negative things about themselves or they’re frequently treated badly, it will start to wear down their self-esteem. This is especially true if physical, sexual, or emotional abuse comes from a trusted person, such as a friend, family member or teacher. Over time, a victim of abuse may internalize this negative treatment. They may feel guilty and take blame, assuming that they did something to deserve being singled out or treated badly. Or they may feel weak or ineffectual because they cannot stop their abuser(s). If you think a loved one is or has been bullied or abused, it may be a sign of low self-esteem as well.

Example Signs of Low Self-Esteem: Abuse or Bullying

Before Marco switched schools, he had many friends and few conflicts. However, after the switch, he had trouble making friends and was often teased. Classmates would make fun of his appearance and grades, play pranks on him, and laugh at him. Marco tries to adjust his appearance and not get noticed, so he won’t attract the bully’s attention. Marco is changing himself and making himself smaller in response to being bullied.

If you notice or or two of these signs infrequently, it’s not necessarily cause for concern. But, if you notice three or more of these signs frequently, your loved one’s self-esteem may be suffering. Therapy can help to rebuild self-esteem, confidence, and prevent self-esteem from deteriorating further. An experienced counselor can also provide strategies for coping with negative events or harmful treatment while protecting self-esteem.