How to Improve Self-Esteem in Adults

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

It is not uncommon for adults to have self-esteem issues. This lesson will define self-esteem, identify possible causes of low self-esteem, and provide some suggestions on how to improve self-esteem in adults.

Paul's Break-Up

Paul is newly single. His eight year tumultuous relationship with his former college sweetheart has finally come to an end. At the age of 29, Paul is handsome, financially secure, and has every reason to have a positive outlook on the future. Instead, Paul doubts himself constantly. He doesn't think he's good enough to find someone to share his life with, and he feels inferior to others at work. Paul is very critical of himself and unforgiving when he makes even the smallest of mistakes. It appears that the break-up has negatively affected Paul's self-esteem.

What is Self-Esteem?

We have all heard people refer to someone's self-esteem, but what exactly does self-esteem mean? Self-esteem is the assumptions we make about ourselves based on the way we see ourselves. It is our self-image, and it can be positive or negative. Someone who has a positive sense of self-esteem sees themselves in a favorable way. They are comfortable with who they are, what they have achieved, and how they appear physically. This doesn't mean that they are perfect, it just means they are happy with who they are.

In contrast, someone who has negative self-esteem, sees themselves in an unfavorable way. They tend to be overly critical of their appearance, personal and professional abilities, and are generally unhappy with themselves. Paul, in our earlier example, has negative self-esteem. He doesn't think he's capable professionally, doubts his ability to find a successful relationship, and is overly critical of himself.

It is important to note that while positive self-esteem is important, favoring one-self too much can lead to narcissistic behavior. This type of behavior can be seen in individuals that love themselves so much that they start to believe that they are superior to everyone around them. It is therefore important to find a happy medium when it comes to self-esteem.

What Causes Low Self-Esteem?

It is difficult to outline all of the possible causes that could contribute to someone developing a lowered self-esteem. In Paul's case it seems that the contributing factor was the end of his long-term relationship. However, causes of low self-esteem can vary from person-to-person. Some of the things that could cause low self-esteem in adults are:

  • Family upbringing- parents who constantly put their children down and tell them they are inferior, can contribute to raising adults who have low self-esteem. If someone is constantly being told they are worthless, they are likely to internalize these thoughts and carry them with them into adulthood.
  • Personal knowledge- knowledge can come from a variety of sources including education. Someone who is not knowledgeable will have difficulty interacting with others. When they realize that their level of knowledge is inferior, they will start to feel inferior themselves.
  • Financial situation - someone who is financially challenged may compare themselves to people who are financially stable and thereby feel less capable and inferior.
  • Bullying and criticism - someone who is bullied or criticized on things such as their appearance, sexual orientation, or academic capabilities can develop a negative self-image of themselves that can follow them into adulthood.

How Can Self-Esteem be Improved?

Low self-esteem can be a contributing factor to the development of depression, so it's important that people who have low self-esteem attempt to break the cycle. There are several things adults like Paul can do to improve their self-esteem. These include:

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