Who am I?
Where does my value come from?
These are the questions that define self-esteem, and the answers are hugely impacted by trauma. It is estimated that around 85% of people worldwide struggle with low self-esteem 1. Trauma often plays a role in shaping this negative self-perception that encroaches on emotional and physical well-being.
Self-esteem starts from within. Similarly, trauma leaves a lasting impact on a person’s internal landscape. Those who have endured traumatic experiences are likely to find themselves struggling with inexplicable feelings of fear, anxiety and sadness. These emotional struggles can lead to self-criticism and pave the way for negative self-image.
When someone does not struggle with low self-esteem, they are more likely to have an accurate perception of themselves. Healthy self-esteem allows people to recognise and accept both their flaws and strengths. This means that they are far less vulnerable to mental health struggles and can hold realistic expectations for both themselves and other people.
Meanwhile, people with low self-esteem can often feel dissatisfied with their place in the world, even when they appear to be successful. They can also feel inferior to others as they tend to focus on their perceived weaknesses 2.
Low self-esteem is a complex phenomenon that can go unnoticed by many individuals. Although not always overtly expressed, certain behaviours and cognitive patterns serve as indicators of underlying self-esteem struggles. Understanding these signs is crucial in providing meaningful support.
Subtle signs of low self-esteem include:
- An inability to handle criticism
- Difficulty making friends
- A constant need for attention or recognition
- Dissatisfaction with appearance
- Challenging relationships with food and weight
This is by no means an exhaustive list. After all, it is important to remember that each person is unique, and so too is their sense of self. However, by thinking about negative thoughts and behaviours, it is possible to notice the concealed signs of low self-esteem 3.
The Connection Between Trauma and Self-Esteem
Once low self-esteem has been recognised, it is necessary to seek out the underlying causes behind this negative self-perception. While there are many reasons a person may have self-esteem issues, most contributing factors can be ascribed to trauma or traumatic events. For example:
- Physical health problems
- Mental health problems
- Financial difficulties
Each of these experiences can have a huge impact on self-esteem. Bullying inflicts both emotional and physical harm, leading to long-lasting feelings of inferiority. Similarly, discrimination can erode self-esteem by instilling a sense of inadequacy based on factors such as race, gender, or sexual orientation.
The lasting impact of trauma cannot be overstated. Therefore, by recognising trauma as a source of low self-esteem, it is possible to empower survivors on their journey of healing.
Knocks to self-esteem can happen at any stage of life. However, those who have developed a strong sense of self from an early age are far less likely to be impacted by perceived failures or setbacks as adults. As a result, it is important to examine the impact of developmental trauma on self-esteem.
From the day they are born, children start to form an understanding of their place and value in the world. Traumatic experiences during this crucial period can disrupt emotional development. This, in turn, fosters negative self-perceptions that persist into adulthood. For example, if children believe that their value comes from grades at school, their physical appearance or other measurable factors, they may believe that their value is conditional. In comparison, those who experience unconditional love will have higher self-esteem as they know that they are valuable regardless of these external factors.
Distortion of self-worth in childhood leads to negative thinking patterns that become fixed emotional processes. Therefore, in order to improve self-esteem, it is important that people unlearn some of the emotional patterns and coping strategies that they developed as children 4.
Self-esteem is not fixed, it constantly oscillates between different states. Therefore just as certain factors can negatively impact self-esteem, there are things that have a positive impact on it. In order to improve self-esteem, it is necessary to cultivate self-awareness and engage in evidence-based practices of self-care. This can be through realising that certain activities and behaviours are not conducive to happiness. For example, activities such as excessive social media usage or unhealthy consumption of alcohol or caffeine are likely to negatively impact self-esteem. Meanwhile, taking time for hobbies such as sports, art or reading can hugely improve self-esteem 5.
Improved levels of self-esteem can also be achieved through seeking wider support from friends, family and professionals. The most important thing to be aware of is that everyone is different, and so is their trauma. This means that healing journeys vary from person to person. It is, therefore, imperative to approach both self-esteem and trauma with sensitivity, nuance and constant compassion. This way, it is possible to break free from the vicious cycles of trauma and low self-esteem.
1. Guttman, J. (2019). The relationship with yourself: Notes on self-confidence and authenticity. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sustainable-life-satisfaction/201906/the-relationship-yourself
2. Neff, K. D. (2011). Self‐compassion, self‐esteem, and well‐being. Social and personality psychology compass, 5(1), 1-12.
3. Mind. (2022). Retrieved from https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/self-esteem/about-self-esteem/
4. Cikanavicius, D. (2018). Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/psychology-self/2018/05/childhood-self-esteem#1
5. Abdel-Khalek, A. M. (2016). Introduction to the psychology of self-esteem. Self-esteem: perspectives, influences, and improvement strategies, 1-23.