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What is the Root Cause of Low Self Esteem?

Written by Karl Perera BA, MA, DipLC
Updated: September 3rd, 2020

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Finding the cause of low self esteem can be difficult but it’s worth trying

Everyone has days where they feel inadequate and can’t shake the idea they’re a failure. However, if one day turns into two, and a week turns into a month, it’s time to stop and figure out what’s causing the sudden drop in self-esteem. Too often, people simply realize they are chronically sad and depressed without trying to learn why. While there’s no guarantee you’ll find the root cause of low self-esteem, finding out is worth a try.

Here are some ways to try and get to the bottom of why you’re suddenly feeling so down:

Main Root Causes of Low Self Esteem

By looking at the research done on the root causes of low self esteem, we can first try to understand what causes people to have low self esteem. Obviously, there are many reasons and not everyone copes with life’s challenges in the same way. Therefore, each person must do some work, and perhaps get guidance from a professional, to find out what are the root causes of any low self esteem issues they have.

The areas we will look at as those which can affect self esteem are appearance, upbringing, relationships and external events in life.

Obesity and Body Image (Appearance)

This study published in Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that children who blamed themselves for becoming overweight or those that felt their obesity affected their social communication had the lowest self esteem. This seems to agree with the idea that self esteem is very much connected with what we think about ourselves, this is more complicated than just thinking we look fat.

Body image is the opinion a person has about how they physically look. If a person is obese then they may therefore have two causes for low self esteem, feeling fat and also self-blame for how they got that way. If a person tries to lose weight and fails they can easily add more self-blame and negative feelings to cause their low self esteem to drop further.

Causes from Childhood and Upbringing

Childhood plays such an important role in our lives that often what happens to us as children affects us as adults. In some cases negative experiences such as abuse can haunt adults for their entire lives changing the way they think and behave. Self esteem is very much affected by childhood experiences (explained on this page from Lifehack.org).

For these kinds of problems it is important to seek help and guidance from a professional psychiatrist who can help a person suffering from childhood traumas such as abuse, family problems, issues caused by upbringing etc. this definitely not something anyone can or should deal with alone.

Relationships

Relationships are important because friends and peers influence us so much. According to Susan Harter in a chapter she wrote in “Self-Esteem: The Puzzle of Low Self-Regard“, there are several aspects of relationships that can cause low self esteem. These include how we think others we know like us and how we compare to our peers.


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The way we think of ourselves in relation to others begins in our childhood so relationships are particularly important in the early years of life and in some cases our childhood relationships can affect us throughout life either positively or negatively. Abuse is an extreme example of this.

Reactions to Life Events

Everybody experiences the consequences of making wrong choices or mistakes in life. Bad things can happen to all of us. Our reactions and how we cope with things that go wrong in our lives shape the person we become. In effect, we create ourselves in response to these horrible or disappointing events.

Everyone has a different character, a different way of thinking and a different view of the world. It’s not surprising then that self esteem is affected more in some than others even when circumstances are similar or similar events happen to different people. We are all unique and very complex.

Other Lesser Known Causes of Low Self Esteem

It might seem obvious that self esteem should be connected to a persons successes or failures in life. However, it is not what we achieve or fail to achieve that really affects self esteem.

Everybody succeeds and fails, but what is important are the goals that each person has. Have you ever noticed that some people have very little ambition or drive to succeed and seem happy as things are? Others seem to have unlimited ambitions and motivation to set high goals for themselves. This second group are often the ones who suffer from low self esteem because they have high standards to reach and they fall harder when they fall short (see this report by Emler 2001).

Taking medication?

If you’ve recently started taking a new medication, discontinued taking something else, or are otherwise undergoing medical treatment which is relatively recent, it’s very likely this could be the cause of a sudden mood disorder.

Use an online pill identifier to research the possible side effects of any medication you’re taking and find out if any potential drug interactions are taking place which would lead to a change in your mood or behavior. Consult with your doctor about the recent shift in your emotional stability to see if there is any credence to the medication being the culprit for low self-esteem.

Be a detective

Those who find themselves struggling with a sudden bout of low self-esteem ought to try and probe the world around them for possible clues explaining why.

While the root cause might be something within the person – a chemical imbalance or a repressed memory – oftentimes the cause is made apparent by actions and events observed in the world around us. You may need help discovering what is going on so therapy can be a great idea. Here is an excellent service for counseling and therapy over the phone: BetterHelp

Take the time to retrace your steps for as far back as you can remember feeling so blue, and see if a pattern emerges. Stop and think about the variables which weren’t there before the change but are here now. While correlation does not prove causation, these clues can set you on the right path towards feeling better.

Write it down

Nearly every therapist and psychiatrist on the planet encourages patients to write in a journal or diary several times a week, preferably once a day.

By jotting down an assessment of your day – even if it’s just a few sentences – you can develop a record of your interaction with the world which, over time, can help to identify issues which may otherwise go overlooked. This can be immensely helpful in finding out the root cause of an unshakeable bout of low self-esteem.

Wear a fitness/ sleep tracker

The body and mind are linked more than most people realize. The reason you feel blue might be as simple as not getting enough sleep. Wear a fitness tracker that monitors sleep and other metrics to get a better sense of your health habits. A pattern may emerge which accounts for why you’re struggling with low self-esteem.

Watch your diet

Lastly, it must be said that we are what we eat.

As tired as that adage is, there’s a reason it gets repeated over and over: it’s true! If you have a habit of eating poorly, your body and mind will suffer.

While it’s not as simple as “potato chips make me sad and celery makes me happy”, there is plenty of evidence that suggests a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables helps to stave off depression and other mood disorders.

What’s more, it’s what’s best for your body. It’s an all-around win.


We all have days where we feel down. However, if your down days turn into weeks and months of depression, it’s time to get help right away. That starts with trying to get to the root cause of the problem.

While it may be elusive, the process of uncovering it is an important stage in getting your emotional well being back on track.

More obvious causes of low self esteem

There are some more obvious causes of low self esteem besides the many which cannot be seen. Disability is one of these. There are things you can do to help boost the self esteem of a disabled person.

Another cause of low self esteem can be a person’s financial situation. If this is the case, then please think about how self esteem and finances are connected. Again there is much that can be done to help a person in this position.

References

  • Pierce, J.W. and Wardle, J. (1997), Cause and Effect Beliefs and Self‐esteem of Overweight Children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38: 645-650. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1997.tb01691.x
  • Emler, N. (2001). Self-esteem. The costs and causes of low self-worth.
  • Baumeister, R. F. (Ed.). (2013). Self-esteem: The puzzle of low self-regard. Springer Science & Business Media.

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Website Author and Editor Bio

Photo of Karl Perera, MA, DipLC Karl Perera is a fully qualified Life Coach (DipLC), Teacher (MA) and author of Self Esteem Secrets. He has taught at various universities including Durham, Leicester and Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge. He has run More-SelfEsteem.com since 1997 and is an expert in Self Esteem and Self Confidence.