Self-esteem can be a slippery concept. It's hard to quantify just how we feel about ourselves and our self-worth, but low self-esteem is definitively linked to mental illness and negative health; the mental health organization Mind notes that there's a strong relationship between low self-esteem and depression, for instance. Even if it's not causing other mental health issues, though, it's enough of a problem on its own that many people seek psychological help to deal with it. But there are certain assumptions that many of us might carry into therapy sessions which have to be sorted out to make real progress, and your psychologist can help you unlearn these misconceptions about self-esteem.
Self-esteem isn't all about the love of other people, or confidence, or success, or having a lot of friends, or encountering praise everywhere you go. In fact, many aspects that we might associate with "high self-esteem" can in fact have a far more complicated relationship with self-worth and healthy behavior. There's also not one clear way to boost self-esteem every time it bottoms out. Your psychologist will not make you a lot of little 'Yay!' flags to wave at yourself and call it a day. Here's what they wish you knew about your self-esteem.
1Being Praised A Lot Isn't The Answer
Feeling a bit low? It's not necessarily going to boost your self-esteem if you get a burst of praise, particularly if it's coming from your parents. A study published in Child Development in 2017 found that, when it comes to self-esteem, it's much more helpful to have warm parents who give a lot of emotional support than ones who lavish you with praise, particularly if you know you haven't earned the praise and you may fall short of their high standards. This is one of the reasons that being a high achiever is often a recipe for slightly unstable self-esteem, not a guarantee of an unlimited supply of it.
2Neither Is Money
Seeking self-esteem in the trappings of material success? There's bad news. It's not likely to boost your sense of self-worth, regardless of the balance in your bank account. A 2017 study by the University of Buffalo found that people who experience "financial contingency of self-worth" — self-esteem based on their monetary performance — are more likely to have serious psychological consequences if things start to go wrong in their careers, and actually behave less sensibly when there's a financial threat looming. It's not good for your bank balance or your self-esteem to tie the two together.
3It Can Ruin Your Relationships
Low self-esteem is often perceived as an individual problem, but it can also create resentment, insecurity, and other poor relationship behaviors when you interact with others, particularly in intimate romantic relationships. One example? A study from the Netherlands in 2017 that found that people with low self-esteem tend to be much more regretful when it comes to sacrificing things for their partner, whether they're small or huge (compromising on a movie choice or moving cities), because they feel less fundamentally appreciated by their partner in response. That sort of behavior can cause emotional chaos.
4Big Friendship Networks Mean Less Than You Think
A lot of our self-worth is based on the perceptions of others, so it should stand to reason that lots of friends will make us feel better — right? Actually, not so much. Studies have shown that specific kinds of friendship network and connection are much better than others. For instance, in 2017 a study in PLOS One showed that people with a big group of friends actually did a bit worse on self-esteem measures than people who were members of several friendship groups at once. Being a "group member" on multiple levels — your gym friends, old school mates, activist club and so on — can apparently reinforce your sense of worth from multiple angles at once.
5It Can Make You More Bigoted
This is an interesting one, and represents a serious way in which your self-esteem shapes the way you see the world. Multiple studies have discovered links between feelings of low self-esteem and heightened prejudice and bigotry towards others. One study in 2011 showed that the lower your self-esteem, the more likely you'll feel prejudiced towards other groups of people, while long-term studies from 2015 focussed on boosting the self-esteem and empathy of adolescents showed that they were less likely to believe radicalized political agendas afterwards. Feeling better about yourself apparently means you'll feel less intensely threatened by the difference of others.
6Boys Aren't More Confident Than Girls
It's long been a standby of our thinking about emotional development of teens that girls tend to have more fragile self-esteem than boys, but a 2011 study of kids between the ages of 14 and 30 found that there's actually no gendered distinction between how people feel at all: Boys are just as vulnerable to low self-esteem during their adolescence as girls. Assuming that boys are somehow stronger or more conscious of their self-worth as teens may mean people miss vital signs that a young boy is struggling.
7Simple Gestures Help A Lot
If you're looking to improve your self-esteem, or boost the self-worth of others, studies suggest that going all-out isn't necessary, and that simple gestures of support will be interpreted the best: as signals that you believe in their worth and think they deserve to be helped. A 2017 study from the University of Alberta suggests that this is particularly important when dealing with low self-esteem in a romantic partner. Small gestures like doing household chores or offering to talk boost a partner's self-esteem in the future and help them deal with low mood at that moment.
We learn a lot of misconceptions about self-esteem as we navigate our feelings in life. But your psychologist or mental health support team is working hard to help you unlearn them — because not doing so could make it that much harder to deal with low self-esteem.