Low Self Esteem: What Does it Mean to Lack Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem should be viewed as a continuum and can be high, medium, or low, and it is often quantified as a number in empirical research.

When considering self-esteem, it is important to note that both high and low levels can be emotionally and socially harmful to the individual. Indeed it is thought an optimum level of self-esteem lies in the middle of the continuum. Individuals operating within this range are thought to be more socially dominant within relationships.

self-esteem graph

Empirical Research

self esteem

Research has shown key differences between individuals with high and low self-esteem. For example, people with high self-esteem focus on growth and improvement, whereas people with low self-esteem focus on not making mistakes in life.

Low self-esteem has been shown to be correlated with several negative outcomes, such as depression (Silverstone & Salsali, 2003).

Rosenberg and Owen (2001) offer the following description of low self-esteem people based on empirical research. People with low self-esteem are more troubled by failure and tend to exaggerate events as being negative.

For example, they often interpret non critical comments as critical. They are more likely to experience social anxiety and low levels of interpersonal confidence.

This in turn makes social interaction with others difficult as they feel awkward, shy, conspicuous, and unable to adequately express themselves when interacting with others (p. 409). Furthermore, low self-esteem individuals tend to be pessimistic towards people and groups within society.

Research has also shown that low self-esteem has to linked to an increased risk of teenage pregnancy.

Guindon (2002) asked school counsellors to list five characteristics that best describe students with low self-esteem. Over 1000 words were used and the most common are listed below:

  1. Withdrawn/shy/quiet
  2. Insecure
  3. Underachieving
  4. Negative (attitude)
  5. Unhappy
  6. Socially inept
  7. Angry/hostile
  8. Unmotivated
  9. Depressed
  10. Dependent/follower
  11. Poor self-image
  12. Non-risk-taker
  13. Lacks self-confidence
  14. Poor communication
  15. Acts out

Low Self-Esteem in Children

It should be noted that, on average, self-esteem during childhood is found to be relatively high. However, there are individual differences, and some children are unfortunate to experience feelings of low self-esteem.

Low self-esteem in children tends to be related to physical punishment and the withholding of love and affection by parents. Carl Rogers would describe this as conditional positive regard, whereby individuals only receive positive attention from significant others (such as parents) when they act in a certain way. This reinforces to the child that they are only a person of value when they act a certain way (e.g., achieving A grades on a test).

Children with low self-esteem rely on coping strategies that are counterproductive such as bullying, quitting, cheating, avoiding, etc. Although all children will display some of these behaviors at times, low self-esteem is strongly indicated when these behaviors appear with regularity.

Socially children with low self-esteem can be withdrawn or shy and find it difficult to have fun. Although they may have a wide circle of friends, they are more likely to yield to group pressure and more vulnerable to bullying. At school, they avoid trying new things (for fear of failure) and will give up easily.

Low Self-Esteem in Teenagers

Self-esteem continues to decline during adolescence (particularly for girls). Researchers have explained this decline to body image and other problems associated with puberty.

Although boys and girls report similar levels of self-esteem during childhood, a gender gap emerges by adolescence in that adolescent boys have higher self-esteem than adolescent girls (Robins et al., 2002).

Girls with low self-esteem appear to be more vulnerable to perceptions of the ideal body image perpetuated in western media (through methods such as airbrushing models on magazine covers).


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Robins, R.W., Trzesniewski, K.H., Tracy, J.L., Gosling, S.D., & Potter, J. (2002). Global self-esteem across the lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 17, 423-434.

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Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.