So, what is Low Self-Esteem? Part I: Self-Criticism

Low self-esteem is something we experience as humans and it affects a lot of us. Every one of us will have low self-esteem at one point in our lives and it is especially common in adolescence. Many of us are able to overcome this by ourselves where others of us find that what started as not being very confident or not liking ourselves very much has since snowballed into a mental health problem. Low self-esteem is not a mental illness but it can very often sit underneath one as the foundation or the maintaining factor. Today I’ll be talking to you about the first half of what keeps low self-esteem going and how this makes it difficult or us to overcome it.

What is low self-esteem?

Simply put, it is when we do not rate ourselves very highly as individuals. It is an internal process that differs from person to person. If you are experiencing low self-esteem, you might notice that you struggle to take credit for your achievements. You might pass them off as ‘nothing’ or immediately respond with how somebody else did all the work or did so much better. You might also overthink things like your conversations or avoid making contributions for fear of saying the wrong thing or sounding stupid.

People with low self-esteem are more susceptible to depression and anxiety as it is easier to feel like a failure or worry about things when you don’t believe in yourself. Sometimes the people with low self-esteem are confusingly extroverted and sociable. It took me a while, and to be told during a psychological assessment, to realise that low self-esteem and high confidence aren’t mutually exclusive. Oftentimes we mask our self-doubt and lack of self-esteem by being the ‘class clown’ or a party animal. I know that I have never struggled to make friends or conversation, despite constantly wondering why on earth those people want to be around someone like me.

What is self-criticism?

As the title suggests, it is when we are hard on ourselves. Self-critical thinking is completely normal and everybody does it to some extent. There is no right or wrong amount of self-criticism outside of what makes you happy or unhappy. The latter, however, is where we begin to notice a problem.

Have you ever admonished yourself for failing a test or not getting the best grade on a piece of work? Did you beat yourself up for not scoring that goal or missing the pass that led to the opposition scoring? Have you ever told yourself ‘I’m a failure, I’ll never be any good’ or asked yourself ‘why am I even bothering?’. We all have thoughts like this from time to time or even a daily basis. What we might not realise is that a certain level of this is good for us, biologically.

There’s a science to it

Biologically, us humans have a few systems going on that deal with our day to day encounters. They look a little something like this:


The threat system is responsible for perceiving and responding to danger. If our brain thinks we are at risk, it will activate this system and implement the ‘fight or flight’ response. You can learn more about that here. When it comes to our thought processes, this can mean that we will try to anticipate the bad and avoid it. No wonder we can criticise ourselves for getting things wrong or not achieving the way we want to.

This system can go into overdrive which means we will perceive danger where it isn’t really there; e.g. public speaking or social situations, and this can lead to anxiety and low mood.


The drive system is our way of ensuring we keep going and growing. This is the system that makes us want to try new things, face new challenges, and constantly improve. It can be great for maintaining motivation.

However, if this system goes into overdrive then we get a little too caught up in achieving and can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be at a high performance level all of the time. When this doesn’t pan out, our threat system will come into play because we hate to fail. Our response? Self-criticism.


This system is active when we aren’t. If we are relaxed, safe, and content, our soothe system is doing its thing. It has a great influence on the other two systems and keeps us happy and centred.

There isn’t a downside to this system, unless it isn’t active enough. Responses from others such as compliments, congratulations, and affection keep this system going. However we can’t always rely on others to keep us feeling good about ourselves. That’s why we need self-compassion.

So self-criticism = low self-esteem?

Exactly! This isn’t going to be 100% of the equation for all of us, but it is definitely the part that each and every one of us can control and work on to improve how we see ourselves and how we feel. If we can combat our self-criticism and learn to notice the positives and our successes, we can be something called self-compassionate. This will keep our soothe system ticking over and prevent our threat and drive systems from going into overdrive and harming our mental health.

Tune in next week to learn about self-compassion and how you can improve your self-esteem and mental health!

-L x

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