Self-esteem: How do we form and maintain it? Self-esteem trap.



Improving or boosting self-esteem has been discussed for a long time now but yet it is still a very touchy subject for many of us. Why does it hurt so much when our self-esteem is being knocked down? How do we form our self-esteem and what makes it stick? Why we tend to fall into a self-esteem trap all the time and how to avoid it? Let’s look into this in more details.

Self-esteem is as ‘an elementary endowment of human nature’ and can also been seen as a discrepancy between what one actually is and what one could ideally be. Cambridge dictionary defines self-esteem as ‘the belief and confidence in your own ability and value’. Word ‘esteem’ is derived from a verb ‘to estimate’ which means to give something or someone a rating.

Self-downing and self-depreciating beliefs are typically rooted through childhood experiences as children assume that they are equivalent to their actions and reinforced over lifetime if not challenged. Once irrational beliefs are embedded in our minds, they tend to be continually reinforced and maintained by individuals reminding themselves – i.e. ‘I must perform well otherwise I am a total failure’.

Formation of global self-esteem happens through a process of self-evaluation – How good or bad am I in comparison to: a) other people; b) me in the  past or future self; c) what others think I am? or reflective appraisal; d) how big is the discrepancy between my actual and my ideal self-views? also called self-discrepancy. Reflective appraisals is the most important type of self-evaluation and this is exactly why we worry so much and too much about what others might thinks about us – in other words individuals view themselves the same way they believe others view them and derive their self-worth through internalising others’ attitudes and judgements towards oneself.

Low self-esteem has related issues which are fear of failure, worthlessness and perfectionism. If low self-esteem affects psychological well-being and performance in one domain of ones life such as work, other self-domains will also be affected and should also be examined by a coach.

Self-esteem is built on the basis of external factors such as:

  • Achievements
  • Material possessions
  • Effective performance
  • Attractiveness
  • Competence in personally significant areas
  • Being loved
  • Being a good parent or husband / wife
  • Having a satisfactory job
  • Being approved by significant others

Self-esteem may lead to a loss of identity if favourable conditions are reversed. Self-esteem trap occurs when people can potentially set themselves to fail as some of the external factors may be unattainable or lost at some point in time. Low self-esteem can often set up a cycle of avoidance and procrastination especially among rigid perfectionists.

Research shows the following characteristics of people with low self-esteem such  as withdrawn/shy/quiet, insecure, underachieving, negative attitude, unhappy, socially inept, angry/hostile, unmotivated, etc

People with low self-esteem are more troubled by failure and tend to exaggerate events as being negative.

If you have low self-esteem you may feel:

  • Like you hate or dislike yourself
  • Worthless or not good enough
  • Unable to make decisions or assert yourself
  • Like no one likes you
  • You blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault
  • Guilt for spending time or money on yourself
  • Unable to recognise your strengths
  • Undeserving of happiness
  • Low in confidence

Cognitive Behavioural Coaching emphasises the message that humans are fallible and imperfect by nature  and coachees are encouraged to accept themselves as imperfect, complex, ever changing human beings and to only rate specific aspects of themselves such as acts, deeds, thoughts or feelings, etc. We will talk about how developing self-acceptance can help improve low self-esteem in the next blog post.

If you have any questions in the meantime, please don’t hesitate to get in touch –


Beck, AT., (1991), Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders, New York: Penguin Inc.

Cambridge Dictionary, Self-Esteem, [Online],  Available:, [22/08/2016].

Ellis, A and Ellis, DJ. (2013), Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, Washington DC: American Psychological Association

McLoed, S., (20120,  Low Self-Esteem, [Online], Available:, [24/09/2016].

MIND, How to increase your self-esteem, [Online], Available:, [22/09/2016].

Neenan, M. and Dryden, W., (2006), Cognitive Therapy: 100 Key points and techniques, London and New York: Routledge.

Neenan, M. and Palmer, S., (2012), Cognitive Behavioural Coaching in Practice. An Evidence Based Approach, East Sussex: Routledge.

NHS, (2014),  Raising low self-esteem, [Online], Available:, [22/08/2016].

Palmer, S. and Cooper, C., (2015), How to seal with stress, Hong Kong and Croydon: Kogan Page Limited.

Palmer, S. and Szymanska, K., (2008), Cognitive behavioural coaching. An  integrative approach in Palmer, S. and Whybrow, A., (2008), Handbook of coaching Psychology.  A guide for practitioners, London and New York: Routledge.

Palmer, S. and Whybrow, A., (2008), Handbook of coaching Psychology.  A guide for practitioners, London and New York: Routledge.


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