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What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is basically the opinions we have of ourselves. Opinions are really our thoughts about ourselves, thoughts about which areas we are doing well in compared to others and which areas we feel we don't have as much of an advantage. These views may refer to internal and external characteristics. Inner characteristics would be, for example, intelligence, various types of skills, our ability to handle and solve tasks, our skills in relationships with other people as well as human qualities such as kindness, helpfulness, leadership and social skills. External characteristics are the appearance characteristics such as beauty, height and physique. You could also add items such as what kind of clothes, phone or computer we own or what kind of conditions we live in (housing, family car and other living conditions).

What is low self-esteem?

Low self-esteem is, therefore, having a generally negative view of ourselves. It is very personalised regarding how people describe low self-esteem and it is obviously different regarding what characteristics are important to people and what message they have been given that matters. Some are more occupied with inner characteristics, and others by external ones. It is often a combination of both. Therefore, low self-esteem is characterised by judgement of ourselves. People with low self-esteem judge themselves harshly and that can cause great distress, depression and anxiety. The judgements are actually our views of ourselves and are more often not based on facts. In theory, these views are often called core beliefs. If our core belief are very negative then they are going to have a profound impact on our life and behaviour, whether in school, work or social communication in general.

The consequences of low self-esteem can be various. Low self-esteem can lead to risk behaviour. People are at risk of trying to impress others in search of approval by drinking alcohol, smoking/vaping, trying drugs or committing a crime such as stealing/breaking windows. People are at risk of not setting appropriate boundaries and not saying no even if they do not want to do something, e.g. sex. Likewise, low self-esteem can greatly reduce the likelihood that we succeed because we have convinced ourselves that we need to change in order for others to like us. Low self-esteem can lead to mental health problems and vice versa, especially a variety of anxiety disorders (social anxiety, learning/exam anxiety, general anxiety disorder), depression and eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, bulimia nervosa disorder, orthorexia, overtraining).

Low self-esteem can have an extensive impact on the future as we can let our views, not facts, control decision-making. This can affect what studies and work we undertake as well as affecting the boundaries we set in communicating with other people (with spouse, co-workers, parents, friends, etc.).

Low self-esteem

Values are our way of dealing with core beliefs. They, among other things, are a way to reduce anxiety and get us out of situations where core beliefs thoughts are likely to be triggered. If we have the core belief of ​​"I am boring", then one way of not being found would be to avoid social communication or spending a lot of time overthinking what we are saying or doing in communications with others. If the core believe is "I am stupid!" then your life values would either be to spend tremendous time on studying and knowing everything by heart, or to simply stop trying to study properly because we have convinced ourselves that we won’t be successful. If we don't try, we can't fail!

Negative experience is something we all experience in our lifetime. Life is not always easy, but people have a variable and different experiences, and it varies regarding how people interpret the experience they have. A negative experience can, for example, be a difficult upbringing and little support, learning difficulties (e.g. dyslexia or other learning disorders), difficult relationships (arguments, mental or physical violence), rejection by family members, partner or friends, disabilities of various kinds, comments from others or other setbacks.

Our self-esteem is being formed throughout our lives, but especially in our childhood and adolescence. At that time, our view of the world, attitudes and beliefs are forming and, at the same time, we are finding our place in life. A negative experience affects our views and how we interpret and perceive life and existence.

Unhelpful behaviour is the result of having unhelpful principles about life. Examples of unhelpful behaviour are avoiding challenging situations (not participating, dropping out of school, not participating in social life), taking great precautions (knowing by heart, practising the lecture excessively, generally seeking the consent of others for decision-making), being very self-critical of their own performance ("The concert was bad because I played a wrong note.") and belittling own achievements ("Oh, they just praised me because they felt sorry for me, not because I really did well.").

Social media can have a major impact on self-esteem. It is there that we see a glossy image that we seem to believe too often without criticising it. However, we rarely think about the other side, such as how the person looked at 7 am before putting on make-up or the Photoshop/touch ups, or that this particular person may also struggle with difficulties at times. Moreover, our value as a person on social media seems to depend on the number of likes and followers we get and have. We are under a great deal of pressure from social media that we also seem to put on others. This can cause unhelpful negative thoughts such as: "He just saw me.", "My friend Sigga didn't like my picture; she doesn't like me as much as I thought.", "I just got a thumbs up with no comment!". Dating software like Tinder is no less likely to cause such thoughts ("No one ever superlikes me!", "She doesn't answer me, I probably am not handsome/interesting or worthy enough."). Not to mention the fact that such programs live on an objective assessment of appearance but not on all the other characteristics that we want a prospective girlfriend/boyfriend to have.

Eiríkur’s story:

Eiríkur is a 16 year old boy and he just started high school. Life has not always been easy for Eiríkur. He was bullied in the first grades of elementary school mainly because he was red-haired and rather short. He experienced little support at home because his parents are dealing with an alcohol problem. Because of this, he has not done very well in school so far because it was difficult to concentrate when there was a constant risk of bullying and because his parents had little interest in his schooling. Eiríkur has formulated the core beliefsthoughts that he is stupid, boring and ugly. He chose a high school that the bullies did not intend to go to. Now, he wants to make friends and "start over". He has been chatting to a boy who sits with him in maths and he wants to get to know him better. On the other hand, core belief thoughts haunt him that tell him he is stupid and boring, and he asks himself: "Why should he want to know me better, I have nothing to offer!"

It varies how low self-esteem manifests in people, depending on their experience in life and interpretation. See the case study of Helga:


Helga is an exemplary student and she has always done very good in school. Now, she is in high school and her studies have become more rigorous and it is not as easy for her to learn the entire subject by heart, which has otherwise proved to be good for her so far. Her parents are kind to her and she has never lacked anything, but they have always expected a lot of her. She will never forget the day when she was in 8th grade and returned home after receiving a 6 in biology but over 9 in other subjects. Her mother praised her little to nothing for the subjects that went well but told her off for the grade of 6. Helga also played the violin in elementary school and has a memory of having performed in a concert in 4th grade but "froze" in the middle of a song. Her mother got upset and showed little warmth and understanding in that situation. Core thoughts beliefs have haunted her of her being generally not good enough, e.g. student and music student. She has found out that if she does not make a mistake, the thoughts are less likely to haunt her and her parents are happy. Therefore, the principle of liferule for living is: "I must not make a mistake!". This has resulted in her quitting the violin in 5th grade, and she generally avoids starting new hobbies. She spends countless sleepless nights reading her notes for exams or assignments over and over again. She is also very nervous in exams and when she needs to perform, such as giving a lecture.


Health care clinics: When people seek help from professionals, the first point of contact is usually the health care clinic. The first step is to make an appointment with a doctor who can refer you to the appropriate person if the problem cannot be resolved. heilsugaeslan.is

Mental health ward emergency reception: If the situation is acute or severe, do not hesitate to reach out to the mental health ward emergency reception at Landspítali, where people with urgent mental health issues can go without having an appointment. The psychiatric ward emergency reception is located on the 1st floor of the psychiatric building at Hringbraut. The emergency reception is open from 12:00 to 19:00 on weekdays and from 13:00 to 17:00 at weekends and the telephone number is 543 4050. In case of an emergency outside these hours, you can reach out to the emergency department at Landspítali Fossvogur. landspitali.is

Psychologists' private offices: On the psychologist's website, you can search for psychologists who attend to a variety of problems, such as depression. sal.is

Psychiatrists' private offices: A number of psychiatrists conduct medical and conversational therapy for depression in their private clinics.

Further information and advice for individuals, professionals and parents can be found on the website stronger for life, sjalfsmynd.is.

Cognitive behavioural treatment for low self-esteem has proven efficient, whether in individual or group therapy.

A more detailed list of resources in Iceland can be found here.