Low self-esteem can be caused by a variety of traumas. A traumatic childhood, abandonment or separation from parental figures, emotional or physical abuse can all lead to low-esteem as an adult. These problems can worsen as adult life causes negative events like losing a job, going through divorce, or facing an illness. The relationship between low self-esteem and mental disorder is complicated, but many studies have found a correlation between low self-esteem and negative behaviors like substance abuse and poor performance in many areas of life.

“Psychological research has consistently indicated that individuals with low self-esteem are more depressed, have more social problems, are less able to make independent decisions and possess those characteristics that inhibit creativity, performance and effective interpersonal relationships.” –Robert Reasoner, National Association for Self-Esteem

Low self-esteem can directly influence the likelihood that a person might develop a substance abuse problem. A person with low self-esteem might feel stuck with little or no motivation. This creates a world where everything is drudgery and that person wants to escape through drugs or alcohol. Carole Bennet, M.A. puts it this way, “I believe some alcoholics are shy, introverted people. Chances are they suffer from low self-esteem issues, and have relied on the effects of alcohol to help them come out of their shells, be more gregarious and approachable. The drinker might say, ‘Yeah, I need a few drinks in me to loosed up.’ One has to be mindful that a few can easily turn into 10 or 20.”

5 Pillars of Self-Esteem

Robert Reasoner, the Superintendent for the Palo Alto School District in California, came into a school district in 1971 that was failing. Reasoner asserted that the reason many students fail or drop out of school is because of low self-esteem. The young people in his schools were not being encouraged or recognized for their abilities and unique gifts. He identified five key principles that needed to be present for self-esteem to improve. Young people or students must have a:

  • Sense of Identity
  • Sense of Security
  • Sense of Belonging
  • Sense of Purpose
  • Sense of Personal Competence

A 12-year study done by the University of Washington Social Development Research Group found that students who engaged in self-esteem intervention programs, like those developed by Reasoner and his team, were 19 percent less likely to engage in violent acts, 38 percent less likely to indulge in heavy drinking, and 35 less likely to cause a pregnancy or become pregnant. Schools who have implemented a self-esteem programs have experienced a 30 to 50 percent drop in anti-social behavior. Over 90 percent of teachers in the Palo Alto School District reported a significant drop in student disciplinary issues and a noticeable increase in participation.

These pillars of self-esteem can be used in your adult life today. Take some time to think about how you might add up the senses you posses in your own life. Which areas are strongest? Which areas need the most improvement?

How to improve your self-esteem

Neel Burton, M.D. writing for Psychology Today says, “People with low self-esteem tend to see the world as a hostile place and themselves as the victim. As a result, they are reluctant to express and assert themselves, miss out on experiences and opportunities, and feel powerless to change things. All this lowers their self-esteem further, sucking them into a downward spiral.” He has some great tips for building your self-esteem including:


  1. Make two lists: one of your strengths and one of your achievements. Recognizing your achievements with a close friend or relative nearby to help you can identify a lot of positive aspects of your life you might have overlooked.
  2. Think positively about yourself. Even though you have problems, you are still a gifted and unique person. Don’t focus on the negative or use phrases like “I’m such a loser” to describe yourself.
  3. Pay special attention to your personal hygiene. Feeling more confident comes when we take care of our outward appearance and feel comfortable. In addition to hygiene, wear clean clothes that make you feel good about yourself.
  4. Eat good, healthy foods. Our moods can be dictated by the foods we eat. Eating a healthy and well-balanced diet can improve your mood and how you feel about yourself.
  5. Exercise regularly. Try to get in some exercise every day, even if it’s a short brisk walk. Intense exercise, or exercise that makes you sweat three times a week can also help improve your mood.
  6. Reduce your stress levels. Find ways to relax through activities you enjoy. Try meditation or deep-breathing exercises or spring for a massage.
  7. Get enough sleep. See Dr. Burton’s article on better sleep.
  8. Make your living space clean and comfortable. Your home should be a place that is peaceful and relaxing.
  9. Do more things you enjoy. It’s ok to spoil yourself with the things that you like to do. Find the time to work fun into your schedule as much as possible.

Next Steps

Do you think that negative events in your life have contributed to an attitude of low self-esteem in you life or the life of a loved one? Are you coping with the pain of low self-esteem through the abuse of drugs or alcohol? If you need advice on next steps, Rock Recovery Center in West Palm Beach, Florida can help. Call our 24-hour helpline or chat live with us now.