Is Having Low Self-Esteem a Mental Illness?

by | May 19, 2022

The effects of low self-esteem can be debilitating for many people. But is it a mental illness? Understand more about the implications of low self-esteem. Learn how conditions get categorised as mental illness.

Low self-esteem refers to having a negative perception of the self. People with low self-esteem tend not to believe that they deserve happiness or success.

They have low self-confidence and can be highly critical of themselves.

Whilst there is no specific age at which people can develop low self-esteem, it is common among adolescents.

Individuals striving to increase their self-esteem may be able to access mental health support to assist them in improving their self-esteem.

Importantly, low self-esteem is not classified as a mental illness. Yet there is a relationship between the two. Low self esteem negatively affects a person’s well-being, which detracts from their overall mental health.

Low self esteem can also increase the severity of mental health conditions like anxiety or depression.

What Gets Considered as a Mental Illness & How are They Classified?

A mental illness is a “condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, or behaviour” (Centers for Disease Control).

Low self-esteem refers to having a negative perception of the self. People with low self-esteem tend not to believe that they deserve happiness or success.

A condition is classified as a mental illness when the symptoms cause “significant disability in one’s life, and reflect some kind of biological, psychological or developmental dysfunction .”

The classifications help with research and identify possible treatments for the mental health concerns.

There are two primary publications that get referred to for mental illness classifications. They are DSM and ICD.

The American Psychiatric Association introduced the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is mainly used in America. Whereas the World Health Organization set up the International Classification of Diseases. It serves as a global manual for mental health studies.

Low Self-Esteem and Anxiety

A person diagnosed with an anxiety disorder may experience constant fear, worry, or dread, and these symptoms can at times disrupt their daily life.

These individuals may also have low self-esteem.

Take, for instance, social anxiety which refers to a person feeling an overwhelming sense of dread in social situations. Those who also have low self-esteem feel compelled to blend in with the crowd or avoid standing out. It likely stems from feeling incompetent to thrive in social settings. Or even from the fear of rejection.

Their inability to voice their opinions, or their eagerness to please others, may even result in them agreeing to what someone says.

study conducted amongst university students in Jordan, revealed that there is an inverse relationship between social anxiety and self-esteem. The higher the level of social anxiety, the lower the self-esteem.

When talking about treating social anxiety, clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen said, “Anxiety is often vague and says things like “everybody will hate me”… So if we can specify who exactly would “hate you,” sometimes that’s enough and we realise that our anxiety is not particularly credible.”

People having low self-esteem and generalised anxiety tend to focus on their shortcomings. They avoid taking risks out of fear of failure. They may also constantly seek reassurance from others.

Not being able to focus on a task could cause them to fret excessively. It could be because they may place unreasonably high standards on themselves. When this is not met, it lowers their self-esteem further.

The effect that low self-esteem has on a person’s anxiety often reinforces their negative self-image. This is why working on boosting their confidence is key to alleviating the impact of an anxiety disorder.

Low Self-Esteem and Depression

Just as with anxiety, low self-esteem can have dire effects on people with major depressive disorder (or depression).

One of the most common aspects of depression is that the person goes through long periods of sadness. This can be heightened by the presence of low self-esteem, which is a risk factor that has been associated with depression.

Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness are intrinsic to low self-esteem and depression. If they don’t believe that they deserve happiness, how would they even begin to work towards it?

People, in this situation, may feel less motivated to experiment or try out new things when their inner voice is already telling them that it’s a bad idea.

They may reflect on their failures or regrets over and over to the point where they become mentally exhausted.

Moreover, when their past experiences point to difficulties they’ve had in relationships or life events, it becomes the basis of their thinking, forming negative thought patterns that affect their depression symptoms.

Low self-esteem has a lot to do with an individual’s perception of themselves. That said, it also relates to how they believe others think of them.

Individuals with low self-esteem tend to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves. This can prove to be an obstacle when talking to a therapist or a trusted family member, rationalising their thoughts are ways to subvert the effects of low self-esteem and depression.

2013 study analysed the link between low self-esteem and depression. It suggested that strategies to improve self-esteem could potentially prevent or reduce the impact of depression.

Low Self-Esteem and Other Mental Disorders

Most research about low self-esteem explores its implications on anxiety and depression. But, it can also play a role in aggravating other mental disorders. These could be eating disorders or personality disorders.

“When you struggle with BPD (borderline personality disorder), poor self-esteem may aggravate the anger you may experience… Poor self-esteem can result in not advocating for yourself or even failing to value your own feelings,” stated Erin Johnson, LCSW, a therapist and counsellor.

As for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, the presence of low self-esteem can compel people to take strict measures to manage their body image.

They may feel like they’d be judged by others for not adhering to beauty standards. And so, may experience extreme dissatisfaction with their appearance.

The way low self-esteem interacts with certain mental states can bring out varying behaviours in people. It is important to understand how this influences their overall self-concept and well-being.

Low self-esteem significantly affects how you feel, think, and behave. So do illnesses like anxiety disorder, depression, and eating disorders.

Not all people with low self-esteem develop a mental disorder. Similarly, not all those who have a mental illness experience low self-esteem.

If you feel like you may have low self-esteem, there is support to assist you to overcome it. Start small. Find out your self-love score with this self-esteem scale.

Then, consult a mental health professional who can help you identify key areas in your life that you can improve to develop a healthy self-esteem.


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