4 Habits That Cause Low Self-Esteem

If you struggle with low self-esteem, the most important thing is not to overcomplicate things.

For example, you probably don’t need to spend decades in therapy analyzing your childhood for past traumas, because whatever initiated your self-esteem struggles in the past, it’s your habits in the present that are maintaining them.

If you want better self-esteem, the most straightforward way to get there is to figure out the one or two things most detrimental to your self-esteem now—in the present—and work hard to address them.

In my experience as a psychologist, there are a handful of simple habits that tend to suppress self-esteem and keep it artificially low. If you can start to become more aware of these habits and address them, your self-esteem is very likely to improve.

1. Dwelling on the Past

When you constantly remind yourself of all the ways you’ve screwed up and made mistakes in the past, you train your brain to think of yourself as a failure.

Which means the next time you’re faced with a challenge or setback, your brain is more likely to throw overly-negative self-talk and self-doubt at you—making you feel inadequate and incompetent to face your difficulties and achieve your goals.

The cost of living in the past is the inability to live fully in the present.

Of course, it’s important to reflect on our past mistakes and learn from them. But that’s a very different thing than impulsively and mindlessly losing yourself in rumination and self-judgment.

Accept your past failings. Learn from them if possible. Then find the courage to let them go and live your life going forward.

How to Get Started

If you have events from your past that you really do need to learn from, try this:

  • Schedule 10 minutes every day to sit down with a notebook or journal and write about your past mistakes or failings and what you might learn from them: What led to those mistakes and how can I avoid similar slippery slopes today? What has this mistake taught me about my personality and character that I didn’t know before? What habits or actions can I initiate now that will make it less likely that I fall into a similar mistake in the future?
  • Outside of your 10 minutes of “mistakes writing,” refuse to let yourself think about mistakes in the past. When thoughts or memories of a past mistake or failing come up, simply acknowledge them and remind yourself that you don’t need to think more about them now because you’ve got a dedicated time for that later.
  • The goal here is to train yourself to let go of the habit of impulsively thinking about the past by making time to do it deliberately and intentionally.

2. Mood Criticism

It’s ironic that many of the kindest and most compassionate people are incredibly judgmental and critical of themselves.

And a perfect example of this is how they deal with bad moods…

  • If a friend came to you and shared that they were having a hard time and were in a bad mood, how would you respond?
  • Probably with compassion, understanding, and gentleness.
  • But the minute you find yourself in a bad mood, you start judging yourself for being weak or selfish or irrational or whatever.
  • You criticize yourself, judge yourself, and unfairly compare yourself to others.
  • All of which you would never do to someone else!

Feeling bad is hard enough without feeling bad about feeling bad.

When you judge yourself for your bad moods, you end up feeling bad about feeling bad. And when you compound painful feelings, it’s a recipe for long-term suffering and low self-esteem.

The next time you find yourself in a bad mood, try a little self-compassion before you jump to self-judgment.

How to Get Started

I find the following mantra especially helpful for dealing with mood criticism:

Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.

Anytime you notice a downward shift in your mood, practice acknowledging that shift nonjudmentally and repeating this little mantra to yourself.

Most importantly, practice this with minor bad moods and difficult emotions, not just huge ones. You’re trying to build the skill of responding to difficult emotions compassionately—and like any skill in life, you’re far more likely to improve if you take an incremental approach: start small and slowly work your way up.

3. Acting Defensive

We all feel defensive sometimes.

If you think you’ve been unfairly criticized, judged, or disrespected in some way, it’s totally normal to have a strong emotional reaction to that — usually some mixture of anger, sadness, and anxiety.

But here’s the thing…

There’s a big difference between feeling defensive and acting defensive.

If you feel attacked, the impulse to attack back can be swift and strong:

  • Countering their criticism with your own sarcastic comment.
  • Responding to their disrespect by disrespecting them right back.

And even though it’s natural to react defensively, it’s rarely helpful, especially if you struggle with low self-esteem…

  • When you have low self-esteem, you’re always on the lookout for ways to feel better about yourself.
  • And when you act out your defensiveness by counterattacking or criticizing back, it temporarily makes you feel strong and powerful.
  • But a short-lived ego-boost is a poor substitute for authentic self-esteem.

Because the long-term consequences are rarely worth it…

  • Acting out your defensiveness usually leads to more unnecessary conflict and resentment.
  • Over time, you feel guilty or ashamed about yourself for contributing to the deterioration of the relationship.
  • And so your self-esteem suffers.

Better to accept feeling defensive and act on your values than to act on defensiveness and reinforce your low self-esteem.

How to Get Started

Most people have patterns of defensiveness; that is, certain situations (or people) tend to consistently provoke defensiveness.

The upside of this is that because your defensiveness is fairly predictable, you can get better at anticipating it and preparing yourself to handle it well ahead of time.

Try this:

  • Sit down with a sheet of paper and a pen and jot down as many situations or examples of times and places when you’ve gotten defensive recently.
  • Identify the one or two most common.
  • In advance of those situations, schedule a time (yes, literally set a reminder on your phone) to reflect on how you want to act ideally if you do start to feel defensive.

Feeling defensive—like all emotions—tends to be amplified by surprise. So if you can avoid feeling surprised by feeling defensive, I think you’ll find it far easier to manage your defensiveness in a healthy way. And as a result, short-circuit this low-self-esteem habit.

4. Happiness Hacking

Everybody likes feeling happy.

But it’s a profound mistake to assume that you should always feel that way or even aspire to always feel happy.

And the reason is pretty straightforward:

  • Feeling bad is a normal part of the human experience. Sadness, anger, shame, fear… these are all perfectly normal things.
  • You might not like them, but that has nothing to do with whether they’re good or bad.
  • But when you insist on always feeling good and happy, you invalidate feeling bad. And when you’re in the habit of invalidating your own difficult feelings, you end up feeling more and more miserable and more and more desperate to feel happy. See where this is going?

Happiness hacking is the habit of forcing yourself to feel happier than you do, and it’s a great way to feel a lot worse than you should.

On the other hand, when you’re validating and accepting of your emotional pain and unhappiness, it leads to emotional strength, and eventually, more frequent levels of happiness (or at least, less frequent bouts of unhappiness).


It’s not about feeling good or bad. It’s about having a healthy relationship with whatever you’re feeling.

How to Get Started

Get in the habit of normalizing unhappiness. When you feel unhappy, take a brief moment to remind yourself that it’s normal and okay to feel unhappy sometimes.

A nice little phrase to help with this is to remind yourself that: Even though I wish I didn’t feel unhappy right now, it makes sense that I do because…

Now, once you’ve briefly validated and normalized the unhappiness, refocus your attention on what matters and move on.

All You Need to Know

Improving your self-esteem is more straightforward than most people realize. That doesn’t mean it’s easy of course. But you’re not doing yourself any favors by convincing yourself that it’s more complex than it is.

Identify the one or two main drivers of your low self-esteem in the present, and work hard to address them in a healthy way.

Four of the most common habits that cause low self-esteem are:

  • Dwelling on the Past
  • Mood Criticism
  • Acting Defensive
  • Happiness Hacking

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about self-esteem, here are a few resources from me that might be helpful: