The Ripple Effects of Self-Esteem

Taking steps to improve how you think of yourself can improve your health and happiness
By Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family. A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net
August 9, 2021 Updated: August 9, 2021

What do you think of yourself? How do you evaluate your own worth? If you struggle with feelings of low self-esteem, you’re not alone. Even the most confident and outwardly successful among us experience what can sometimes be crushing self-doubt.

Self-esteem isn’t static. Some studies have found that our feelings of self-worth change as we age—young adults and people in mid-life appear to have more self-esteem than people over 65. In fact, a 2010 study of Americans aged 25 to 104 published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that self-esteem later in life declined, due mostly to downturns in finances and physical ability.

Experts say there are things you can do to improve your feelings about yourself and boost your self-esteem. Having better self-esteem, in turn, helps you cope with life’s inevitable challenges. When you feel more confident and more grounded, life becomes more enjoyable and interesting.

But it’s not only about finding more joy: People with higher self-esteem usually live longer, healthier lives.

Low Self-Esteem and Loneliness

“People with low self-esteem are usually unhappy,” says Dr. Robin Miller, an internal medicine and integrative physician based in Medford, Oregon. “When they’re unhappy they’re unhealthy.”

Miller has been practicing medicine for more than 40 years and has recently started helping her husband—also a doctor—plant a vineyard and produce local wines. She recently did a deep dive into the research behind self-esteem for an online course she created that explores the science behind health and happiness.

“Low self-esteem also leads to loneliness,” Miller explains, “which is a major risk factor for early mortality.”

In 1938, scientists started following the health of 268 sophomores at Harvard University in what became one of the longest-running longitudinal studies ever conducted in the United States. The Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked the physical and mental health of the participants, 19 of whom lived into their mid-90s. The researchers found that having high-quality relationships was more closely associated with good health and longevity than money or success. Indeed, men (only men were admitted as students at Harvard in the 1930s) who had satisfying relationships enjoyed better health and lived longer lives.

Other research has shown that people with low self-esteem tend to have lower-quality relationships. When you feel badly about yourself, it seems, you seek out others who are equally unhappy and unfulfilled.

According to a 2018 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, this approach often backfires. When people with low self-esteem try to protect themselves from rejection with strategies such as sulking, whining, and displaying sadness, it often leads to more rejection.

Health and Self-Esteem

“It’s really important to have good self-esteem,” says Dr. Collin Lynn, a family practice doctor based in Redding, California. Lynn works for a community health center, where he treats socially disadvantaged patients and also trains health care professionals.

“It’s like a magnet. If you know your purpose and have good self-esteem, you can use that magnet to change the world in a better way.”

Lynn has noticed that patients with better self-esteem feel more in control of their health. They’re more able to make lifestyle changes, he says, and they often recover more quickly from health setbacks.

In contrast, Lynn says patients who struggle with self-esteem are often labeled “non-compliant” by the mainstream medical establishment. But he believes that’s a misnomer. It isn’t that these patients don’t want to follow medical advice, he says, it’s that they don’t think it’s in their power to improve their health.

Good Self-Esteem Isn’t Self-Absorbed

Miller says it’s important not to mistake narcissism with healthy self-esteem. She says people who are obsessed with themselves often suffer from low self-esteem and mask their negative feelings with self-absorption and bravado. “They appear to have high self-esteem but they don’t,” she says, “so they overcompensate.”

So we don’t want to have an artificially inflated sense of our own worth. And we don’t want to become overly self-absorbed braggarts. But given that good self-esteem leads to success in life, friendships, and romantic relationships, how do we foster good feelings about ourselves and boost our self-esteem?

Notice Negative Self-Talk

The average human thinks on the order of 6,200 thoughts per day, according to a 2020 study published in Nature Communications. The study, conducted by researchers in the Department of Psychology at Queen’s University in Kinston, Ontario, gathered data from 184 participants and used brain imaging techniques to detect when one thought ended and another began.

So are we telling ourselves more than 6,000 times a day how good life is and how much we appreciate our own efforts? Or are we disparaging ourselves, dwelling on our aching backs and creaky knees, and self-scolding for all the things we feel we’ve done wrong?

When we replace the negative ticker-tape with kinder, gentler thoughts, life’s inevitable challenges become much more manageable.

As anyone who’s had a bad day can confirm, what you feel about yourself can vary from day to day, or even minute to minute. It turns out that how you talk to yourself inside your own head—where no one else can hear you—matters. A lot.

Lynn says he has noticed a steady improvement in his self-esteem—and his quality of life—since he began making a concerted effort to treat himself with the same grace and kindness he tries to show his two children.

He used to be a perfectionist, he says, but now, instead of getting angry at himself when he makes mistakes, he tells himself it’s OK.

“It’s OK. It’s really OK. I repeat that to myself over and over,” he explains. “I’m learning to be comfortable with my own OK-ness.”

Enjoy the Process Not the Product

Teachers and parents often try to help foster children’s self-esteem through praise. But, according to psychologist Madeline Levine, praising a child’s achievements can actually have a negative effect on their self-esteem.

As Levine explains in her 2006 book, “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Discontented and Unhappy Kids,” it’s more important to notice a person’s hard work than to comment on the outcome or achievement. There are many reasons why blanket praise, which Levine calls “bad warmth,” can actually do more harm than good. For one thing, when you constantly praise a young person for what they are good at, you inadvertently make them fearful of trying new things.

Conversely, when you notice how hard they have worked—regardless of the outcome—you help them feel appreciated.

So instead of saying, “Good job! I’m so proud that you got an A on your report!” try saying something like: “Wow! I see how hard you worked on that report. You really took your time to get your facts right. I’m impressed with the details you included.”

Paying attention to a young person’s efforts helps them understand their hard work is of value, which encourages them to work hard in other areas as well. In contrast, focusing on only the achievement makes them feel like their self-worth (and your love) is tied only to outward success.

The same is true for adults. Many of us feel afraid to try something we’ve never done before for fear we won’t be good at it. The idea that we can only enjoy things we excel at keeps us from having new experiences, having fun, and following our dreams. But when we pause to remember that it’s the journey that’s important, not the outcome, we give ourselves permission to do new things.

Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Because the mind and body are so intimately linked, Robin Miller recommends that people struggling with health issues try cognitive behavioral therapy to boost their self-esteem. This kind of counseling helps people change their unhelpful self-talk and thinking patterns. Miller likes it because it’s short term (she says you can see positive results from CBT in just 12 weeks) and highly effective.

“I’ve seen many of my patients improve with cognitive behavioral therapy,” Miller says. “They’ve been able to make life changes that they normally wouldn’t have done, like find the strength to leave toxic relationships or toxic jobs.”

Miller says there’s no question that better self-esteem—no matter how you achieve it— will make you happier and healthier.

Her favorite example: A woman in her mid-40s who was struggling with her self-esteem had, over time, become morbidly obese. Because she felt so bad about herself, she was eating more, exercising less, and making a variety of unhealthy choices. But it wasn’t until after her husband announced he was leaving her for a thinner, younger woman that she realized she needed to make some changes in her life.

She started by walking a block. Even that was hard. But it left her with a feeling of accomplishment. The next day she walked two blocks; soon she was able to walk a mile. And the simple act of walking around the block motivated her to eat healthier. After a few months, without even trying, she had shed 15 pounds and was feeling better than ever. It took a year and a half but—mostly by changing her feelings about herself—she returned to an optimal weight. She regained her self-esteem, Miller says, and lost the unhealthy weight.

Jennifer Margulis, a frequent contributor to The Epoch Times, is an award-winning science journalist based in Oregon. Learn more at JenniferMargulis.net.

Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family. A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net