Feeling the highs and lows

We’ve all got a classmate or friend who seems like they have the perfect life: a caring partner, many friends, a well-paying job and excellent grades. But deep down, they might be insecure and struggle to value themselves. Unfortunately, they’re not the only one who feels this way. But not feeling good enough for others is just the tip of the iceberg that is low self-esteem.

Experts say lower self-esteem can worsen or lead to mental health issues, so teaching young people how to have higher self-esteem at an early age is important. This can be through community services or with the help of family or friends. Boosting how well a young person regards themselves can reduce the impact of any mental illness or lower their chance of developing one, by preventing them from spiralling into a cycle of self-deprecation.

The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health in England found low self-esteem can make young people descend into anxiety and depression. Its research shows the flipside is also true: anxiety and depression can result in low self-esteem and worsen mental health issues.

This article uses the United Nations’ definition of young people. Infographic: Elizabeth Tan.

Lit Therapy registered psychologist Gemma Downie says young people are the most vulnerable to having low self-esteem.

“They’re in their developmental stage of feeling like the perceptions of others are very important. Whereas as we mature, that’s not the most important thing any more.”

Dr Downie says they lack control over their life, yet are starting to become aware of other people’s expectations of them.

“In our society, [young people are] probably at the roughest point of their self-esteem.”

-Gemma Downie

Curtin University Health Promotion Professor Sharyn Burns says low self-esteem isn’t a diagnosed mental health issue, but keeping it at bay is important for young people’s wellbeing.

“People with low self-esteem may develop mental health problems.

“So it’s really important we look at working with [young] people to enhance their self-esteem, before [their mental health] spirals.”

Dr Burns says low self-esteem is when people don’t feel good about themselves and have little self-respect. According to Burns, a variety of factors affect how young people feel about themselves. She says relationships are one of the main things impacting this.

“For young people, relationships are incredibly important, whether [they’re] romantic or friendships.

“Often when things go bad in relationships, [young] people’s self-esteem plummets.”

The factors influencing young people’s self-esteem and how much they affect it are different for each person. Some young people might prioritise their relationships more than grades.

Things that affect young people’s self-esteem depend on what’s important to them. Infographic: Elizabeth Tan.

Young people may have low self-esteem despite getting good grades and having a good skillset and life because it’s how someone feels about themselves. Burns says young people’s successes, failures and how they feel about their lives affect this.

“[When] things that are really important to [young people] go wrong, that can really impact [them].”

She says people who spend time around others or help them have much better mental health than those who don’t.

“Whether it’s formal volunteering, or just taking some time out and listening to your friend, looking after [them] or a grandparent or someone [else].”

“That is really important for [young] people’s self-esteem and ultimately, [their] mental health.”

-Gemma Downie

Dr Downie says young people’s self-esteem can dip if they aren’t getting enough feedback on what makes them a good person. She believes that’s a reason why young people’s relationships with family and friends are important.

“If those connections are strong, constant and reliable, [young people’s] self-esteem will be better.”

Young people need strong relationships to reduce the impact of low self-esteem. Photo: Elizabeth Tan.

Downie says young people should join community groups to build confidence and learn skills while developing social connections.

“When we stop comparing ourselves to others and think [of] what [to] give others, that’s better for our self-esteem than having a strong competitive approach.”

Cockburn Youth Centre duty supervisor Kerri Mulford has been working at the centre for eight years. She and volunteer Lani McCormack believe young people can boost their self-esteem by joining a community. Both of them say young people will feel better about themselves if they help others and have people who listen to them. McCormack, who uses they/them pronouns, says the youth centre helped them become happier by making socialisation easier. Their voice trembles with emotion as they share how the centre boosted their self-esteem, while Mulford affectionately laughs and pats their arm.

But the lighthearted mood doesn’t last long. A sombre air fills the room when McCormack and Mulford say the consequences of low self-esteem in young people can hurt themselves and others.

“Low self-esteem is basically [young people thinking] badly of themselves, [which] can lead to so many problems,” McCormack says.

Mulford says mental health problems can start when young people feel they aren’t important to others. She says young people suffering from low self-esteem can slip under our radar, but listening to them can prevent them switching to dark trains of thought.

Content warning: this video contains a brief discussion of self-harm.

McCormack and Mulford talk about how low self-esteem hurts young people and what to do about it. Video: Elizabeth Tan.

Young people can feel better about themselves by interacting with people who make them comfortable.

Mulford and McCormack share how having a support network boosted their self-esteem. Video: Elizabeth Tan.

McCormack and Mulford believe capitalism and social media lower young people’s self-esteem by placing too many expectations on them.

The youth workers discuss how capitalism makes young people feel bad about themselves. Video: Elizabeth Tan.

However, social media also lets young people encourage and connect to each other.

Mulford and McCormack say social media is a double-edged sword for young people’s self-esteem. Video: Elizabeth Tan.

Curtin University Management and Marketing Professor Jane Coffey says social media tends to negatively impact young people’s self-esteem. Dr Coffey says images on social media do not show a full picture of reality. She says many models or influencers professionally filter images they post. Photo-editing professionals use technology and applications to remove blemishes and change skin tone and body size, according to Coffey.

Coffey talks about how editing images can lower young people’s self-esteem. Video:Elizabeth Tan.

Young people, especially girls or young women, can therefore develop body image issues.

“They feel they need to diet or exercise to an extreme and develop some real distortions around body image.

“[Society has] seen a growth in young women wanting cosmetic surgery at an [earlier] age, because they’re comparing themselves to what are often heavily filtered, heavily distorted images,” Coffey says.

A misrepresentation of wealth and status can lower young people’s self-esteem. Dr Coffey says young women often edit themselves into images of boats or in wonderful, exotic locations.

“They’re [often] not in those places or sitting in a first class seat on a plane. They quickly [sit] as they’re moving down the back of the plane into economy class.”

Another way social media lowers young people’s self-esteem is through cyber bullying. Coffey says this causes longer-lasting psychological damage than physical bullying. This is because young people heavily engage with social media despite being at an age where they just start developing social connections and  a sense of who they are.

“[The] social cognitive side of their brain is starting to kick in, where they’re starting to understand [the] importance of [developing] relationships, either romantic, sexual or [friendships].”

Dr Coffey says the education system can help young people by showing them how social media impacts their confidence. She says schools should teach young people how images are filtered or staged and let them know how often people do this. Educating young people on image distortion would help them understand what they see of others might not always be real. Celebrities and influencers can thus help young people by being vocal about filtering images.

Dr Coffey says social media influencers can discourage and expose image filtering. Video: Elizabeth Tan.

She says letting young people explore what they value and navigate social relationships offline helps them discover who they are and gain confidence. Coffey advises parents to educate their children on the possibility of seeing edited images on social media instead of banning them from using it. In a world where social media is everywhere, young people will see it even if parents don’t want them to. Dr Coffey would like parents to encourage their children to be themselves.

“It would be a very boring world if we were all the same. That’s not humanity.”

-Jane Coffee

Perth Psychologists’ founder Patrick Jones says young people should separate their sense of self from what happens to them and how well they do things society expects them to. Dr Jones encourages young people to use their skills to help others, but not to let those skills determine their self-esteem and value.

“If you are feeling great about yourself because you’ve achieved something, you’re now playing that whole game [of basing self-esteem on abilities].

“Which means if you fail, you’re going to feel bad about yourself too.”

He says how good young people think their top five quality of life factors are affects their self-esteem, instead of how these aspects actually are.

Jones says young people’s self-esteem drops when they believe they’re underperforming in these factors but rise when they think they’re doing well. Infographic: Elizabeth Tan

This depends on what each young person values.

“For some [young people] it might be [their] salary, for some it might be grades. For some, it might be their leisure time.”

Dr Jones advises young people to objectively evaluate thoughts and feelings about past events, especially beliefs about themselves from others who hurt them. He says young people should think about whether those beliefs help them become a better person or cause them unnecessary pain. If those beliefs do the latter, Jones says young people should stop thinking about them. Jones says this lets young people discover who they are and want to be, which they can use to healthily influence their self-esteem. This would let them have stronger self-esteem, instead of allowing social comparison to affect it.

“When you get to that, now we’re talking resilience on steroids.”

-Patrick Jones

Dr Downie has slightly different ideas. She advises young people to boost their self-esteem by remembering multiple aspects of themselves make them important to others.

“Anyone who’s finding all their value is placed just in one area, that [they’ll] only be worthwhile if you’re smart or get good grades, [they’re] going to struggle.

“No one can be one-hundred per cent perfect in one area.”

Downie says young people should remember they are a good friend or family member with multiple skills which cannot be easily measured. She says it’s important for young people to learn and adapt instead of thinking they have a fixed intellect or skill set. Dr Downie encourages young people to adopt a growth mindset and aim to be good at different things.

Young people who think they’re not smart or good enough for others usually struggle with low self-esteem and compare themselves to their peers. However, they should talk to friends and family about how to improve themselves, instead of viewing failures as reflections of their abilities or self-worth. Downie says that mindset would boost self-esteem and psychological resilience.

“I think it’ll be very hard to have really good mental health and really poor self-esteem.”

McCormack and Mulford say the government needs to fund more mental health programs.

The youth workers say the government is putting effort into mental health, but needs to do more. Video: Elizabeth Tan.

Like Mulford says, balancing mental health and self-esteem can be difficult. But there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel that low self-esteem makes life feel like. Experts say we need to have hope we can grasp that light as a community.

McCormack finishes with a memorable sentiment, echoing Mulford’s words.

“If you don’t have hope, you’re screwed.”

Their voice is shaky, yet a smile blooms across their face.