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Breaking The Chain of Low Self-Esteem

Dr. Sorensen has a program for recovery from low self-esteem.

Symptoms and Consequences of
Low Self-Esteem



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Cognitive Symptoms & Consequences of Low Self-Esteem

Faulty Self Image

Low self esteem is the view or belief that one has of oneself as inadequate, unlovable, unworthy and/or incompetent. This perception comes from one's interpretation of the dysfunctional behavior of people in the child's early environment. In other words, the child is often the brunt of anger, abandonment, abuse, neglect, and or continual negative criticism and scorn.

Children know only what they are taught. If a parent mistreats the child, the child thinks he deserves it. If he is abandoned, he tells himself that he is insignificant. If the parent withholds affection and love, the child views himself as unlovable. If he is criticized repeatedly he thinks he must be incompetent. If he is abused he thinks he must be unworthy of anything better. Thus the first few years of a child's life sets the stage for this view of self and thereafter affects his entire life and is based, not on the truth about who he is, but rather on the rejecting, inappropriate, and abusive behavior of others.

Once this faulty view of self is formed it affects everything in the child’s ongoing life: his decision making, his ambition, his creativity, his assertiveness, his choices, his dreams. In recovery, LSE sufferers come to see themselves in a truthful light rather than through the negative and distorted lenses they that they have been taught are accurate.

Inability To Discern Who and When to Trust

Having been betrayed by those closest to them as children and often by the people they should have been most able to trust and rely on, those with low self esteem are confused about—and unable to discern who and when to trust. Consequently, they often trust the person who simply is nice to them or shows them some attention, opening the door to being easily swayed, taken advantage of, and manipulated, while they don’t trust those who are trustworthy. Only over time can a person really know who another person is and what they stand for, only over time can a person determine if another is truly trustworthy.

"...You Helped Me To See That I Am Worthy As A Mother..."

Hi Dr Sorensen,

I have been meaning to write to you for such a long time! I hope this finds you well.
We worked together more than a year ago and then I returned to work.This is mostly a
letter to see how you are and a letter of gratitude.

I think of you often and the many things you taught me, and still use them today. It has been SO helpful to me. It has helped me enormously to recognize self-esteem attacks and now, if I am mindful, I can use your tools to step back from these, knowing it will pass. I ask myself: is this fact, truth or history? I feel I can step back from them now and not get caught in them. Thank you!

Also, what I am most deeply grateful for is how you helped me to see that I am worthy as a mother, that I care deeply for my children, that I am a good mother. This is what I most needed to see. I only want to bring my children peace, goodness and joy. Thank you for this gift.

All the best to you!

Sincerely,  Karen J

read more praise from other clients and readers…

Irrational and Distorted Self-Statements
(Carries on an inner dialog in which she makes untrue/unproven negative statements to himself about herself)

Self-statements are the statements we make to ourselves in our heads. Once a child develops an image of herself as inadequate (or not good enough, etc.) she treats herself and expects to be treated accordingly. She tends to be overly critical of herself and to inwardly agree with others' criticisms of her, even though she may initially put up an argument against any negative feedback. She may reject compliments, and even criticize people who compliment her, for having low standards or for misjudging her.

Generally, she tends to assume that other people see her in the same negative way she sees herself. From that point on she may anticipate rejection, expect to be ignored or mistreated and even tell herself she has caused the negative reactions or inappropriate behavior of others. Thus, when someone behaves in ways similar to the negative ways she has already experienced, she sees this as confirmation of her inadequacy, her lack of significance, and then engages in irrational and distorted self-statements that bring on additional negative feelings.

In recovery, LSE sufferers gradually become aware of these distortions and over time are able to correct them.

Lacking Self Confidence

Those with low self esteem are generally not confident that they can succeed in life. When something discouraging happens, they interpret the situation as proof that they will not prevail in their attempts to be successful. Some then become overachievers (desperately driven to prove themselves) while others remain underachievers (achieving less that they are capable of).

Even overachievers don’t believe in their success, instead viewing themselves as merely “lucky” and expecting their success to eventually evaporate. All LSE sufferers especially lack confidence in new situations where they don't know what is expected of them and are fearful that relying on their own judgment may produce behavior that is “wrong” in the eyes of others, thereby eliciting disapproval.

Those with low self-esteem also tend to choose the wrong partners, remain in relationships that are unsatisfying and/or abusive, remain in jobs where the pay is poor and the benefits are nonexistent. The fear change, they fear being alone, and they fear their own ability to make sound decisions.

While in the process of recovery, confidence building does gradually occur and these individuals become able to believe in themselves and to recognize that their success is real and well-earned.

Mind Reading and Projection
(Thinks and believes that others view her in the same negative ways that she views herself)

Another dysfunctional symptom of LSE is the habit of projecting onto others the person's own worst fears. Thus if Joel thinks that he is incapable of something, he believes that others think similarly about him even though he has no viable proof that this is true. If Molly thinks she is unlovable, she decides that the young man asking her for a date is really just teasing her or making fun of her--convinced that he could not really want to go out with her.

Obsessive Compulsive (OCD) and Addictive Behaviors

Attempting to feel better about themselves, those with low self esteem may become involved in over-spending, alcohol use, perfectionism, drug use, overeating, and sexual promiscuity. These behaviors often then evolve into addictions.

Overly Critical of Self and Others

Unknowingly, those with low self esteem tend to be very critical of themselves when they are less than perfect and of others for the same reasons. This overly critical attitude comes from their feelings of inadequacy and fear of making a mistake. Their over-attention to doing things “right” extends to others who they also judge with a critical eye.

Sometimes seen as arrogant because they are so critical of others, they are likely striving to build themselves up by putting others down. Unaware that they are more critical than other people, they focus on the negative rather than the positive and give more weight to the negative in both themselves and others.

(Overreacts emotionally to situations in which those with healthy self-esteem would not)

Filled with negative beliefs about themselves, those with low self esteem often overreact to comments or behavior of others that they view as inappropriate or offensive. They may become completely enraged in response to a simple comment, may become despondent as the result of a disagreement, or may become devastated when someone cancels plans with them.

They can instantly react, becoming angry, sarcastic, blaming, or accusatory when they feel slighted, unappreciated, treated as insignificant. In some cases, they are imagining that others are purposely mistreating or ignoring them when it is not so, for their perception is distorted due to the belief that others see them as negatively as they see themselves.


Motivated by fear of “doing something wrong” and receiving negative feedback, those who have low self esteem seemingly need to narrow their choices to be safe from erring. Consequently, they grab hold of the notion that there is one right way to do things—usually the way they were taught. Once the “right” way is recognized, they feel they can then remain safe from ridicule, rejection, disapproval, or from making a mistake in judgment that might have other negative consequences. With only one “right” way every other position is then “wrong,” (black versus white).

Seeing everything as black and white, good or bad, all or nothing and knowing which is which makes it easier to know what to do, Unable to trust their own ability to know what’s right, however, they look to others for those answers or they may go by the rules they were taught as a child, too fearful to decide for themselves on any issue that might be controversial. So Mary may say, “I’m a Republican because my family have always been Republicans,” or “I know this specific household product is the best because my mother always used this brand,” or individuals may think that this or that is important or unimportant in life because of what she was told or what was modeled for her.

Once they are told what is right by a parent or someone they have been taught to highly respect, they become closed to considering a different viewpoint, unable to think that any other way is acceptable. They become rigid in their thinking and judgmental of others who think, feel, or act differently. They basically don’t develop the ability and freedom to look at issues and consider the varying merits before choosing a side.

Doubting their ability to make good decisions, these low self esteem sufferers are often overly submissive to—and blindly follow—authority figures without wavering or sizing up the situation on their own. Such blind allegiance without studying or assessing the situation can lead people to give control of their lives to others who don’t have their best interest at heart, whose views are questionable, or whose views are radical in one direction or another.

Through recovery, people become stronger and more confident in their own ability to make decisions and develop the freedom to feel they have the right to do so.


LSE sufferers can be very self-focused, only viewing and thinking of what goes on around them on the basis of their own needs and wants. They find it difficult to put themselves in the shoes of others or to recognize how their behavior affects others. They are often aloof, appear to be very selfish, even narcissistic, though they are motivated out of feelings of inadequacy, not selfishness or grandiosity.

Unfortunately, those who are so self-focused may not get the satisfaction that come from helping others and from the give and take of healthy relationships.
In recovery, people become more balanced in their view of themselves and others.

(The stories people tell themselves about what others are thinking or really feel)

Those with low self esteem unwittingly make up stories in their minds about the behavior, motivation, and intent of others—what others are thinking, what others are feeling, what is really meant by the behavior of others, what is really meant by the words of others, without first checking out their perceptions. These stories are always negative-based so that the LSE sufferer feels that people are taking advantage of them, taking them for granted, or mistreating them when it isn’t actually so. In this way, they take things personally and believe their emotional reaction to be accurate. This process is a cognitive distortion (irrational or distorted thinking) and is present to some degree in all low self esteem sufferers causing them to act inconsistently and/or irrationally and to feel confused about who and when to trust.

Unreasonable Expectations

Low self esteem sufferers often "test” the love and devotion of people they feel close to, throwing out cues as to what they want or need and then expecting their partners, friends, and family to pick up these cues and supply what's wanted or needed. They feel that others should know what they want and need and are devastated when the person doesn’t do what’s anticipated. In this way they set themselves up with unreasonable expectations and are often disappointed—something they internally digest as the other person "not caring” or “not caring enough”.

In truth, we have all come from unique early environments and the ways in which we treat others is often similar to—or a reaction of—how we were treated. The things we do for others is often similar to what was done for us—or a reaction to what was not done. What we deem important in a relationship is often indicative of that we saw and experienced with the people who surrounded us during those formative years. Consequently, people have very different perspectives on what a relationship should look like, how those in a relationship should treat one another; how much time they should spend together, how much they should do for each other.

As a result, there are often many misunderstandings in relationships concerning what each person can expect from the other and what is reasonable and unreasonable in this regard. Yet, the most likely situations wherein unreasonable expectations raise their ugly heads is when one or both people in a relationship have low self-esteem.

In recovery, LSE sufferers become able to ask for what they want and need rather than expecting the other person to “know.” They learn to discuss and work through problems and disagreements rather than merely react; they develop basic relationship skills.

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