Our childhood experiences shape who we are today.
If we had a happy, positive, and healthy childhood, we are more likely to move through our lives with confidence, self-belief, and positivity.
But if our childhood was not so good, we’re more likely to struggle with self-worth and self-belief.
In particular, people who had the following 10 childhood experiences commonly battle feelings of low self-worth well into adulthood.
1) They suffered abuse
The most severe and harmful childhood experience that contributes to low self-worth is abuse.
Multiple research studies have found that childhood abuse, whether physical, emotional, or sexual, has devastating and lasting effects on a person’s self-worth.
Survivors of abuse may feel shame and guilt around what happened to them, making them believe they are worthless and undeserving of love and respect.
Plus, because they experienced a lack of protection as a child, they grow up feeling helpless and, thus, become vulnerable to further abuse in adulthood.
This can lead to self-sabotaging behaviors and a string of toxic relationships.
The trauma they experience during childhood creates deep-seated wounds that persist until they can work through the core issue, such as in therapy.
2) They were neglected
Similar to abuse, childhood neglect has a detrimental and lasting effect on someone’s self-worth.
As Clinical Psychologist Alizeh Imam explains, a child who is neglected does not receive the care, attention, or praise they need, causing feelings of unworthiness and insignificance.
It also hinders their ability to develop a sense of self-worth, as they internalize the message that their needs and feelings are unimportant.
3) They had to become their parent’s or sibling’s caregiver
Sometimes, children find themselves having to care for a parent or sibling.
This can happen for various reasons. For example, a parent might have had a long-term illness, resulting in a ‘role reversal.’
Or the child’s parents might have been struggling with addiction, meaning the child had to care for their younger siblings.
Becoming a caregiver at a young age robs a person of being able to enjoy the innocence of childhood.
They are forced to grow up fast, and one of their earliest life lessons becomes the importance of putting the needs of others before their own.
This experience leads to the ingrained belief that they must prioritize other people’s needs over their own and that their needs are unimportant.
This becomes a pattern that plays out in all their adult relationships.
As writer and certified mental health coach Darius Cikanavicius says, someone who was a caregiver as a child is likely to become a people pleaser during their adult lives.
- Feel responsible for their partner’s happiness
- Struggle to say no and set boundaries
- Neglect self-care
- Overwork and get taken advantage of by their boss
4) They were bullied
Bullying is one of the most common childhood experiences that contributes to self-worth issues.
Childhood bullying has long-lasting effects on self-esteem, self-worth, and inability to trust others.
Many bullied children develop the belief that they are inherently flawed or unworthy of acceptance.
The emotional scars keep their confidence and self-image low as they grow up, making it difficult for them to assert themselves in the workplace and in relationships.
But bullying is not the only school experience that can result in low self-worth. Here’s another one…
5) They didn’t fit in at school
I always felt like an outsider at school.
I felt like I was different from everyone and struggled to form real friendships. I tried to mold myself to be more like my peers, but I just felt like a fraud.
The other kids could see I was different, too, as I was always the one to get picked last during sports.
Because of this childhood experience, I spent my teenage years feeling incredibly lonely and inadequate.
I would constantly compare myself to the other girls at school, which just made me feel even more ugly and inferior.
But no matter how much I changed my personality, how much makeup I wore, or how stylish I tried to be, I never felt good enough to be accepted.
This feeling played out well into my early twenties, affecting my college and workplace social interactions.
To be accepted, I would act how I thought other people wanted me to be, and I allowed myself to be used on more occasions than I cared to admit.
It took a lot of work to change my false beliefs, release the need for validation from others, and embrace my authenticity.
6) They had learning difficulties
Another thing that can alienate a person in school is dealing with learning difficulties.
Children who find learning and retaining knowledge hard must battle with their inner critic daily.
What’s more, they are often labeled as “different” and stereotyped as a problematic child or one who will never amount to another.
This stigma and lack of support can lead to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.
As a result, the child will develop negative beliefs about their abilities and potential, making it difficult to believe in themselves later in life.
Adults who struggled in school are typically the type of person who says things like…
- “I could never do that.”
- “I’m not smart enough.”
- “I’m so stupid.”
They self-sabotage their career success by avoiding risks and choosing the easiest routes.
For example, they may dream of running their own business but don’t believe they have what it takes. So instead, they continue working in a miserable dead-end job for a boss they hate.
7) A parent or teacher was overly critical
How adults speak to us as children has a bigger impact on our self-worth than we realize.
If you were subjected to repeated criticism growing up, whether from a parent, teacher, or other authority figure, you may have developed the belief that you are inherently flawed.
Harsh criticism during childhood makes us feel unworthy of praise and validation, and as a result, we tend to do one of two things:
- Always play small
- Push ourselves to the extremes to prove them wrong
You notice the latter in a lot of successful people. They have gotten where they are today because they were desperate to show the critical parent or teacher that they CAN succeed.
While this is an excellent outcome, it’s important to note that the person still has self-worth issues – as their insecure self-worth is what drives and motivates them.
As a result, they risk burning out and neglecting their health and well-being in the pursuit of success.
Here’s another childhood experience that can cause the same result…
8) They were constantly compared to their siblings
I was the middle child, and my parents constantly compared me to my brainy older brother.
One distinct childhood memory was getting my GCSE results.
One year earlier, my brother had got his, which as expected, were super impressive. I remember the level of praise my parents gave him.
One year later, I got my GCSE levels, which, to everyone’s surprise, were almost but not quite as good as my brothers.
Despite having exceptional results, they weren’t as good as my brother’s, so my parents were unimpressed and withheld the praise I deserved.
Sibling comparisons like this can harm a child’s self-worth, fostering feelings of jealousy and inadequacy.
Whether intentional or unintentional, parents who constantly compare their children may unwittingly fuel sibling rivalry and undermine each child’s sense of individuality and self-worth.
By being unfavorably compared to my sibling, I felt a lot of resentment and self-doubt. So, as I got older, I developed a strong desire to show my parents I could become a success.
Again, while the high ambition I developed from this was positive, it was built on a bedrock of inadequacy and poor self-image.
9) Their parents had unrealistic expectations of them
Sometimes, a person’s low self-worth issues are not due to their parent’s lack of belief but rather their overly high expectations.
A typical example of this is unrealistic academic achievements.
In this case, the parents put so much pressure on the child. So when the child fails to meet the parent’s impossible standards, they feel like a failure.
When this happens often, the child starts to internalize the belief that they will never be “good enough.”
10) They grew up in poverty
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that growing up in poverty can impact a child’s self-worth and self-esteem.
If a person grows up in an environment where money and food are always scarce, they will likely feel inadequate to their peers.
Poor kids stand out like a sore thumb in school. The other kids notice the poor kid’s broken shoes and that they don’t have nice things.
As a result, the child feels embarrassed and ashamed and may even develop feelings of resentment toward their parents.
When they become an adult, the beliefs around inferiority are so ingrained that it is hard to shake off the feelings of low self-worth.
If you’re struggling with chronic low self-worth, it’s essential to trace those feelings back to your childhood and determine the root cause.
Sure, things like positive affirmations and visualization can temporarily boost self-esteem. But the only way to permanently reframe our beliefs is to deal with their origins.
We step into the driver’s seat when we understand how our upbringing has shaped us. This awareness allows us to correct our false beliefs and build a healthier self-image.