5 signs your low self-esteem traces back to an unhappy childhood

No doubt fans of the sitcom Friends—myself included—were deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Matthew Perry last month. Perry played the beloved, sharp-witted Chandler Bing on the hit series that ran from 1994 to 2004.

The actor was always very open about his struggles with addiction with drugs and alcohol. 

In his memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing (published a year ago), Perry talked about how his ongoing battle often compelled him to push potential partners away. He said that even when he was sober that he carried the weight of his addiction and that it was difficult for him to be vulnerable and fully invest in a healthy relationship. 

Perry attributed his family issues growing up as the reason for his difficulties finding real and lasting love. He shared how his relationship with his mother influenced his attraction to unavailable women. 

Perry’s story shows how many of the issues we face as adults are almost always rooted in our childhood. 

Low self-esteem is one such example. If a person consistently lacks self-confidence, they can probably trace it back to their own unhappy childhood. 

Do you think that your own low self-concept has something—or a lot—to do with your own childhood? 

Here are five signs that a low sense of self-worth is playing out in your adult life. 

1) You neglect your own needs 

Low self-esteem means that you’re not valuing yourself the way that you should be. A big part of this is neglecting our own needs. 

This could be being hesitant or even afraid to speak up for ourselves—i.e. keeping your thoughts and opinions to yourself. 

It can even be things like not giving ourselves time for a full night‘s sleep or mindlessly eating junk food and not being tuned into our bodies. 

Some people fill every waking minute of their lives being busy so that they don’t have to spend time with themselves. They also don’t allow themselves time to have fun or really relax. 

They also might not allow themselves to take up a passion they might be good at. These can also be the people who settle for a job that is understimulating and a partner who doesn’t love and appreciate them for who they are. 

Then, like Perry, they might engage in harmful distractions like excessive drug or alcohol use so that they can dissociate from themselves and not have to reflect on why they’re so unhappy

They may also not bother keeping a neat physical appearance because they don’t care about themselves enough to do so. 

“Emotional neglect in your upbringing makes you more susceptible to self-neglect in childhood,” says therapist Jonice Webb, PhD.  

“Childhood emotional neglect happens when your parents fail to respond to your emotional needs enough as they raise you,” she says. “Without emotional attention, you were left with feelings and needs that fell below the radar.”

2) You people-please to the point of self-sacrifice 

People with low self-worth often use people-pleasing as a way to be liked and accepted. 

They might over-explain things or over-apologize for something that isn’t even a big deal. They’ll also automatically agree with other people without checking in with themselves. 

And of course, the big one is not being able to say no. This could be in the form of social invitations, and the list goes on. People with low self-esteem will do everything in their power to please others—even when it means putting off their own needs, desires, and responsibilities.

People-pleasing often originates in childhood in the form of parent-pleasing, says Marie Holmes from The Huffington Post

“There are lots of things that parents want kids to do, from making their beds to finishing their homework to sharing toys with siblings. Some children, however, go beyond fulfilling their parents’ basic requests.”

They are hyper-alert to their parents’ unpredictable moods, for example, and will make sure the house is clean or even that dinner is cooked as a way to stay in their mother or father’s “good books”.

When I was in middle school, I remember a girl in my class saying she was happy to have the night off. When we asked her what she meant, she said: “My older sister is visiting so she said she was going to make a special dinner for the family. So I don’t have to cook dinner tonight.”

We just stared at her. She was 13 years old and she was responsible for cooking dinner for her family (it was a big family, five kids if I remember correctly) every night with the odd exception here and there. Last I heard, she had run away from home around age 16. 

3) You believe you aren’t good enough 

signs a man has low self esteem in a relationship 5 signs your low self-esteem traces back to an unhappy childhood

Going back to Matthew Perry (like many, being a Friends fan he isn’t too far from my mind these days), I read that even at the height of his success, he struggled with the belief that he wasn’t good enough

He thought that if anyone got to know the real him, that they wouldn’t like him. In his memoir, he said that he struggled with what he called a “lifelong feeling of abandonment,” which was brought on by his parents for not having enough time for him. Then his father actually did abandon the family. 

With his father gone, Perry took it upon himself to be “a soothing, entertaining presence for his mother, trying to make her laugh, and become a people pleaser in general. Even though he went on to have better relationships with both of his parents, “that scared little boy never seemed to disappear.”

“If as children we are treated unfairly, like we are worthless or not good enough, then we may grow up believing that we are never enough,” says Darius Cikanavicius from Psych Central

“Often such a belief stems from being held to unrealistic standards such as perfectionism, being compared to others, and being generally mistreated.”

4) Anxiety always seems to be right around the corner 

People who suffer from low self-esteem often also have issues with anxiety. 

Experiencing childhood trauma can predispose people to developing anxiety and panic symptoms and disorders in a number of ways, says Vassilia Binensztok, PhD, LMHC, NCC

“These are related to unpredictable childhood environments, changes in how one perceives physical sensations, and changes in brain structure and function,” she says. 

If, for example, you had an abusive parent who was always looking for the worst in you and you had to walk on eggshells around them, you might be inclined to startle easily when caught off-guard in your adult life. 

Even though you have no reason to be scared, your body goes easily into (or always is) in flight mode. It’s an automatic trauma response. 

5) You might have a number of narcissistic qualities 

We think of narcissistic personalities as having an over-inflated view of themselves. But the root cause of narcissism is often a very low sense of self-worth, says Cikanavicius.

“[The] common characteristics of a highly narcissistic person are insecurity, poor emotional regulation, black and white thinking, seeing others as objects, self-absorption, manipulation, superficial charm, constant seeking for attention, and social status, fakeness, confusion, and consistency. [It also includes] pseudo-virtuousness, chronic lying and deception, projection, callousness, and a lack of self.”

Narcissistic and toxic tendencies are defense mechanisms or adaptations that a person developed so that they could adapt to their painful and otherwise unbearable environment, adds Cikanavicius. 

They are playing out a drama that was routine from childhood. They probably grew up with a narcissistic parent who was cruel to them and this is how they themselves relate to others in adulthood. 

You couldn’t control what happened to you as a child, but you can take charge of your life now

Positive change is possible even if you had the unhappiest of childhoods. The first thing to remember is that what happened to you was not your fault. 

You were in the unfortunate situation of being in the care of a person (or people) who were probably dealing with their own trauma, and had no clue how to create a healthy, loving, and consistently caring environment for you. 

We always recommend getting the expertise of a good therapist so that you begin the healing process. 

Some things you can do to bolster your self-esteem include being kind and accepting of yourself. Also, build positive relationships and cut out and avoid toxic people. 

Learn to be more assertive and start saying “no” more. If you don’t have the desire, time, or need to do something that is asked of you, say no. Be okay with disappointing people. You are not responsible for their happiness or their peace of mind. 

Also, find something you’re good at and do that—regularly. A passion of some sort can be such a healing thing to do. 

All of these things will increase your self esteem little by little and day by day. 




Picture of Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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