This blog post is the sequel to another article, you can read the first part here.

How was my «low» self-esteem shaped over time?

Consider again the idea of the piece of clay and how your environment has shaped your self-esteem. You have probably been in a myriad of situations during your life in which you have been evaluated in some way or another, or even self-evaluated (either explicitly – an exam – or implicitly – social situations). 

In these situations, you have probably emitted a behavior, leading to some kind of consequences that can be very unpleasant (belittling, teasing, telling yourself how bad you did and how clumsy you are), causing intense and unpleasant emotions (insecurity, discomfort, sadness, nervousness, disappointment), which have probably resulted in you tending to face these situations less often.

If this chain is repeated several times, this discourse about yourself will become more and more consolidated, and therefore, you will probably try to avoid the situations that trigger those thoughts, which in turn may prevent you from developing the necessary skills to build that «confidence» and change that internal dialogue, and you will become more and more insecure, resulting in a sort of vicious circle from which it is difficult to get out. In the end, this self-talk is eventually confirmed and becomes more and more stable and solid. We end up believing it.

Not only that, you will probably start generalizing that speech and that feeling of discomfort to other situations in which you are evaluated, thus making the spiral even bigger… to the point that that speech about yourself ends up losing its connection with reality and dissociating from your actual performance in the situation.

For instance, if you have lived in environments (work, family, social) where criticism was abundant, and most of your actions were followed by unpleasant comments (regardless of your actual performance), it is possible for these chains to have gradually built up and «you have ended up believing it». If I do a piece of work, and regardless of its quality I am told that it is worthless and that I have to improve it, or if I take part in class and the teacher makes a joke or gives me a reprimand, and I start to feel bad about it, generating thoughts and attributing the explanation to my own incompetence, this discourse is consolidated and I end up behaving in a more insecure way, which feeds back into this whole «loop».

The same thing happens on the other end, in which we can imagine that a person’s actions are constantly followed by praise, and mistakes or poor performance (whether social, work, etc.) are always attributed to external factors, generating and consolidating an internal discourse «immune» to the environment in which one ends up unconditionally «overestimating» the way one behaves.

This dissociation between the «real» performance of the person and that set of self-talk (accompanied by thoughts, emotions, and behavioral tendencies) is really the «the issue» in self-esteem problems, and the good news is that if we understand that it has been developed by these learning processes, we will have an open the door to try and modify it through the same processes, turning them in our favor.

So, what do I do to improve my self-esteem?

First of all, if you are really concerned about your self-esteem and you notice that it is negatively affecting several areas of your life, the best decision is not to wait any longer and talk to a psychology professional. A blog or a post can guide you in a general way, but a psychologist will take the time to conduct an analysis of your situation, trying to understand how you got to the position you are in, the variables in your life that are generating and maintaining the problem, and design together with you a treatment plan tailored to your personal situation to modify them and achieve your goals.

Keeping with our concept of self-esteem, if we understand it as that internal discourse that is not adjusted to reality, the first step in the chain will be to identify such self-talk.

Cognitive distortions

We all have a certain bias when interpreting the world around us, depending on our life history. Therefore, when faced with the same situation, we will all have a different perception and interpretation, as slight as it may be. In psychology, these biases and thought patterns have been studied, and in some cases, they can be detrimental to people’s well-being. Specifically, this series of thoughts are known as cognitive distortions.

These cognitive distortions have some key characteristics. Generally speaking, they are irrational thoughts that also seem «totalitarian» or extremely rigid and unquestionable, even though there is no evidence to support them («my co-workers despise me and I’m sure they think I’m useless»). Logically, these thoughts can lead to really intense and unpleasant emotions that generally keep you away from possible psychological well-being or the goals you want to achieve.

There are many cognitive distortions that have been given names. Labeling them and getting to know them can help you identify them more effectively and thus help you at least question them. Below are some of the most common cognitive distortions. It is a non-exhaustive list and you will certainly find them with different names depending on what you read, but they are useful to be able to identify them.

  • Filter or «selective abstraction». It describes the tendency to focus your attention predominantly on the more negative or «catastrophic» aspects of the situations you experience, almost totally ignoring the positive things in the situation. Pardon my choice of words, but it’s what my father used to describe as the fly’s poop on the bride’s dress. This selective abstraction would make you ignore the beauty, the design, and quality of the garment, and the joy of the occasion, focusing on and magnifying that minimal negative detail.
  • Dichotomous or polarized thinking. Reflects the tendency to think in terms of «all or nothing». Seeing everything as «black or white,» «good or bad,» and «perfect or disastrous» can cause you to miss the myriad nuances and variety in the situations you face. Imagine being in a driver’s license test, committing a minor mistake such as stalling the car, and thinking «I am the worst driver on this planet, I will never pass and I am a disaster in everything I do».
  • Overgeneralization: refers to taking one event or situation and extrapolating it to everything that happens in your life. That is, if something «negative» or unpleasant happens to you, you think it will always happen, generating defeatist thoughts in which you systematically assume the worst.
  • The «should” statements: These consist of certain rules or rigid expectations that we impose on ourselves and that usually when they are not fulfilled are related to intense and unpleasant emotions such as sadness, anger, or resentment towards oneself. «I should have done x». «I should have been stronger» «I have to be accepted by everyone».
  • «Jumping to conclusions»: this is about assuming as certain and inevitable some ideas about your environment, or inferences about what will happen in the future, without having any evidence that can truly support it. We can think of the typical «I will never pass this exam», «this person thinks I am stupid because of what I just said» or «if he says no to the plan I have suggested it means he doesn’t want me in his life at all».
  • Personalization: we assume that everything that happens around us (usually bad) has to do with ourselves. We take the «blame» or responsibility for what happens. «this person is sad and bad because of me», «I didn’t accompany my friend home and that’s why she had the traffic accident» etc.

Just like these, there are many other «cognitive distortions» or small thinking errors or attribution errors that can play against the development of a good self-concept.

Questioning the narrative

Once these thought patterns and tendencies are identified, it would be appropriate to start questioning them in order to gradually modify our discourse (internal and external) to bring it closer and closer to reality.

The first step is to convince oneself that thoughts are not only modifiable but also that they do not necessarily have to be true. It is extremely common (it happens to all of us) to assume that what we think is true, and it is so implicit and automatic that sometimes we do not even consider whether what we just thought corresponds to the actual reality in front of us. In fact, in general, the aim of questioning your own thoughts is related to «opening» a little bit the range of things we expect to happen, knowing that yes, the option we have in mind is possible (it is possible that X person does not like you) but it is not necessarily likely and that there are an infinite number of other variables that you are «filtering» to keep the «worst possible» one for you.

Therefore, this second step, after identifying these generally «absolutist» and self-critical statements, is attempting to shift your attention to the other world of possibilities, especially those that may be more objectively related to the evidence available before you.

For this purpose, Collado-Díaz et al. (2022), from the Applied Psychology Department of the Autonomous University of Madrid (CPA-UAM), recommend applying 3 «filters» that can help to question these self-critical thoughts. The three levels of questioning include the following:

– Evidence

– Utility

– Severity

The evidence filter simply refers to questioning yourself and analyzing the situation in search of evidence that truly supports the thought concerned. Is there evidence to show that this is true? Is there any other possibility or explanation? In the past, have I thought the same thing on occasion and it didn’t turn out to be true?

The utility filter, as the name suggests, consists of questioning whether this pattern of thought will actually have positive consequences that will bring you closer to your goals, or whether, on the contrary, they are thoughts that may lead you away from them.

The severity filter refers to the idea that all those explanations or consequences that we predict through our thoughts are not, in the end, as serious or catastrophic as we imagine them to be. Moreover, even in the worst-case scenario (in which those thoughts come true), there would still be room for action to improve the situation.

– Shifting the spotlight

Once we have automated the process of questioning assumptions and thought patterns, and we run them through these «filters», it is time to start shifting our focus to other options, explanations, or thoughts that are more in line with reality and give more importance to the positive aspects of ourselves. Imagine, for example, seeing yourself as you see someone very important to you, or as a good friend or someone who really appreciates you would see you.

Take some time to think about positive aspects or what you value about yourself in different areas of your life, be it academic/professional, personal, family, social… Etc. Try to make this a habit to try to change that «standard» tendency you had to analyze everything in an excessively critical way. And practice before, during, and after every situation that challenges you or makes you nervous before you face it!

Remember that this is simply a blog post that addresses the concept of self-esteem in a broad way. The best option to work on it, if you think it might be a problem in some area of your life, is to see a professional psychologist who can adapt their knowledge to your life history and the variables that come into play in your unique situation.


Collado, A., Chamizo, I., Ávila, I., Martín, S., Revert, À., & Sánchez, A. (2022). Protocolo de evaluación e intervención en autoestima.

Froxán Parga, M. X. (2020). Análisis funcional de la conducta humana. Concepto, metodología y aplicaciones. Pirámide.

How the Self-Esteem Craze Took Over America And why the hype was irresistible.

Real Academia Española (2014). Diccionario de la lengua española (23ª Ed.). S.L.U. Espasa Libros: Barcelona

Roca, E. (2014). Autoestima sana: una visión actual, basada en la investigación (2ª Ed.). ACDE Ediciones: Valencia.

Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English, French and Spanish
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