We all suffer set backs in life. We all have fights with our friends, get bad grades or have a bad day at our jobs. We've all experienced disappointment in romantic relationships.

For teenagers with a healthy self-esteem, these situations, though unpleasant, don't do any lasting damage or cause a person to behave irrationally. But for teens with low self-esteem, those situations can alter her social interactions, her mood (not just for a moment, but for days or even weeks), and even her eating habits.

Self-esteem is closely tied with body image. Body image is your perception of your physical appearance. Self-esteem is your perception of yourself as a whole; your sense of worth as a person. Low self-esteem contributes to a distorted body image, and the distorted body image can't be fully corrected until self-esteem issues are reconciled.

Self-esteem (whether good or bad) is something that's developed over time. Childhood experiences play a vital role in developing our sense of self-worth. Someone who was continually criticized as a child will likely feel as though she has to continually strive for "perfection". How our successes and failures were handled growing up is an important factor as well. If failure in academics or sports is viewed by parents or other authority figures as being a failure of self, a child learns to get her sense of worth from her achievements. This can add to the "perfectionist" mentality, or cause someone to seek affirmation through performance. Both of these mind sets can lead to eating disorders, either because a young girl is striving for the "perfect" body, or because she gets a strong sense of self from the "achievement" of weight loss.

A healthy self-esteem is developed in children who were praised while growing up. Also in children who were treated with respect, listened to by their parents, given appropriate physical attention like hugs, and who experienced success in school academics or sports. Failure in academia or sports can also help develop a healthy self-esteem if the failure is handled appropriately.

Harsh criticism, mistreatment - either physically or emotionally, an expectation of perfection, or failures being handled inappropriately, can all lead to a low self-esteem. Someone with a low self-esteem never thinks she's good enough, and her "inner voice" becomes very critical, unforgiving of mistakes, and unimpressed with personal accomplishments.

Low self-esteem can cause problems in relationships, lead to inactivity or underachievement, cause stress and anxiety, and can even cause depression. Low self-esteem is also one of the primary characteristics in girls who develop eating disorders. Regardless of the reasons, these girls feel like they don't measure up, and so they go to extremes to try and fit in.

Girls who struggle with low self-esteem will often express it in one of three ways.

  • A person with low self-esteem will sometimes simply stop trying. She will act as though she is at the mercy of everyone else, and is often indecisive - waiting for someone else to make the decisions for her. She may feel self-pity or indifference, and use those things as excuses for not taking responsibility.
  • Some people try to cover up low self-esteem by acting as though everything is perfect. "Couldn't be better!" This person is often a high, or over-achiever, using success as her way of maintaining, or proving, her sense of self-worth. This person is often afraid of failure, and it's likely that she grew up in a home where failure was seen as a reflection of self.
  • The third type of person tries to build walls as her defense mechanism. She acts as though nothing bothers her. She tells others (and herself) that people's opinions don't matter. She will especially use this tactic with authority figures or people who are considered "important". She's often angry, because she feels like she's never "good enough". Her need to prove that other people's opinions don't matter may lead to outright rebellion - breaking the law, or blaming others for the consequences of her actions and the way she feels about herself.

If you're trying to help someone who struggles with a low self-esteem, or if you struggle with it yourself, one of the most important steps you can take it to pay attention to your "inner voice". What are you saying to yourself throughout the day? How do you react, internally, when things don't go right? How do you react to criticism? Listen to yourself and make an effort to counteract any negative thoughts. Be specific. If your team lost, and you notice your "inner voice" telling you that you're a loser, be specific and tell your "inner voice" that it's wrong. Tell yourself that loosing a game doesn't affect your worth as a person. If someone criticizes you (whether it was constructive criticism or not) and turn it into "that person doesn't like me", then set your thinking straight. Remind yourself that it wasn't personal. If you think it might have been personal, remind yourself that it doesn't matter. It doesn't affect your worth as a person.

That's the key to building your (or someone else's) self-esteem. You have to remember that your value as a person doesn't depend on your performance, or on other people's opinions of you.

Another key to healthy self-esteem is to take good care of yourself. Some people call it self-nurturing. This is especially important if you've been mistreated by others in the past. Counter-act those negative messages by doing things that prove your value.

  • Start with the basics. Take good care of yourself. Get enough rest, eat well, and exercise.
  • Do things you enjoy. It doesn't matter what it is. If you're an outdoors person, spend time walking, biking riding, rollerblading. whatever your preference. Treat yourself to a manicure or massage. Go see a movie or your favorite band play.
  • Celebrate your achievements, and your strengths. When something goes well at your job or in school, celebrate! Treat yourself to your favorite meal or dessert; spend some time at your favorite park or lake.

When you first start doing things like this, it may be difficult. Do your best to do it anyway. Remind yourself that you deserve to be treated well, and then treat yourself well. Even if you don't believe it at first, over time you will.

Don't try to rebuild your self-esteem all by yourself. Tell your closest friend or friends, and ask them to help you. The positive reinforcement you'll get from them will make a tremendous difference in your sense of worth. The act of asking for help, in and of itself, can be very beneficial because you're acknowledging that you're worth helping - that you deserve the help.

As you're rebuilding your self-esteem, be patient. Things are going to change dramatically overnight. It will take time. Just do something everyday, no matter how small it may seem. Eventually all those small things begin to add up, and you'll begin to feel better about yourself. Just don't give up.

by McKayla Arnold