Low self-esteem: A refined cognitive behavioural model

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Melanie Fennell’s (1997) seminal cognitive approach to low self-esteem was published in Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy. The current paper proposes a refined model, drawing on social theories, and research with people with socially devalued characteristics.
This model emphasises how self-esteem relates to perceptions of one’s value in the eyes of others. It is proposed that core beliefs typical of low self-esteem relate to one’s value in relation to personal adequacy (e.g. having worth or status) and/or to social connection (e.g. being liked, loved, accepted or included). In each of these value domains, beliefs about both the self (e.g. “I am a failure”, “I am unlovable”), and others (e.g. “Others look down on me”, “Others don’t care about me”) are considered important. The model suggests that everyone monitors their value but in people with low self-esteem, cognitive biases associated with underlying beliefs occur. In the context of trigger situations, this results in a greater likelihood of negative appraisals of perceived threat to one’s value. Such appraisals activate underlying negative beliefs, resulting in negative mood (e.g. low mood, anxiety, shame, disgust) and other responses that maintain low self-esteem. Responses which can be used excessively or in unhelpful ways include a) corrective behaviours, b) compensatory strategies; c) increased value monitoring; d) safety-seeking behaviours e) rumination; f) unhelpful mood regulation responses. These responses can adversely impact daily functioning or health, having the counterproductive effect of maintaining negative beliefs about one’s value. Examples are provided for low self-esteem in lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBehavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy
Early online date12 May 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 May 2023


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