Men and Self-Esteem

Some young men use the phrase “lack of self esteem”, although in fact the anxiety they experience puts them constantly centre stage in their own heads. Everyone is looking at them, only what they say and think and do matters, and what they say think and do is always visibly “worse” than what everyone else is saying, thinking and doing.

As requested, after my recent post on women and self esteem — a look at the male point of view. As I see it of course! I could speculate about how men’s sense of self esteem is linked to actions, results, and material success, rather than relationships, but I am going to try and keep close to my own experience with clients, in the hope that I might find out something new myself!

My work takes place in a fast changing society but with a strongly patriarchal, conservative base. I have found that while some older men have come to me and almost invariably found that therapy was not for them at all, a considerable number of young men have come to me with self esteem problems and found counselling to be helpful. The generation gap is striking.

Funnily enough I would say that the older men who are very much within traditional roles, the few that come for help, that is, tend to suffer from the same kind of lack of self esteem as the women trapped in traditional roles. The “I’ll fulfill your every need, I know all the answers, I myself have no needs — actually I am not here at all!” kind. Maybe it is the very fact of being trapped in a role which pushes you out of contact with yourself.

The younger generation, though — and again I stress that I am talking about only the ones who come for help — use the phrase “lack of self esteem” although in fact the anxiety they experience puts them constantly centre stage in their own heads. (This is, of course, in no way exclusive to young men.) Everyone is looking at them, only what they say and think and do matters, and what they say think and do is always visibly “worse” than what everyone else is saying, thinking and doing. They will search for proof of their “worseness” in every sphere of their lives, so diligently that they find it everywhere.

When they start to listen a little more closely to this voice in their heads telling them that they are useless, it usually turns out to be the voice of their father. Sometimes the father was superman and did everything right, sometimes he was barely there at all, and sometimes he was clearly — through alcoholism or other personal problems — not up to the role, but all these versions of father managed to leave their critical voice, whether a whisper or a shout, within their son’s minds. Or, alternatively, all these sons managed to use their fathers in this way!

So it looks to me as if a lack of “self esteem”, or a lack of feeling as present — as much as if you have a right to be present — as anyone else, is something which people of both genders and almost all ages feel, in different ways. It is passed on from generation to generation, although it does not always take the same form.

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While women tend to immediately link their self esteem to the quality of their relationships, and men may immediately link it to their achievements, the bottom line is that relationships are at the heart of men’s self esteem too — the basic tendency to feel alright in the world or not seems to be inextricably linked not to what they were given as a child, not to the kind of house their father built with his own hands, nor the standard of living for which he worked, but to how their father treated them, whether he allowed them to make mistakes, to show weakness, to take initiative, to act, at the end of the day, as “competition”.

When that relationship goes wrong, the sons may consciously become competitive, in which case we have the stereotypical scenario of men’s self esteem being based on winning and being the alpha male, or they may turn all the pressure in on themselves, both scared to lose and scared to win the competition in case they beat their father — and what then? And so a generation of men retreat and suffer anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and other “girly problems”, often particularly terrified of showing these “weaknesses” to women, who supposedly need them to be “strong”, interpreted as “without messy and painful emotions”.

If men and women sat down and shared their experiences more often they might notice that they suffer in very similar ways, although each gender would probably prefer to think that their problems are unique. Some of them are. And other factors such as sexuality change the picture all over again. But basically men have a deep need to accept their own right to exist, in a human and imperfect way, just as much as women do.

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