Fennell's Cognitive Behavioral Model of Low Self-Esteem

Your self-esteem is the most important psychological strength you have. However, certain factors, such as the people around you can completely destroy this dimension. Repairing and healing it is key to your well-being.
Fennell's Cognitive Behavioral Model of Low Self-Esteem
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 01 January, 2024

How do you feel today? Do you see yourself as capable of achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself? What opinion do you have of yourself right now?

Self-esteem is like a lifegiving force that allows you, not only to feel valuable but also capable of achieving what you want at any given time. However, it’s a tremendously fragile and variable psychological dimension. In fact, it can wax and wane for the most complex and subtle reasons.

Your self-esteem is almost always conditioned by your environment and the people in it, as well as the events that happen to you.

For instance, if you grew up in a family environment marked by disapproval it’ll have been devastating for your identity and self-image. Similarly, having an abusive partner or being harassed at school or work will undermine the way you feel about yourself. Indeed, although it’d be great if self-esteem was like graphene, hard and almost indestructible, in reality, it frequently shatters.

Therefore, you need certain strategies to work on your self-esteem. There are some highly effective strategies, approaches, and models for deactivating the negative visions that you sometimes build around your own being. We’re going to examine one such resource.

Our life experiences create schemas. These are perceptions about how we are, what we deserve and what others think of us.

Mind with a man inside symbolizing the cognitive behavioral model
The construction of self-esteem begins in childhood. The ways in which we’re treated are key to developing healthy visions of ourselves.

Fennell’s low self-esteem cognitive-behavioral model

Melanie Fennell is a clinical researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford (UK). In addition to being an expert in treatments based on scientific evidence for anxiety and depression, she’s made a notable contribution to the development of guides for working on low self-esteem. Her book, Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, (2009) is one such book.

One of her most notable resources is known as the cognitive-behavioral model of low self-esteem. It’s an approach to understanding where devaluing visions of ourselves come from. Moreover, it helps us understand ​​why we reinforce certain negative schemas and how to deactivate them.

Her theory has its roots in Aaron T. Beck’s cognitive therapy. This famous therapist taught us that, beyond what happens to us, the most important thing is how we interpret everything that happens to us. He suggested we review many of our beliefs about ourselves if we want to improve our self-esteem.

Let’s see what Dr. Fennell’s model proposes.

Certain mental schemas reinforce the idea that we’re incomplete or failed individuals. These beliefs build low self-esteem and are the ones we must address.

1. Origin of low self-esteem: early experiences

“I’m worthless”, “I’m clumsy”, “Nobody will ever like me”, etc. According to Fennell’s cognitive-behavioral model of low self-esteem, your early experiences build the vision you have of yourself. Therefore, having a really critical, unaffectionate, or even authoritarian family or parents means you build debilitating and negative self-schemas.

A self-schema is a belief about yourself that you’ve built and internalized, by interpreting a series of experiences. This mental dynamic is a process that you began to build in your childhood.

  • The first experiences with your authority figures gave rise to certain ‘fundamental’ beliefs about who you were and what you were worth.
  • According to Fennell, in your childhood and early youth, you created your ‘rules to live by’. The way in which your attachment figures related and linked with you made you feel more or less capable of achieving what you want. If you were devalued and undervalued, today, you’ll perceive yourself as unable to fight for what you’re dreaming of.

Her proposal is consolidated in the idea that the environment in which you grew up and the way in which you were treated conditions you in an inescapable way.

2. Low Self-Esteem Reinforcers: Critical Incidents and Useless Coping Models

In Dr. Fennell’s research on low self-esteem, she explains that, throughout our lives, we experience more than one critical moment. These are moments in which adversity or interpersonal relationships once again endanger our self-esteem.

This means that, although you may have overcome your childhood wounds and gradually built healthier self-esteem, you’re never safe from those vital elements and their onslaught. For instance, events like a traumatic relationship can cause all your strength to collapse again. This happens because you haven’t developed useful coping strategies. They’re the kinds that act as life-savers so you don’t drown.

Self-esteem isn’t a fixed and immutable characteristic. Successes or setbacks, whether personal, emotional or professional, can cause fluctuations in the way we see ourselves, in the images we have of ourselves.

Woman looking in the mirror to represent the Cognitive Behavioral Model
We all integrate into our beings irrational beliefs about ourselves that we must reformulate.

How to develop a healthy and more stable self-esteem

Fennell’s Cognitive Behavioral Model of Low Self-Esteem also provides strategies for developing a healthier view of yourself. As we mentioned earlier, this construct fluctuates, and the only way to keep it stable is with the right tools.

The first aid kit to heal your self-esteem requires that you ask yourself certain questions. In fact, it’s only when you question your beliefs that you become aware of those erroneous schemas that are reinforcing your underestimation, criticism, and lack of love for yourself.

Here’s what you need to do to deactivate those harmful ideas.

1. What remains of what happened to you in the past?

What was your relationship like with your parents? Did you have a difficult childhood? What messages did your parents give you about yourself and how did they make you feel? Do you think that many of the narratives and visions that you now have about yourself are conditioned by how you were raised?

A first step to strengthening the foundations of your self-esteem is to analyze those wounds that occurred in childhood and that have accompanied you over the years.

2. Review your rules for living by

Your rules for living are ideas and conceptions that you’ve built about what you deserve and what you don’t, about how your existence should be. Addressing and navigating this set of mental schemas is usually a complex and even cumbersome task. However, doing so will light the way to improving your psychological health.

  • To achieve this, investigate any thoughts that begin in the following way: ” I have to… I must…I should… If I do this…”, For example, “I have to be nicer and kinder if I want to be liked… I must be a size ten if I want others to accept me… I should try and be perfect if I want to achieve what I want… If I do what others want and please them they’ll love me and not reject me, etc.

Many of these rules for being happy or being accepted by others are based on completely biased ideas that only cause you suffering. Detecting them will be of great help to you.

3. Compassion is more helpful than criticism

You may not be aware of it, but you often devalue and criticize yourself. You also project the thoughts and ideas of others onto yourself. In fact, you probably don’t realize it, but your critical voice often reflects the messages that others have projected onto you. Also, what society makes you believe (you must be perfect, you must try harder, etc.).

It’s only when you turn down the volume of your internal judge that you’ll start to heal your self-esteem. To achieve this, you need to activate and give presence to a more compassionate internal voice. The one that, instead of flooring you for making a mistake, kindly picks you up off the floor and reminds you that you learn from your mistakes and that, tomorrow, you’ll do better.

Finally, you have the ability to develop a healthier, brighter, and stronger vision of yourself. You only need adequate strategies and a firm commitment to promote this change. Why not start today?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: International University Press.
  • Fennell, M. J. (1997). Low self-esteem: A cognitive perspective. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 25(1),
  • Padesky, C. A. (1990). Schema as self-prejudice. International Cognitive Therapy Newsletter, 6(1), 6-7.
  • McManus, Freda & Waite, Polly & Shafran, Roz. (2009). Cognitive-Behavior Therapy for Low Self-Esteem: A Case Example. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice. 16. 266–275. 10.1016/j.cbpra.2008.12.007.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.