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The self-esteem conundrum: those who need it, don’t have it; and those who have it, don’t need it (or do they?)

Not a day in my practice goes by where parents do not raise their concern about their child’s poor self-esteem, a mother complains of her feelings of worthlessness, or a top-student or highly successful businessman confesses his or her insecurities.

What is self-esteem? Why is self-esteem so elusive? Do we even need self-esteem? Can we improve it?

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is one of the four aspects of one’s fundamental appraisal of oneself along with

  • locus of control (the tendency to believe that control over your own success resides within yourself, or are determined by external forces),
  • neuroticism (how prone you are to experience feelings such as anxiety, anger, envy, guilt and a depressed mood), and
  • self-efficacy (one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task).

Self-esteem is a person’s inclination to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It is a subjective emotional evaluation of your own worth – a judgement, as well as an attitude. I.e. self-concept is what you think about yourself, while self-esteem is the positive or negative evaluation you have about yourself. This entails beliefs about yourself (e.g. “I am competent”, or “I am worthy”) and emotions such as triumph or shame. In short: self-esteem is how you view yourself, how you perceive your self-worth, and what value you feel you provide to the world.

 

Why is self-esteem so elusive?

We can distinguish between contingent (conditional) and non-contingent (unconditional) self-esteem. Contingent self-esteem is derived from external sources, such as what others say, one’s success or failure, one’s competence, or relationships. Contingent-self-esteem is based on external approval – and therefore doomed to fail. Our personal worth cannot be based on external achievements and approval – neither of which is present constantly. Therefore, contingent self-esteem is marked by instability, unreliability, and vulnerability – which leads to an incessant pursuit of self-value. Non-contingent self-esteem is described as true, stable, and solid. It springs from a belief that one is acceptable in spite of our imperfections, not because we are perfect. Although it is natural and appropriate to aspire to and admire achievements, the root of non-contingent self-esteem is not our achievements per se but those internally generated practices that make it possible for us to achieve despite our circumstances.

 

Do we need self-esteem?

Abraham Maslow states that psychological health is not possible unless the essential core of the person is fundamentally accepted, loved and respected by others and by her or his self.

A healthy self-esteem is linked with:

  • increased happiness: it allows you to face life with more confidence, benevolence and optimism, and therefore reach your goals easier
  • better interpersonal relationships: it increases your capacity to treat other people with respect, benevolence and goodwill, and increases forgiveness
  • improved performance at work: it allows creativity at the workplace and the willingness to accept challenging tasks with less fear of failure
  • improved mental resilience: it enables you to cope with difficult and stressful life situations and protects against mental distress, mood and anxiety disorders
  • increased responsibility: it protects against risky behaviour such as drinking, using drugs, and promiscuity
  • increased confidence and achievements: it enables you to “fight with all your might” to achieve your goals, because, if things go wrong, your self-esteem will not be ruined. As John Maxwell stated “sometimes you win, sometimes you learn”

 

The development of self-esteem

Life-experiences are a major source of how self-esteem develops. In the early years of a child’s life, parents have a significant influence on the development of self-esteem. Childhood experiences that contribute to healthy self-esteem include being listened to, being spoken to respectfully, receiving appropriate attention and affection and having accomplishments recognised and mistakes or failures acknowledged and accepted. Experiences that contribute to low self-esteem include being harshly criticised, being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, being ignored, ridiculed or teased or being expected to be “perfect” all the time.

The school years also significantly contributes to the development of self-esteem. Academic achievement, or failure, has a considerable impact on the development of self-esteem.  After years of praising children for the most insignificant achievement or progress in an attempt to build confidence, eagerness, and a desire to learn, we now know that it is far more effective to praise the praiseworthy, criticise rigorously but fairly, and promote according to merit.

Social experiences are another important contributor to self-esteem. From early school years, children start to compare themselves with others and “judge” themselves as “better” or “worse”. During adolescence, our relationships with our peers are one of the primary drivers of self-esteem.  Social acceptance brings about confidence and produces high self-esteem, whereas rejection from peers and loneliness brings about self-doubts and results in low self-esteem.

Self-esteem often decreases from middle age to old age – possibly due to declining health, cognitive ability, and socioeconomic status in old age. In terms of personality, emotionally stable, extroverted, and conscientious individuals tend to experience higher self-esteem.

 

5 characteristics of individuals with a healthy self-esteem

  • Grounded: They are firmly rooted in values and principles, and are ready to defend them even when finding opposition (but without holding on rigidly to their viewpoint if it needs adjustment).
  • Confident: They are able to act according to what they think to be the best choice, trusting their own judgment, and not feeling guilty when others do not like their choice, nor having the excessive need to please others. They are nor hypersensitive to feedback, and sees feedback as a learning and growth opportunity.
  • Live in the present: They learn from the past (but do not waste time with neurotic guilt, self-criticism, and dissatisfaction) and plan for the future (without chronic indecision and exaggerated fear of making mistakes or failure).
  • Emotionally and socially intelligent: They are aware of their own emotions and are able to manage it. They are sensitive to feelings and needs of others, and respect generally accepted social rules. They claim no right or desire to prosper at others’ expense. They can work (together) toward finding solutions and are prepared to have the tough conversations without belittling others (or themselves) when challenges arise.
  • Curious and collaborative: They are able to enjoy a range of activities and friendships. Asking for help is not seen as a sign of weakness. They consider themselves equal in dignity to others, rather than inferior or superior, while accepting differences in certain talents, personal prestige or financial standing. They also understand that they play a valuable role and have a meaningful contribution to others’ lives.

 

6 practices for improving self-esteem (based on “the Six Pillars of Self Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden)

  • Live consciously: Be mindful. Be present to what you are doing while you are doing it. Embark on a lifelong journey of learning: be open to new information, knowledge, experiences, and feedback. Do more things you enjoy. When you do the things you enjoy, you have fun. When you have fun, you feel good about yourself. And chances are, you are good at the things you enjoy.
  • Self-acceptance: Be willing to own, experience, and take responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Avoid evasion, denial, disowning, or blaming. Reflect, without passing judgment. Recall those moments when you were successful and felt proud of yourself. Remove negative self-talk. Be kind to yourself and others. When you provide assistance and positive energy to others, those same emotions occur inside of you.
  • Self-responsibility: Realise that you are the author of your choices and actions. Each one of us is responsible for our own life and well-being and for the attainment of our goals. No-one else have to cooperate in enabling you to achieve your goals – but if you offer value in exchange, reciprocity will follow. Don’t ask “what can I get?” but “what needs to be done?”
  • Self-assertiveness: Pay attention to your body language. When you pick your head up, puff your chest out and stand tall you feel good, you feel confident, you feel strong. Make eye contact. Be authentic in your dealings with others and true to your values, but not at the expense of others. Always be respectful and kind. Be willing to stand up for yourself and your ideas in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts.
  • Purposefulness: Identifying your short-term and long-term goals and formulate an action plan. Small achievements breeds the confidence and motivation to achieve more. Reflect on the journey and outcomes, and revisit the drawing-board and revise the plan if needed. Accept praise with grace. Do not downplay your success. Reply with “thank you, I worked hard to get here.”
  • Integrity: Live with congruence between what you know, what you profess, and what you do. Be responsible and accountable. Honour your commitments. Aspire to inspire others to dream more, learn more, and do more.

 

Warning

Self-esteem is not a free gift of nature or an effortless journey. We need to consciously be aware of it and take personal responsibility to cultivate it. “It cannot be acquired by blowing oneself a kiss in the mirror and saying, “Good morning, Perfect.”, nor by hundreds of achievements and accolades, and unending shower of praise.

Since self-esteem is all about how you value yourself, this can be reflected in how well you look after your own emotional, physical and social well-being. If self-esteem is not demonstrated in your thoughts, words and actions, then it simply isn’t there.