Self-Esteem is our subjective evaluation of worth, comprised of either thoughts about ourselves (“I am worthy” or “I perform well”) or emotional states, such as pride, shame, or confidence.
Nathanial Branden defines self esteem as a fundamental human need. He defines it that when “fully realized, is the experience that we are appropriate to life and to the requirements of life” (2012). Abraham Maslow considers self-esteem as the fourth level on his hierarchy of needs pyramid. He wrote that fourth level is the, “desire for self-esteem, self-respect, self-confidence, for the feeling of strength or adequacy” (2013).
Branden specifically defines self-esteem as:
- Confidence in our ability to think, confidence in our ability to cope with the basic challenges of life; and
- Confidence in our right to be successful and happy, the feeling of being worthy, deserving, entitled to assert our needs and wants, achieve our values, and enjoy the fruits of our efforts (2012).
Possessing high self-esteem is a precious psychological resource, correlating with achievement, good relationships, and satisfaction. Possessing low self-regard often correlates with depression, failure to achieve goals, and willingness to remain in abusive relationships and harmful environments.
We often use the word self-esteem interchangeably with self-worth, self-regard, and self-respect.
Self Esteem Refers to Sense of Self Over Time
Psychologists regard self-esteem as an enduring personality trait. However, short variations in levels of self-esteem are common. Mostly we have a consistent sense, only with slight variations. Brené Brown explains that “our self-esteem is based on how we see ourselves—our strengths and limitations—over time. It is how and what we think of ourselves” (2007).
We can measure the strength of our self-esteem by a variety of factors:
- Sense of security
- Personal narratives
- Beliefs of personal autonomy
- Sense of belonging and acceptance
Happiness and Self-Esteem
Branden suggests that “to trust one’s mind and to know that one is worthy of happiness is the essence of self-esteem” (2012). A positive sense of self sees the self as worthy of happiness, not just momentary pleasures but experiencing the inner joys of being alive. Plato refers to this as eudaimonia. Accordingly, we have the right to be happy and we can hold this at the center of our being. Sadly, many forfeit this right. Accordingly, many engage in constant self berating, beating down a positive sense of self.
Basically, our sense of self is an essential element for health and wellbeing.
Self-Esteem as a Measure
Martin E. P. Seligman, a renowned psychologist and clinical researcher, has been studying optimists and pessimists for 25 years, warns of the dangers of building self confidence on false pretenses. He argues that self-esteem is a measure of how we are doing in the world.
Seligman wrote in his influential book Learned Optimism that “self-esteem is just a meter that reads out the state of a system. It is not an end in itself. When you are doing well in school or work, when you are doing well with the people you love, when you are doing well in play the meter will register high. When you are doing badly it will register low. Self-esteem seems only to be a symptom, a correlate, of how well a person is doing in the real world.”
Seligman continues, “If unwarranted self-esteem is taught to children, problems will ensue. When these children confront the real world, and it tells them they are not as great as they had been taught, they will lash out with violence. So it is possible that the twin epidemics among young people in the United States today, depression and violence, both come from this misbegotten concern: valuing how our young people feel about themselves more highly than how we value how well they are doing in the world” (2011).
Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence shares some of Seligman’s concerns about this element in the positivity movement. He suggests we fight it through self-awareness explaining, “self-awareness also takes the form of recognizing your strengths and weaknesses, and seeing yourself in a positive but realistic light (and so avoiding a common pitfall of the self-esteem movement)” (2012, Kindle location 5,320).
Protecting a Positive Self Concept
In the same lines as Seligman and Goleman, Caroll Tavris and Elliot Aronson theorize thought protecting self-esteem is an unconscious motivation that leads to self-deception. They explain “because most people have a reasonably positive self-concept, believing themselves to be competent, moral, and smart, their efforts at reducing dissonance will be designed to preserve their positive self-images.”
Often the reality of our life is that we are not as smart, funny, or competent as we believe. The consequences of our lives expose these mismatches, creating cognitive dissonance. So feeding ourselves a bunch of puffed up statements to lift self-esteem, without addressing some of our underlying issues, may create greater dissonance.
Tavris and Aronson continue, “dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling along on high. That is why we are usually oblivious to the self-justifications, the little lies to ourselves that prevent us from even acknowledging that we made mistakes or foolish decisions. But dissonance theory applies to people with low self-esteem, too, to people who consider themselves to be schnooks, crooks, or incompetents. They are not surprised when their behavior confirms their negative self-image” (2020, Kindle location 527).
Our Sense of Self is a By-Product of How We Live
Basically, in happiness and wellbeing terms, self-esteem is important, but should not be the end goal. Ultimately, we should develop a positive sense of self from living and accomplishing, doing the best we can. Self-esteem then becomes a by-product of our constructive action. For many, this is a natural flow from behavior to sense of self. However, our complex mind can interfere with this process.
Through a self organizing process (De Ruiter, et al., 2017). Self esteem emerges as we engage in a variety of activities. Particularly important, are activities expressing self mastery in some domain, healthy relationships, and normal age development.
Just as we can disrupt the normal building of self-esteem from unwarranted entertaining of positive characteristics, we also can harshly judge, battering an appropriate sense of self compared to our achievements. This brings us back to Goleman’s statement that we must recognize our “strengths and weaknesses,” seeing ourself “in a positive but realistic light.” We will never have a perfect assessment of ourselves. How we are doing, depends on which measurements we use to assess.
Our goal, then, is balance. We want self assessments to be honest enough to provide a framework for self-improvement but not so harsh that we cower in helpless depression. Accordingly, healthy self-esteem may build from this balanced interaction with the world. We have confidence in our ability to think and overcome because we have repeatedly faced challenges and succeeded.
Branden, Nathaniel (2012). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.
Brown, Brené (2007). I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough.” Avery; 1st edition.
De Ruiter, N., Van Geert, P., & Kunnen, E. (2017). Explaining the “How” of Self-Esteem Development: The Self-Organizing Self-Esteem Model. Review of General Psychology, 21(1), 49-68. DOI: 0.1037/gpr0000099
Goleman. Daniel (2012). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam; 1st edition.
Maslow, Abraham H. (1943/2013). A Theory of Human Motivation. Start Publishing LLC.
Seligman, Martin E. P. (2011). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage; Reprint edition.
Tavris, Carroll; Aronson, Elliot (2020). Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me) Third Edition: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner Books; Revised, New edition.