So what is self-esteem? Psychologist Nathaniel Branden defined self-esteem as the experience of feeling adequate. Notice that he said the “experience”. That implies two essential things about self-esteem. First, it is subjective. It has to do with my own internal evaluation of being worthy. Second, since it is experiential, it can change over time.
To define self-esteem more clearly. Self-esteem is separated into two components. Self-efficacy is the confidence in your own mind’s functioning, in one’s ability to think, understand, learn, choose, and make decisions. In other words, the belief in your capacity to understand life and face challenges. It is the evaluation of one’s ability to effectively deal with the different circumstances at hand. Self-respect is the assurance of one’s inherent value as a person. It involves the right to live and be happy, being comfortable asserting own thoughts, wants, and needs, and the feeling that joy and fulfillment is a natural birthright. In summary, to trust one’s mind and to know that one is worthy of happiness is the essence of self-esteem.
There is a considerable power of this evaluation about oneself since it is more than a judgment or a feeling (remember it is an experience). It is a motivator, and it influences the way one acts with others and the environment. There is a reciprocal flow in both directions. Our self-esteem affects our behaviours, and our behaviours affect our self-esteem.
So how it all starts. Self-esteem starts to develop slowly over time with our interactions with caregivers. The principal component of self-esteem is the sense of personal worth or being worthy of respect (self-respect). It usually stems from being loved or valued by others, most often by parents/caregivers in the home. During the initial years of our life, our most important attachment is to our parents/caregivers. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, we need from them these 4 “Ss”: Being Seen, It means being perceived deeply and empathically; that is, being noticed and understood; Being Safe, being in an environment free from behaviours that frighten us or hurt us; Being Soothed, receiving appropriate care and help to deal with difficult emotions; and Feeling Secure, getting help to develop an internalized sense of wellbeing, feeling accepted as one is.
Self-esteem increases from adolescence to middle age. However, it starts to decline again on seniors over 60, likely due to physical health or financial concerns.
The second component of self-esteem is a sense of competence or efficacy. It originates from the extent to which one sees oneself as capable of causing changes in the environment. That is, to know that one’s actions affect things or others, being able to create or change events. Self-efficacy starts to develop as we explore our surroundings and try to examine them. As we do, we receive feedback from others.
Why is all this important? Because the level of our self-esteem has enormous consequences on every aspect of our life. For example, healthy self-esteem correlates with several positive traits such as rationality, realism, intuitiveness, creativity, independence, flexibility, and willingness to admit mistakes. On the other hand, low self-esteem correlates with blindness to reality, rigidity, fear of new things, submission, defensiveness, controlling behaviour, and hostility toward others. In other words, health attracts health.
The higher our self-esteem, the more powerful our desire to express ourselves, reflecting our sense of richness within and the value we see in ourselves. The lower our self-esteem, the higher our need to seek approval, even to the point of denying ourselves to comply with others.
Moreover, an essential principle of human relationships is that we tend to feel most comfortable with persons whose self-esteem level is similar to our own. This is because we feel at ease with what is familiar to us. Thus, our self-esteem affects interactions with people and influence with who we get closer. This might explain why some individuals with low self-esteem end up in unhealthy relationships. If both partners are insecure about themselves, the relationship will be chaotic and conflicting.
On the other hand, the healthier our self-esteem, the more likely we are to treat others with respect, kindness, goodwill, and fairness. This is because we tend not to perceive them as a threat. Also, as mentioned earlier, self-respect is one of the components of self-esteem, and it is the foundation of respect for others.
Individuals with higher self-esteem are typically more open, honest, and communicate more assertively. This is likely to be because we believe our thoughts have value. Therefore, we embrace rather than fear opportunities to share our thoughts. Individuals with lower self-esteem typically use evasive and misleading ways to communicate. This might be because they are anxious or fearful about the listener’s response and judgement.
In general, our self-esteem creates a set of implicit expectations about what is achievable and appropriate to us. These expectations tend to move us to actions that turn these expectations into realities. Then, these realities confirm and strengthen the original beliefs. This cycle of thought and behaviour makes our self-esteem (high or low) a generator of self-fulfilling prophecies.
How can we improve our self-esteem? Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden describes the following six pillars as the ways to work at enhancing our self-esteem.
TIP #1 Living consciously
Living mindfully is to cultivate the ability of being fully present, noticing where we are and what we are doing, not being overwhelmed by what’s going on around or absent minded. The only time where we can act is the present; however, our mind tends to take us either to the past (I should have or shouldn’t have done this or that) or worry about the future (what if…). In the past, we found regret and sorrow, and it could lead to depression, and living in the future could lead to anxiety. To embrace the present, we can use our 5 senses to connect with the reality of what we are experiencing.
TIP#2 Practice Self-acceptance
Whereas self-esteem is something we experience, self-acceptance is something that we do. Most of us have internalized a critical voice in our mind that keeps a tally of everything we are not doing correctly. Being accepting of oneself starts by acknowledging that critical voice and be curious about its origin, its wants for us. Also, it means to start treating myself as I treat others that I care about. Self-acceptance includes the idea of compassion, of becoming a good friend to myself. Self-acceptance involves a willingness to experience what we think, what we feel, what we desire, what we have done, and who we are. It is our desire to experience and live rather than to reject who we are.
To feel competent to live and be worthy of happiness, one needs to experience a sense of control over life. This sense of control requires that one is willing to take responsibility for the actions done (good and not so good) and believe in having the ability to fulfill one’s goals and desires. This means to take responsibility for one’s life and wellbeing. Although not easy, taking responsibility can be very empowering as it places one’s life back in your own hands. Thus, the feeling of being able to assert changes in one’s environment increases.
Self-assertiveness means acknowledging my wants, needs, and values and seeking appropriate forms of expressing them. Self-assertiveness involves understanding one’s personal boundaries and the ability to set them without hostility towards others. Assertiveness is the delicate balance between not being aggressive nor submissive. Maintaining healthy communication with self and others is the outcome of self-assertiveness.
TIP#5 Live purposefully
To live purposefully is to live a value-driven life. It entails using our abilities and skills for attaining the goals we have selected in our lives. It is our goals that carry us forward. They are our call to action. They allow us to exercise our capacities and stimulate our lives in a creative process. And we do this through our values. Thus, it is crucial to do a value check regularly because our values change over time. Once we clarify them, we need to learn to rely on our values to guide our decisions.
TIP#6 Personal integrity
Integrity is the unification of our ideals, beliefs and behaviours. When our behaviour is congruent with our values, we have integrity when ideals and actions match. When we practice personal integrity, we integrate and practice all of the other pillars of self-esteem: living consciously, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, and living purposefully.
As you can see, self-esteem is a practice. It is not something static. There are many reasons why self-esteem is essential in our lives. Most importantly, it has an essential role in helping us to achieve happiness and in mantaining our drive to reach our personal goals.
Give a few of the tips introduced above a try and learn what works for you to improve your self-esteem. What of the tips you found would be more integral for your wellbeing?