What is Self-Esteem?
In psychology, the term self-esteem is used to describe the emotional and cognitive evaluation of our own worth. The word “esteem” is derived from the Latin aestimare, meaning to “appraise, value, rate, weigh, and estimate”. How we value ourselves reflects the way we think, feel and act. Self-esteem is also an attractive psychological construct since it can help predict certain outcomes, i.e. happiness, academic achievement, criminal behavior, and satisfaction in marriage or relationships.
Interestingly enough, self-esteem doesn’t have much connection with actual talent or ability. Someone who is talented in a particular topic may still have poor self-esteem, while someone who is struggling terribly can have good self-esteem. Self-esteem seems to work as a state of mind. How is this possible?
Self-esteem synonyms: self-worth, self-respect, self-value.
Development of Self-Esteem
The development of self-esteem across a lifespan greatly depends on the experiences in a person’s life. In early childhood, our parents/guardians are considered the main source of positive or negative experiences and as such make the biggest impact. Their unconditional and stable love should give the child a sense of security and respect that later will affect self-esteem as the child grows older.
Childhood experiences that contribute to healthy self-esteem are: being spoken to respectfully and listened to, being given deserved affection and attention, having achievements as well as failures adequately acknowledged. Experiences that reinforce negative self-esteem include: constant criticism, rejection, pestering, very high expectations, and/or being emotionally, physically or sexually abused.
The creation of our self-esteem continues to form into adulthood through our successes or failures and how the messages we receive from our environment affect us (the influence of family, teachers, coaches, friends, peers, work colleagues, partner, etc.). We form an “inner voice” which repeats these messages later in life, either in an accepting and reassuring form or in a heavy, blaming or punishing form.
Also, successful relationships among friends or romantic partners help in forming high self-esteem (social acceptance) whereas rejection and loneliness are responsible for self-doubt and contribute to low self-esteem. Other factors that are continuously studied as various aspects of lower self-esteem are: bullying or peer pressure, physical appearance or weight, socioeconomic status and mental health issues. Personality-wise, adults who tend to be more emotionally stable, conscientious and extroverted seem to experience higher self-esteem.
- Body image. The Western world has shaped next to impossible beauty ideals and body trends, such as “size zero models”, having the “thigh gap”, the “bikini bridge” or hashtagging #proana, as in being pro anorexic. In the male beauty industry, the modern man should aspire towards a six pack and below-neck hair removal (“manscaping”); tanning treatments, manicures, and even male make-up is slowly progressing into the male grooming trend.
- Last year in the U.S. the phrase “Am I Pretty or Ugly?” was Googled around 10,000 times per month. In the same year there were more than 572,000 You Tube videos of mainly girls asking people to answer their question “Am I pretty or not?”
- Social comparison. Before, we used to compare ourselves to the people with whom we had the most contact in real life. Now we compare ourselves to the perfect picture (often exaggerated) that is represented to us of other people’s lives via social media. Facebook and Instagram seem to be the most chosen platforms, however LinkedIn, Twitter and Snapchat are also very present. We see exactly what others want us to see.
Consequences of Low Self-Esteem vs. Healthy Self-Esteem
Low self-esteem can have adverse consequences. It can:
- Lead to increased likelihood of depression, anxiety, obesity, oversensitivity, stress, or loneliness.
- Cause problems with romantic relationships, friendships, academic skills or job performance.
- Create constant comparison with others, perfectionist thinking, high self-blame, inability to try new things, fear of failure, inability to accept compliments.
- In some cases low self-esteem can lead to increased vulnerability to alcohol and drug abuse.
These negative effects work in a vicious circle, negative thoughts and negative expectations reinforce poor self-esteem and the chance of failure, thus leading to self-blame and more low self-esteem.
People with high self-esteem can be recognized through some of the following descriptions:
- Trust their own judgement, values and capacity to solve problems, do not feel guilty if others do not approve. Are ready to defend their principles but also feel confident enough to modify them or ask for help if needed.
- Do not excessively worry about the past or the future but rather live in the present.
- Accept individual differences while at the same time consider themselves equal in dignity to others (not superior nor inferior).
- Understand that they are valuable and interesting, especially to those with whom they have friendships and relationships.
- Are able to enjoy different activities, show less fear of failure.
Measurement of Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is often assessed using self-report inventories and clinical psychological evaluation.
In the mid-1960s, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale was developed and became one of the most widely-used instruments to measure self-esteem in the social sciences. It is still considered the gold standard. The scale measures our overall positive self-attitude: it questions if we are satisfied with ourselves, if we feel that we have good enough qualities and skills, and if we have much to be proud of. Other valid tools are The Coopersmith Inventory and the more recent Sorensen Self-Esteem Test.
How to Overcome Low Self-Esteem?
There are many approaches on how to improve self-esteem. Multiple and comprehensive meta-analysis studies agree on the following suggestions:
The first step in improving self-esteem would be to challenge all the negative messages of the inner voice (earlier mentioned). Stop and question your inner critic and negative thinking patterns. Test if the messages are overly illogical, catastrophic, unrealistic, or too judgmental and halt these thoughts. Here’s an example: “He is not saying anything, he is ignoring me” and be objective “He is quiet but I don’t know why, maybe I should ask”. Do not immediately believe every thought you have; your thoughts are not all facts or rules. People spend years ruminating and believing dysfunctional thoughts, thus feeling and behaving in a certain way. Try to begin to tell yourself a different, more positive story (with factual and meaningful self-messages). Take responsibility for reconditioning your thoughts. This is where the recovery of our self-esteem starts.
The second step includes practicing self-compassion. Even if it is the last thing you think you deserve, try to nurture yourself. Feed your soul, mind and body in ways that make you feel special. These ways don’t have to be grand, they can be simple comforts such as enjoying a morning cup of coffee, listening to your favorite song, taking time to relax, or even celebrating what you already have and not always focusing on the past or future (i.e. keeping a gratitude journal). A step further would be to discover and pursue some of your passions. Have a think about the activities you truly enjoy and spark your creative spirit. Set a few manageable goals and keep precise track of your progress. This boosts motivation and helps self-esteem.
While practicing self-compassion, stay mindful of your emotions. People with low self-esteem often experience emotional extremes, either suppressing their emotions or getting completely swept up by them. Take control of your emotions and try to experience an emotion in a balanced way, instead of being overwhelmed by it. Learn how to manage stress, fear, guilt, anxiety, anger and worry in a more effective and productive way. Developing stronger emotional coping skills will help you manage the negative thoughts.
The third step is to reach out. People with poor self-esteem often do not ask for help, because they are ashamed or feel that they do not deserve it. Ask for support from people you trust. You will get a chance to share, hear other perspectives, be reminded of what is great about you, and set yourself on a path of getting the help you need. There are also many groups and support networks both online and offline. However, if low self-esteem is extreme and still hard to overcome, it is advisable to talk to a therapist or counselor and seek professional help.
It is never too late to feel good about yourself. We need to be able to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses while at the same time be accepting of who we are.
1. Hewitt, John P. (2009). Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press. pp. 217–224. ISBN 978-0-19-518724-3.
2. CMHC Self Esteem. (2017). Retrieved July 3, 2017, from: https://cmhc.utexas.edu/selfesteem.html.
3. Baumeister, R. F.; Campbell, J. D.; Krueger, J. I.; Vohs, K. D. (2003). “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?”. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 4 (1): 1–44. ISSN 1529-006. PMID 26151640. doi:10.1111/1529-1006.01431.
4. Leggett, T. (n.d.). There’s A YouTube Trend Among Teenage Girls Called “Pretty Or Ugly,” And It’s Hugely Troubling. Retrieved July 06, 2017, from https://www.buzzfeed.com/tabathaleggett/theres-a-youtube-trend-called-pretty-or-ugly?utm_term=.nxkEQP8Qp#.xcLR5AP5J