Self-esteem is a very good image of one’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of own worth. It’s about one’s opinion on oneself and the attitude toward the self.
Self-esteem includes not only beliefs about oneself (“I am good”, “I am valuable”), but also various emotional states: shame, pride, despair or triumph.
What we think about the self, whether it’s positive or negative, and how we feel about it is in fact included in the concept of self-esteem,
Self-esteem is a resourceful concept for social psychology and researchers have established it to be a great predictor for some outcomes. Happiness, satisfaction in marriage and relationships, academic behavior, and criminal behavior as well relate to self-esteem.
You may apply self-esteem on some specific dimension (“I think I’m a good painter and I feel happy about it”) or a global extent (“I think I’m a mean person and I feel bad about myself”).
Psychologist see self-esteem as an enduring personality characteristic (they actually use the term “trait” for self-esteem), with some short-term variations. You may have heard by now some synonyms for self-esteem: self-worth, self-regard, self-integrity and self-respect.
The historical part
It seems that it was William James (1892) that talked about self-esteem as a separate psychological construct. James actually highlighted several dimensions of the self: processes of knowing (known as “I-self”) and the resulting knowledge about the self (the “Me-self”). There are three types of knowledge that count for the Me-self: the social self, the material self and spiritual self.
Back in the mid ‘60s, Rosenberg defined self-esteem as a feeling of self-worth, creating the Rosenberg self-esteem scale (RSES) that was a popular scale to measure self-esteem in the social sciences.
The 20th century gave us behaviorism that saw human being as animal subject to reinforcements. Self-esteem became fundamental in personal self-actualization. Psychologists noticed the relationship between psychotherapy and the personal satisfaction of one, where self-esteem was a valuable tool.
At the moment, the core self-evaluations approach see self-esteem as one of four dimensions that include one’s essential evaluation of oneself, along with neuroticism, place of control, and self-efficiency. Self-esteem is the most important core self-evaluation dimension as it’s about one’s feel about oneself as a person.
How do we measure self-esteem?
In many situations, it’s the self-report inventories that are used to measure self-esteem.
A very popular tool is the Rosenberg self-esteem scale (RSES), which is in fact a 10-item self-esteem scale score that asks the participants to point their level of agreement with several statements about themselves.
The Cooper Smith Inventory is another method that includes 50 questions related to various topics, requesting the subjects to rate someone as similar or dissimilar to themselves. If one’s answers pinpoint a solid self-regard, the scale is going to see them as well adjusted too. When the answers are suggesting some inner shame, the subjects are considered to be inclined to social deviance.
The ‘80s brought us implicit measures on self-esteem. These tools depend on indirect measures of cognitive processing that is connected to implicit self-esteem. An example in this category is the Name Letter Task. The indirect measures are created to minimize awareness of the process of assessment. Psychologist may use self-relevant stimuli to the subjects and only afterward measure how fast one recognizes positive or negative stimuli. Let’s say a woman would get the self-relevant stimuli of female and mother. Psychologist would measure how fast she would identify the positive word (“kind”) or the negative word (“evil”).
How to develop self-esteem
During the first years of life, it’s the parents that take all the credit for one’s self-esteem and they become a source of positive or negative experiences for their child. A child that is loved unconditionally is going to have a steady sense of being cared for and respected. These feeling are going to show later in life in the self-esteem. Students in elementary school with high self-esteem do have strong-minded parents that are also supportive and caring parents, who gave clear standards to their offspring, letting them have their own opinion when making decisions.
What we know so far is that warm and supportive parenting styles may help children have high self-esteem later in life. When a child is listen to, being spoken to respectfully, getting the right attention and affection, when his/hers accomplishments are validated, but also his/her mistakes are accepted, he/she is going to develop a healthy self-esteem.
On contrary, a child that is harshly criticized, ignores, teased, ridiculed, physically, sexually or emotionally abused, living with the pressure to be “perfect’ in everything, is going to have a lower self-esteem later on.
When a child gets in school, his/hers academic achievements are important to the self-esteem development. Constant success and persistent failure as well have a big influence on one’s self-esteem. Let’s not forget about the social experiences. As a child grows, he gets to understand and to notice the differences between themselves and their classmates. Children use social comparisons and they play an important role in developing the self-esteem.
By adolescence, peer influence is even more important. Teenagers form the opinion on themselves based on their relationships with their close friends. Meaningful and successful relationships among friends mean bigger chances for a high self-esteem for children. Social acceptance is a solid base for confidence, whereas rejection from peers brings self-doubts, causing low self-esteem.
Self-esteem grows a lot (or it should, anyway) within adolescence and doesn’t stop increasing until middle age. We may notice a decrease in self-esteem from middle age to old age, due to decrease in socioeconomic status, differences in health and decrease in cognitive abilities.
How do we recognize a healthy self-esteem?
We don’t always have the psychological instruments with us, so it’s easier to observe people around us. Here’s how you may identify people with healthy self-esteem:
- They don’t spend too much time worrying about already happen in the past, not about what’s likely to happen in the future. They do, however, learn from their past and do plan ahead, living the present at fullest
- They have confidence in their ability to find the right solutions to various problems, without hesitating when a difficulty or failure happen. They know when they need help and don’t hesitate in asking for it
- They have a solid set of values and principle and don’t back down into defending these values whenever in need. They’re willing to change the values along the way, as life experiences take them
- They see themselves as equal in dignity to others, and not superior in inferior. They’re realistic about their talents too and accept that people differ in talents, personal prestige or financial status
- They act according to what they think to be the best choice and don’t doubt their own judgement, nor feel guilty when others don’t agree with them
- They can handle manipulation and collaborate with others only if it’s right and convenient to them
- They know their worth and understand their value as persons for others, especially for their friends
- They engage in multiple and various activities
- They accept and validate internal feelings and drives, positive and negative as well, showing their drives to others only when they want to
- They may focus on finding solutions and take in challenges, not avoid them
- They’re sensitive to other’s feelings and needs, respecting social rules and only taking credits for their own performances.
What does low self-esteem look like?
There are many factors that cause a low self-esteem later in life, from the genetic factors, to physical appearance, weight, socioeconomic status, mental health issues to peer pressure and bullying.
One with low self-esteem is going to show some of the characteristics down below:
- Hypersensitivity to criticism with indignation against critics and constant feeling of being attacked
- Increased self-criticism and dissatisfaction
- Excessive will to please everyone and no will into displeasing anyone
- Constant indecision and amazing fear of mistakes
- Perfectionism that may lead to frustration when perfection isn’t accomplishes
- Constant hostility and general defensiveness, along with irritability with no obvious cause
- Neurotic guilt, constantly exaggerating the size of past mistakes
- Pessimism and a general negative view of the world
- Temporary setbacks are always perceived as permanent and intolerable conditions
- Envy and generalized resentment.
The states of self-esteem
It was Martin Ross that talked about three states of self-esteem for the first time. These states were born from the comparison to the feats (honors, virtues and triumphs) and the “anti-feats” (shame, defeats, embarrassment and so on.
In this state, one doesn’t see him/herself as valuable or lovable. They may feel overwhelmed by shame, defeat and see themselves as “anti-feat”. For instance, one that feels that see age as an anti-feat may define him/herself with the name of that anti-feat, in which case “ I am old”. They feel sorry about themselves or insult themselves. Either way, they seem to become paralyzed by their tremendous sadness.
In this case, one may have a general positive self-image. Unfortunately, their self-esteem is vulnerable to perceived risk of near anti-feat (shame, embarrassment, defeat or discredit) and they’re constantly nervous, using defense mechanisms all the time.
A common protection mechanism of people with Vulnerable Self-Esteem is avoiding decision-making.
Such individuals may show great self-confidence, but the reality is totally different: the apparent self-confidence is a sign for their high fear of anti-feats and the fragility of their self-esteem. In some situations, they may also blame others in order to protect their self-image. They’re going to show defense mechanisms, including dissociating themselves from the “need to win” and showing independence from social acceptance. Truth be told, they want that social acceptance but the fear of not being accepted is too deep. They don’t do well in making good decisions too.
People with strong self-esteem are strong enough not to subdue their self-esteem to anti-feats and have a positive self-image. They’re not afraid to fail and appear cheerful and humble to other. They may fight with all of their strengths to get their goals and even when things don’t go as planned, their self-esteem doesn’t suffer.
They may be aware of their own mistakes only because they have a strong self-image and no mistake is going to affect their self-image.
They manage to live life with less fear of losing the social prestige and tend to be happier than the people in the other two categories.
Keep in mind that no self-esteem is immune to change and life experiences may cause self-esteem fall from one state to another.
Real self, ideal self and dreaded self
We may talk nowadays about three levels of self-evaluation development in relation to the real self, ideal self and the dreaded self.
All of these states do develop in children in sequential pattern on cognitive levels.
- The moral Judgement Stages:
People would describe their Real, Ideal and Dreaded Selves with common labels like “nice” or “bad”. One may describe his/hers Ideal and Real Selves in terms of willingness for action or as behavioral habits. The Dreaded Self is described as being unsuccessful or developing some bad habits.
- Ego Development Stages
People note their Ideal and Real Selves in terms of traits that come from attitudes and actions as well. The Dreaded Self is depicted as failing the social expectations or as self-centered
- Self-Understanding Stages
One would depict his/her Ideal and Real Selves as presenting a unified identity or character. Descriptions of the Dreaded Self are going to focus on failing to live up to one’s ideals or role expectations, due to some real problems.
This type of development comes with complicates moral demands. Level 3 is where one’s self-esteem is going to suffer as he/she doesn’t feel like living up to specific expectations. This feeling is going to influence one’s self-esteem with a bigger impact when people think they’re becoming their Dreaded Self.
The six pillars of Self-Esteem
It was Branden in 1995 that noted that self-esteem comes from within us and that there are six practices that count when building it.
He also wrote a lot on the topic and suggested that self-esteem is made up of two important elements:
- Self-efficiency, which is the confidence in your ability to face life’s challenges
- Self-respect which relates to our trust that we do deserve to be happy, to accomplish things and to be loved.
Let’s take a look at the practices that we may have for developing a stronger self-esteem:
- Living consciously
This means we are present in every moment of our life and we’re also aware of what’s going on inside of us and all around us. We acknowledge all information, even if we don’t like it and we are in touch with our emotions.
One living consciously is able to focus on what’s happening right now, without thinking too much to the past and future
This means that you realize you’re responsible of your own choices and actions and no one should fix, change or make it in your place. We shouldn’t blame others for our own decisions and we should only rely on ourselves for being happy
We should accept ourselves no matter what. Keep in mind that we’re compassionate toward others and we should do the same toward ourselves, no matter our feelings or decisions. They shouldn’t change our respect for ourselves.
This pillar refers to the practice of honoring our needs and interests, but also to finding the right ways to express them. We all have needs and we should talk to others about them, but in a healthy way.
- Living meaningful
This is all about our goals. If we’re setting goals and plan for achieving them, we live purposefully. We should all live with goals in mind.
- Personal integrity
We have our beliefs and we act according to them, keeping our actions in line with that standard. This pillar is all about “walking the talk”, sort to say.
Some final tips
If you don’t like yourself, it’s very easy to assume that others don’t like you either. You should help others, but don’t go over yourself to please them as you won’t have the energy for your life and goals anymore.
Learn to say “No” and set some boundaries around how much you actually do for others. Get in charge and take control of your own decisions.
Make all sorts of small changes to become more assertive and keep in mind to set yourself a challenge. Take up a hobby, join a class for something you’re passionate about and set smaller goals for your life.
Accept compliments and write them down so you get to take a look whenever feeling down about yourself. Make a list of things you like about yourself too that may include both aspects of your looks, interests. If you find it hard to do it, ask a friend for some help.
Enjoy the “small wins” and be proud of all of your achievements, if they may be feel small at times. Join a group for meeting people with same interests as you. Connecting may be rewarding even on the level of your self-esteem.
Last, but not least, remember: you don’t have to be perfect as long as you’re enjoying yourself!