Self-esteem is a combination of the thoughts and feelings a person has about themselves. What they think about their personality and abilities, and whether those thoughts are positive or negative.
Self-esteem is usually described as high or low, but there is a lot of room in between those two ends.
A person that likes their personality and thinks they are good at different things, has high self-esteem. In contrast, a person that thinks they have a lot of flaws and can’t do things well, has a low self-esteem.
Self-esteem is an important concept because it has a lot to do with mental health and how much someone pursues their goals.
Definition of Self-Esteem in Psychology
The concept of self-esteem has been studied for decades in psychology.
Rosenberg (1958) is one of the earliest and most prolific researchers in self-esteem, which he defined early on:
“Self-esteem…is a positive or negative attitude toward a particular object, namely, the self” (p. 30).
In this definition, self-esteem is an opinion about one’s self-worth. People with a high self-esteem believe they have high self-worth. Whereas people with low self-esteem are more cynical regarding their value.
Self-esteem should not be confused with self-concept, which refers to a person’s thoughts about who they are. It refers to how a person defines themselves in terms of their personality, attitudes, habits and skills.
Self-concept is multi-faceted and comprised of many dimensions. Self-esteem however, is more of a global assessment regarding one’s self-worth.
High Self-Esteem Examples
- Positive self-image: A person’s self-image is either favorable or unfavorable; they either like who they are, or not. People with a high self-esteem like themselves and the characteristics they possess. People with low-self-esteem however, have a tendency to not like themselves and who the type of person they are.
- Assertiveness: Assertiveness is important to self-esteem because in some circumstances it means standing up for yourself. A person with high self-esteem will not accept being treated poorly. However, a person with low self-esteem might actually think that they deserved the mistreatment and will accept it without objection.
- Accepting compliments: When a person believes they have value in the world, they are more likely to accept a compliment from others. They believe they deserve it. But when a person has low self-esteem, they are less likely to believe they deserve the positive remarks and are far less willing to accept them.
- Handling criticism: No one enjoys being criticized. But a person with high self-esteem with not have their confidence shaken when being told they are not good at something or did something wrong. For a person with low self-esteem, those negative comments can be devastating. Their self-esteem is fragile and easily shaken.
- Setting boundaries: Setting boundaries means letting other people know what kind of behavior you find acceptable, and not acceptable. It’s important to be clear about this, but people with low self-esteem will have trouble letting others know when they have crossed the line. High self-esteem individuals will be more direct and firm when dealing with others in this regard.
- Self-compassion: Being able to forgive oneself is important because everyone makes mistakes. Someone with a high self-esteem will be more forgiving of themselves when they are wrong so that they can move forward. Unfortunately, someone with low self-esteem may dwell on their mistakes for a long time and have trouble accepting their flaws.
- Resilience: The ability to bounce back after a failure is key to success and a valuable trait to possess. After experiencing a setback, high self-esteem individuals are more likely to try again, and try harder, than low self-esteem individuals.
- Self-confidence: Feeling like one can do just about anything in life is a common attitude among people with high self-esteem. They believe there is nothing they can’t accomplish if they set their mind to it. People with low self-esteem lack confidence and feel that failure is much more likely than success.
- Taking responsibility: Accepting responsibility for a mistake is a sign of confidence and high self-esteem. It means admitting fault and dealing with the consequences. Some people with low self-esteem may have trouble taking responsibility for a mistake because it has such a damaging impact on their self-image, which is already very fragile.
- Low reactivity: High self-esteem individuals are more stable than low self-esteem individuals. Their reactions are more subdued because their sense of self is more grounded. A low self-esteem person will have stronger reactions to events, both positive and negative.
- Healthy coping strategies: When confronted with failures or stressful situations, high self-esteem individuals will respond with healthy coping strategies such as finding ways to solve the problem or exercising. Low self-esteem individuals may respond with unhealthy coping strategies such as overeating or drinking.
- Positive inner voice: People with a high self-esteem have an inner-voice that is motivating and positive. It tells them that new experiences will be enjoyable and uplifting. It tells them that new experiences will be enjoyable and uplifting. However, people with a low self-esteem have an inner-voice that is negative and full of self-doubt. There is a narration of cynicism and fear that makes the person less confident and unwilling to try new things.
Low Self-Esteem Examples
- Negative self-image: People with low self-esteem tend to have an unfavorable self-image. In other words, they may dislike themselves and their characteristics. Conversely, people with high self-esteem appreciate their attributes and feel comfortable with who they are.
- Passivity: Being passive is often associated with low self-esteem, as individuals may have difficulty standing up for themselves or asserting their needs. A person with low self-esteem might accept being treated poorly, feeling as though they deserve the mistreatment or lack the self-worth to object. In contrast, those with high self-esteem will not tolerate such treatment.
- Rejecting compliments: People with low self-esteem will often struggle to accept compliments from others. They may blush or freeze up when compliments are given. Often, they don’t believe they deserve praise. By contrast, people who have high self-esteem may be more likely to believe and accept the compliments of others because they understand that they are worthy of recognition.
- Sensitivity to criticism: You may be able to identify a person with low self-esteem because of how they respond to criticism. They may become highly defensive and refuse to admit to their own weaknesses.
- Difficulty setting boundaries: People with low self-esteem may have trouble asserting their boundaries and communicating what kind of behavior they find acceptable. They might be reluctant to confront others about crossing the line, unlike those with high self-esteem, who can be more direct and firm in setting boundaries.
- Self-criticism: People with low self-esteem may be overly critical of themselves. Instead of looking at themselves with through positive and negative lenses, they may dwell on their own mistakes. They may also have difficulty accepting their flaws, leading to unhealthy levels of perfectionism.
- Lack of resilience: Low self-esteem may also cause people to struggle bouncing back from the inevitable setbacks and failures in life. They may become becoming disheartened or discouraged easily.
- Self-doubt: If you have low self-esteem, you may believe that failure is more likely than success, especially when you’re involved! This ends up being related to another psychological concept called the fixed mindset, where people don’t believe they can achieve personal growth no matter how hard they try.
- Avoiding responsibility: People with low self-esteem might avoid taking responsibility because they believe they will fail at the responsibilities assigned to them. Mistakes when in a position of responsibility may shatter their fragile self-image.
- Overreactivity: Low self-esteem may cause someone to over-react to a situation. They may have intense emotional reactions to events that may be both positive and negative. This may be a reflection of their unstable sense of self.
- Negative inner voice: Low self-esteem can also manifest as a persistently negative inner voice, self-doubt, fear, and pessimism. This voice often occurs when we fall into the psychological behavior of mental filtering. A negative internal narrative self-sustains the negative sense of self and holds people back from trying new experiences and taking risks.
Maslow’s Approach to Self-Esteem
Abraham Maslow (1948) developed a highly influential theory about motivation called the Hierarchy of Needs. The theory states that people are motivated by different needs.
At each stage in the hierarchy, the individual struggles to satisfy needs at that level.
However, just because needs at one level are met, doesn’t mean they stop influencing our actions. People can be motivated to satisfy multiple needs simultaneously (Kaufman, 2019).
- Physiological Needs: The most fundamental needs are related to the acquisition of things we need for survival such as food, water, and shelter from the forces of nature.
- Safety needs: Safety needs have to do with knowing that you have healthy body and are living in a place free from danger.
- Belonging and love: Feeling loved and having positive relationships with friends and family are next in the hierarchy. This helps a person feel grounded and secure.
- Esteem needs: Further up the hierarchy are esteem needs. In Maslow’s theory, “esteem” refers to feeling respected by others for one’s accomplishments by being good at something. Achieving status and recognition in society is the primary factor for satisfying esteem needs. In this sense, Maslow’s concept of esteem is other-directed, whereas Rosenberg’s concept is more self-directed. According to Maslow, esteem comes from the approval of others, but for Rosenberg, it comes from the approval of oneself.
- Self-actualization: At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization. This refers to being able to achieve your fullest potential. Each person has something unique about them. In some cases, a person can strive to find what they are truly capable of in the world and actually do it.
The Three States of Self-Esteem by Martin Ross
Martin Ross (2013) offers a different way of looking at self-esteem. He proposes that there are three states: shattered, vulnerable, and strong.
- Shattered: When a person is experiencing the state of feeling shattered, they feel overwhelmed with failure and sadness. They do not think of themselves as a lovable person. A person in this state will often label themselves according to what they believe is their most failed characteristic. Ross called this the “anti-feat.” For example, if person thinks that their worst trait is their age, then they will describe themselves accordingly: “I am old.”
- Vulnerable: In this state, the person has a positive self-image, but it is fragile. They are overly concerned with failure, or in Ross’s terms, anti-feat. So, their self-esteem is always vulnerable. Although they may appear confident on the outside, on the inside they feel the opposite. They are in constant fear of their anti-feats and can become easily defensive to protect themselves.
- Strong: People in this state of self-esteem are fully confident and do not fear anti-feats. They do not fear failure, but when it does occur, it does not shake their identity.
Since they have strong self-esteem, they do not feel the need to boast or express their confidence. Instead, they come across as humble and cheerful.
Contingent vs Non-Contingent Self-Esteem
Another perspective on self-esteem talks about where it comes from: contingent or non-contingent.
- Contingent self-esteem comes from external sources, such as the opinions of others, relationships that define the person, or successes and failures (Kernis & Goldman, 2006). When self-esteem is contingent-based, it is unstable. It can easily be damaged by events external to the self. This drives a person to constantly seek approval from others, which is unlikely to happen and creates a lot of anxiety.
- Non-contingent self-esteem is stable and far less susceptible to external feedback. The individual has an underlying belief that they are a person of worth and value. Even though they recognize that they have shortcomings, these are accepted. This belief makes a person feel calm and grounded. They do not need to constantly seek validation from others or through accomplishments.
Self-esteem can be conceptualized in so many different ways. Rosenberg views self-esteem as a person’s sense of self-worth; an attitude about the self.
Maslow sees self-esteem as primarily coming from being respected by others for one’s accomplishments. It is derived primarily from social status.
Ross considers self-esteem as a state of mind. Some are in a state of feeling shattered. They have a very poor self-image and define themselves negatively. For those that feel vulnerable, they live in constant fear of failure. While people that have a strong self-esteem are stable, confident and humble.
Contingent self-esteem means that a person ties their worth to external sources such as the approval of others and accomplishments. Non-contingent self-esteem is an acceptance of oneself as one is, not as defined by the external world.
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