By Robert Reasoner – Contact info: [email protected]

Educators, parents, business and government leaders agree that we need to develop individuals with healthy or high self-esteem characterized by tolerance and respect for others, individuals who accept responsibility for their actions, have integrity, take pride in their accomplishments, who are self-motivated, willing to take risks, capable of handling criticism, loving and lovable, seek the challenge and stimulation of worthwhile and demanding goals, and take command and control of their lives. In other words, we need to help foster the development of people who have healthy or authentic self-esteem because they trust their own being to be life affirming, constructive, responsible and trustworthy.

Unfortunately, efforts to convey the significance and critical nature of self-esteem have been hampered by misconceptions and confusion over what is meant by the term “self-esteem.” Some have referred to self-esteem as merely “feeling good” or having positive feelings about oneself. Others have gone so far as to equate self-esteem with egotism, arrogance, conceit, narcissism, a sense of superiority, and a trait leading to violence. Such characteristics cannot be attributed to authentic, healthy self-esteem, because they are actually defensive reactions to the lack of authentic self-esteem, which is sometimes referred to as “pseudo self-esteem.”

Individuals with defensive or low self-esteem typically focus on trying to prove themselves or impress others. They have doubts about their worth and acceptability, are reluctant to take risks or expose themselves to failure. They blame others for their shortcomings, withdraw and feel depressed, lack confidence in themselves, and engage in compensating behaviors such as showing a lack of respect for others, acting in a superior manner, being arrogant, or bullying others, or even through violence if their self-esteem is extremely narcissistic, fragile, or defensive.

One of the difficulties in trying to reach agreement on the nature of self-esteem is due to the fact that it has been approached from several different perspectives. Some have seen it as a psychodynamic, developmental process; others have approached it from the perspective of the cognitive-behaviorist in terms of various coping strategies; others have viewed it from the position of a social psychologist in terms of attitudes, while others have focused on the experiential dimensions of self-esteem as a humanistic psychologist. Since self-esteem has cognitive, psychological and sociological dimensions, this has made it difficult to come up with a comprehensive definition, and rarely have these dimensions been taken into consideration together in conducting research studies.

There is, however, general agreement that the term self-esteem includes cognitive, affective, and behavioral elements. It is cognitive as one consciously thinks about oneself as one considers the discrepancy between ones ideal self, the person one wishes to be, and the perceived self or the realistic appraisal of how one sees oneself. The affective element refers to the feelings or emotions that one has when considering that discrepancy. The behavioral aspects of self-esteem are manifested in such behaviors as assertiveness, resilience, being decisive and respectful of others. Thus, self-esteem is difficult to define because of these multiple dimensions. In addition, although self-esteem is generally stable, it can fluctuate from time to time, a phenomenon which is referred to as global versus situational self-esteem, and which can make measuring or researching self-esteem very difficult.

Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D., a well known psychotherapist, defined self-esteem several years ago as “The disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness.” Christopher Mruk, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Bowling Green University, reports in his book Self-Esteem: Research, Theory, and Practice that of all the theories and definitions proposed, this definition has best withstood the test of time in terms of accuracy and comprehensiveness. Hence, it is recommended that this be used as a reference when referring to self-esteem.

This definition is founded on the premise that self-esteem is strongly connected to a sense of competence and worthiness and the relationship between the two as one lives life. The worthiness component of self-esteem is often misunderstood as simply feeling good about oneself, when it actually is tied to whether or not a person lives up to certain fundamental human values, such as finding meanings that foster human growth and making commitments to them in a way that leads to a sense of integrity and satisfaction. A sense of competence is having the conviction that one is generally capable of producing desired results, having confidence in the efficacy of our mind and our ability to think, as well as to make appropriate choices and decisions. Worthiness might be considered the psychological aspect of self-esteem, while competence might be considered the behavioral or sociological aspect of self-esteem. Self-esteem stems from the experience of living consciously and might be viewed as a person’s overall judgment of himself or herself pertaining to self-competence and self-worth based on reality.

The value of this definition is that it is useful in making the distinction between authentic or healthy self-esteem and pseudo or unhealthy self-esteem. A sense of personal worth without competence is just as limiting as competence without worthiness. A strong sense of worthiness prevents competence from becoming arrogance by keeping the individual focused on basic values, and competence prevents worthiness from becoming narcissism by requiring good feelings to be earned, not given. Thus, behaviors that might be described as egotistic, egocentric, conceited, boasting or bragging, bullying, taking advantage of, or harming others are defensive behaviors indicative of a lack of self-esteem. Such behaviors, therefore, should not be confused with authentic, healthy self-esteem.

Unfortunately, some of the confusion over the term self-esteem has stemmed from programs and strategies used that were not grounded in sound research. Such strategies include heaping children with undeserved praise not based on accomplishment. Most feel that it is critical that any efforts to build self-esteem be grounded in reality. It cannot be attained by merely reciting boosters or affirmations, and one cannot give others authentic self-esteem. To do so is likely to result in an inflated sense of worth. Most feel that a sense of competence is strengthened through realistic and accurate self-appraisal, meaningful accomplishments, overcoming adversities, bouncing back from failures, and adopting such practices such as assuming self-responsibility and maintaining integrity which engender ones sense of competence and self-worth.

Is it possible to have too much self-esteem? We don’t believe that it is possible to have too much true self-esteem, for having high self-esteem is equivalent to having good health. However, it is certainly possible for individuals to have an over-inflated sense of either worth or competence. Our objective is to develop individuals with high self-esteem that is well grounded in reality and balanced between an equal sense of worth and competence.

A close relationship has been documented between low self-esteem and such problems as violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, school dropouts, teenage pregnancy, suicide, and low academic achievement. However, it has been difficult to isolate it as a primary cause using traditional experimental research methods. There are usually too many other contributing factors. It is important that the significance of self-esteem not be lost in the confusion over what it means. What needs to be stressed is that building self-esteem must be a critical component in any program designed to correct such problems.