Self-Esteem: Definition, Signs, and Tips for Building Self-Esteem
By Arasteh Gatchpazian, M.A., Ph.D. Candidate
Do you suffer from low self-esteem? If so, read this article to learn more about self-esteem and how you can achieve higher self-esteem in your life.
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From a young age, I was always the ‘quiet one’. In school, there was nothing that scared me more than giving presentations. The idea of standing up in front of all my peers and having all their eyes on me was enough to make me cry. I was told to just ‘be confident’, ‘believe in yourself’, or ‘don’t worry about what other people think’. Easier said than done, right?
Self-esteem represents the foundation that supports the relationship you have with yourself. It carries over into every aspect of life. If you’re reading this, you probably value this relationship and may want to build your self-esteem. By the end of this article, you should have a better understanding of self-esteem and ways to improve it.
What Is Self-Esteem? (A Definition)
Let’s start with a simple definition. Most psychological theories agree that self-esteem refers to your evaluation of yourself (Mruk, 1995). Self-esteem can also be thought of as how much you like, approve of, or value yourself.
In general, most people want to see themselves in a positive light and are usually motivated to achieve (or maintain) high levels of self-esteem.
Self-esteem can be applied to you globally (e.g., “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself”; Rosenberg et al., 1995) or to specific domains of your life (e.g., “I am good at my job and I’m proud of that”).
Some psychologists consider self-esteem as an enduring personality trait (i.e., trait self-esteem). Research shows that although self-esteem is relatively stable over one’s life, it is by no means fixed or unchangeable (Orth & Robins, 2014).
Like many psychological concepts, there can also be short-term fluctuations in your self-esteem (i.e., state self-esteem), where you have lower or higher self-esteem (compared to your baseline) for a period of time.
Self Esteem vs. Self Concept
There are many psychological terms that describe some aspect of the self, with self-esteem being one of them. You may have heard of the term “self-concept” before. Self-esteem may be a part of self-concept, but they are distinct terms.
Self-concept is the answer to the question, “Who am I?”. It is the perception you have of yourself and includes knowledge about your hobbies, skills, habits, weaknesses, and preferences. Carl Rogers, one of the leaders of humanistic psychology, suggested that self-esteem is one of the main components of self-concept (McLeod, 2008).
What Is Low Self-Esteem?
Having low self-esteem corresponds to negative evaluations of yourself. Put differently, if you have low self-esteem, you generally don’t hold yourself in a positive light.
You tend to be more critical of yourself and the people in your life. You might get stuck in loops of negative self-talk, telling yourself things like, “I’m worthless”, “I could never succeed at this”, or “I’m not smart enough”. This can bring up feelings of anxiety, sadness, or hopelessness.
Self-esteem develops over your lifespan. It is thought that the beliefs you hold about yourself play a role in developing low self-esteem. The stronger the beliefs, the harder it may be to break the negative thought patterns that are associated with low self-esteem.
See below for a few examples of these beliefs.
Signs of Low Self-Esteem
How can you tell if you or your loved ones have low self-esteem? Here are a few signs.
In one study, school counselors were asked to list five characteristics that best describe students with low self-esteem (Guindon, 2002). These were the most commonly listed words:
These are just some reasons why improving self-esteem is so important.
What Causes Low Self-Esteem?
Although there are a variety of factors that play a role in self-esteem across the lifespan, here are a few factors that may make it more likely for someone to develop low self-esteem:
What Maintains Low Self-Esteem?
It seems like low self-esteem is a cycle that perpetuates itself. What exactly keeps this cycle going? A psychologist by the name of Melanie Fennell came out with a model of low self-esteem that states that people with low self-esteem form negative beliefs about themselves. She calls this the “bottom line” (Fennell, 1997).
Your bottom line is a negative way in which you would describe yourself (e.g., ‘I’m worthless’). You may not always be conscious of it, but you can become aware of it in certain situations. When this happens, Fennell suggests that you’re more likely to use these safety strategies:
Although these strategies may help you feel better and ‘safe’, it only maintains the cycle: fearful situation → bottom line is made salient → reinforcing bottom line with strategies → no change in your self-esteem.
Video: A User's Guide to Building Self-Esteem
What Is High Self-Esteem?
Society constantly tells you that high self-esteem is necessary for productivity and happiness. If you hold yourself in a positive light, you are less likely to be depressed (Tennen & Affleck, 1993) and neurotic (Robins, Hendin, & Trzesniewski, 2001), and more likely to persist at difficult tasks (Shraugher & Rosenberg, 1970).
Nevertheless, high self-esteem, just like low self-esteem, can be harmful. An optimal level of self-esteem may lie somewhere in-between low and high.
There are two types of high self-esteem individuals: secure and defensive.
On the one hand, secure individuals with high self-esteem and don’t need reassurance from others.
On the other hand, defensive individuals with high self-esteem have a fragile self-view and are still vulnerable to criticism, to which they may react defensively. These defensive individuals are “compulsively confident, boastful, aggressive, defensive self-esteem” (Harder, 1984, p. 33).
Signs of High Self-Esteem
In general, secure self-esteem is most often portrayed as desirable because it has been linked with positive outcomes, as mentioned earlier. Here are a few signs of high self-esteem:
How to Build Self-Esteem
Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale
Morris Rosenberg and other researchers (Rosenberg et al., 1995) developed a scale to assess overall self-esteem, which they define as an individual’s positive and negative attitude toward the self as a whole.
The developed scale measures self-esteem by asking people to report how much they agree or disagree with each item. The self-report scale includes items like:
Six Pillars of Self-Esteem
Dr. Nathaniel Branden, a psychologist known as the ‘father’ of the Self-Esteem movement, described self-esteem as being made up of two main components (Branden, 1995):
He wrote a book named “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” (Branden, 1995). In this book, he describes six pillars that can impact someone’s self-esteem, briefly described below.
1. The Practice of Living Consciously
2. The Practice of Self-Acceptance
3. The Practice of Self-Responsibility
4. The Practice of Self-Assertiveness
5. The Practice of Living Purposefully
6. The Practice of Personal Integrity
Never underestimate the power of journaling. It can promote positive self-reflection, which can help improve your self-esteem. Below you will find different categories of journal prompts that can help promote self-esteem:
Challenging Negative Self-Talk
There are many resources and worksheets available to help build self-esteem. Here are a few that may be helpful for you:
Articles for Learning More About Self-Esteem
Still want to learn more about growing your self-esteem. Here are some more related articles to read.
Books for Boosting Self-Esteem
Here are a few books that may help you develop your self-esteem.
If you have low self-esteem, I know it may be hard to believe that journal prompts or worksheets will help. I’ve been there. I used to constantly criticize myself, have self-doubts, and care too much about what other people thought.
Although I may still have days like that, they are much less frequent than before. It is possible to improve. You can get there, one day at a time.
Video: Freedom From Self-Doubt