What is self-esteem, really?  And how can I increase it?

This term gets thrown around a lot.  Parents worry about raising their children to have too little self esteem, or too much.  Well-meaning people encourage those who have a low opinion of themselves to "think positively," or to repeat positive affirmations each day:  "I am a great person.  I can accomplish anything I want."  Others equate interest in self-esteem with egotism.  What really is self esteem?  Why bother talking about it?  How can you recognize it in others?  How can you genuinely improve your self esteem?

Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves and about life. It involves self-confidence, specifically confidence in our ability to think. When we have sufficient self-esteem we are confident in our ability to learn, to make decisions, and to respond to change. We also believe that experiencing success, achievement, and happiness are right and natural for us.

Ultimately, self-esteem is a function of our ability to understand and cope with reality.

Considering the complexity of this subject I think it's wise to start with the thoughts of an expert on the subject. Dr. Nathaniel Branden is considered by many to be "the father of the Self-Esteem movement," and the book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem is his most popular work.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Six_Pillars_of_Self-Esteem  Therefore most of this post will be built upon his work, and I consider his thoughts on the subject worth quoting:

If it is not grounded in reality, if it is not built over time through the appropriate operation of mind, it is not self-esteem.

When we seek to align ourselves with reality as best we understand it, we nurture and support our self-esteem. When, either out of fear or desire, we seek escape from reality, we undermine our self-esteem. A person cannot experience self-respect who too often, in action, betrays consciousness, knowledge, and conviction – that is, who operates without integrity.

Self-esteem is not a free gift of nature. It has to be cultivated, has to be earned. It cannot be acquired by blowing oneself a kiss in the mirror and saying, “Good morning, Perfect.” It cannot be attained by being showered with praise. Nor by sexual conquests. Nor by material acquisitions. Nor by the scholastic or career achievements of one’s children. Nor by a hypnotist planting the thought that one is wonderful. Nor by allowing young people to believe they are better students than they really are and know more than they really know; faking reality is not a path to mental health or authentic self-assurance. However, just as people dream of attaining effortless wealth, so they dream of attaining effortless self-esteem – and unfortunately the marketplace is full of panderers to this longing.

Nothing is more common than the effort to protect self-esteem not with consciousness but with unconsciousness – with denial and evasion – which only results in a further deterioration of self-esteem. Indeed a good deal of the behavior we call “neurotic” can be best understood as a misguided effort to protect self-esteem by means which in fact are undermining.

One of the great challenges to our practice of living consciously is to pay attention to what in fact nurtures our self-esteem or deteriorates it. The reality may be very different from our beliefs. We may, for example, get a very pleasant “hit” from someone’s compliment, and we may tell ourselves that when we win people’s approval we have self-esteem, but then, if we are adequately conscious, we may notice that the pleasant feeling fades rather quickly and that we seem to be insatiable and never fully satisfied – and this may direct us to wonder if we have thought deeply enough about the sources of genuine self-approval.http://www.nathanielbranden.com/what-self-esteem-is-and-is-not

Wait, haven't I heard this somewhere before?

Notice that self-esteem directly involves the interaction of the mind with external reality.  Now let's make a little comparison that will help us make a big leap in our understanding of self-esteem.  Here it is: Are ego and self-esteem related? I think everyone would say yes.  But how are they related?  It's difficult, even for trained psychologists, to explain the difference. But let's make the connection.

First, we need to understand there are different meanings attached to the word "ego," some of which are contradictory. I have already considered these in depth in articles on this website, but a brief reminder should be enough for now. In one sense, ego refers to "the conscious self which has to balance the influences of the opposing id [drives and desires] and superego [conscience, and social influences], along with external reality." Does this sound familiar?

And it's this definition, not the one that's a synonym of conceited, that helps us understand ego strength. As I put it, "Logically, a person with high ego strength has a strong grip on reality.  In other words, they accept the world as it is.  They also have skills to help them balance their drives and desires with outside influences in a healthy way." I believe the insights of decades of research on ego strength can help us attain and maintain a healthy level of self-esteem.  I challenge you to compare the insights in this article with any popular article on self-esteem and ask yourself which one provides more actionable information.

Notice I used the word "healthy" when describing self-esteem. Branden referred to self-esteem as "the immune system of consciousness," adding, "A healthy immune system doesn’t guarantee you’ll never become ill, but it does reduce your susceptibility to illness and can improve your odds for a speedy recovery if you do get sick." 

He also uses the metaphor of physical health to clarify the difference between true self-esteem and efforts to bolster it artificially by self-praise and affirmations:

Let us say that you are in poor physical shape and also experience yourself as being in poor physical shape – that is, tire easily, have little stamina, often get short of breath, are physically weak, etc. The problem here, obviously, is not that you “rate” yourself as being in poor physical shape, the problem is that you ARE in poor physical shape. Then, let’s say, you join a gym, hire a trainer, and begin to work on improving your condition. You lose weight, become more flexible, grow stronger, develop better stamina, etc. As a consequence, two things happen: you become in better physical shape and you experience yourself as being in better physical shape. Your experience is not the result of mere “rating.” Rather, it reflects a direct perception of reality.

Low self-esteem is to the mind what shortness of breath, physical weakness, and vulnerability to injury are to the body. So let's get those ego weights out and bulk up our self-esteem muscles.Here's something so important it probably shouldn't be stuck in a footnote:  This article is not meant to suggest treatment for low self-esteem due to depression or other mental illness.  Just as no one would recommend lifting weights to someone who has suffered a serious injury, a person with depression should seek appropriate medical treatment.  Neither low self-esteem, depression, or being out of shape physically should be associated with stigma.  Accept yourself the way you are.  The way you feel and the shape your mind and body are in should not be a source of shame.  But do try to find ways to improve your situation.  I hope this article makes this point clear.  First, let's build up our motivation by considering the reasons it's worth the effort.

Why is it important?

Researchers have concluded that self-esteem:

  • Leads to greater happiness"Self-esteem has a strong relation to happiness. Although the research has not clearly established causation, we are persuaded that high self-esteem does lead to greater happiness." 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. doi:10.1111/1529-1006.01431. ISSN 1529-1006. PMID 26151640.
  • Predicts success inOrth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2014). The Development of Self-Esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(5), 381–387. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414547414
    • relationships
    • work
    • health

There is considerable evidence that self-esteem is related to job satisfaction.Judge, T. A., Locke, E. A., Durham, C. C., & Kluger, A. N. (1998). Dispositional effects on job and life satisfaction: The role of core evaluations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(1), 17–34. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.83.1.17

Individuals with high levels of CSE [core self-evaluations - linked with self-esteem] perform better on their jobs, are more successful in their careers, are more satisfied with their jobs and lives, report lower levels of stress and conflict, cope more effectively with setbacks, and better capitalize on advantages and opportunities.Tavousi, M. (2015). Dispositional Effects on Job Stressors and Job Satisfaction: The Role of Core Evaluations. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 190 . doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.04.917

The topic of self-esteem development is of considerable societal significance.Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2014).

In short, there are few things in life that are more worthy of our consideration than this subject.

How to tell if someone has high self-esteem

Here are just a few of many possible ways to identify a person with healthy self-esteem:

  • They are open to criticism
  • They willingly acknowledge their mistakes
  • They are comfortable with giving and receiving compliments
  • They readily show curiosity and discuss their experiences, ideas, and opportunitiesCourtney Ackerman, whom I've quoted in my articles on emotional intelligence, also wrote the main article on self-esteem for PositivePsychology.com. (I "borrowed" this list from her.)  You'll find a wealth of additional useful information on the subject there.  Personally, I think an understanding of the fundamental concepts I discuss here will provide you with a deeper perspective and more actionable insights.

How to increase your self-esteem

Are you ready for some circuit training?  We'll start with a consideration of Branden's "six pillars of self-esteem," tying each one to the idea of ego strength, and we'll also throw in the fundamentals of a well-rounded person for good measure.  Finally, we'll top it off with some concepts that Branden may not have covered closely in his six pillars concept but still are important for high self-esteem.

The first pillar: The Practice of Living Consciously

Branden describes this pillar as:

  • Respect for factsSeparating story from facts.  Stop and think about whether you are jumping to the wrong conclusions
  • Being present to what we are doing while doing itGallwey's "other kind of satisfaction," the satisfaction of being in the now, and enjoying what is happening right now.
  • Seeking and being eagerly open to any information, knowledge, or feedback that bears on our interests, values, goals, and projects
  • Seeking to understand not only the world external to self but also our inner world, so that we do not act out of self-blindnessAn ‘ego barrier’ is a “subliminal defense mechanism that makes it hard for you to accept your mistakes and weaknesses.”
  • Noticing and confronting impulses to avoid or deny painful or threatening realities (see ego defense)
  • Commitment to growth"Adopt a growth attitude safe in the knowledge that though there may be dark times you’ll always come out on the other side. Be afraid of what will happen if you let your comfort zone shrink. There's no such thing as a static comfort zone. Those who embrace challenge grow, while those who fear discomfort tend to be uncomfortable most of the time."

How it relates to ego strength:These items all appear in my comprehensive consideration of the subject of ego strength.

  • Openness to change: seeing the world as it is, not as one wishes it were
  • Resilience: not closing our eyes to fear and pain but opening them wider to take action
  • Emotional well-adjustment: Mastering emotional intelligence involves getting a firm grip on reality

In addition to emotional well-adjustment, a well-rounded person has a strong sense of values and principles (Now that I think of it, there are six "pillars" of well-roundedness too).

The second pillar: The Practice of Self Acceptance

According to Branden, this pillar involves:

  • The willingness to own, experience, and take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions, without evasion, denial, or disowning – and also without self-repudiation
  • Giving oneself permission to think one’s thoughts, experience one’s emotions, and look at one’s actions without necessarily liking, endorsing, or condoning themAccept that your life is what you’ve made it so far. If it’s not to your liking, rise to the challenge and begin to make a new one.
  • The virtue of realism applied to the self
  • Self-compassion, understanding that all actions have underlying reasons

While the first pillar involves getting a grip on reality, this one adds a layer of acceptance on top.  This is the kind of suspense of judgment I was referring to in some of my ego articles.  I certainly need to spend more time discussing this subject, since I don't have much on my site to refer to already.Of course, it's probably not necessary since the positive psychology movement openly preaches self-acceptance.  However, it's still worth considering what self-acceptance really means, and I will.

I see one item of correspondence here with both ego strength and a well-rounded personality: curiosity.  Curiosity is fundamental to having a strong grip on reality, but sadly, many of us have had our natural curiosity nipped at some point in our lives.  By all means, do your best to revive it.  Life is so full of rich experiences. Resist the urge to withdraw.  Approaching everything life sends our way with a strong sense of curiosity will only improve things.

The third pillar: The Practice of Self Responsibility

Branden says this means recognizing:

  • That we are the author of our choices and actions; that each one us is responsible for life and well-being and for the attainment of our goals
  • The question is not “Who’s to blame?” but always “What needs to be done?”
  • The world doesn't owe us anything. If we need the cooperation of other people to achieve our goals, we must offer value in exchange

Ego strength link: resourcefulness.  A resourceful person has an adequate understanding of how things work and is able to come up with solutions to problems. Just like a bulging waistline or an aching back give us an indicator of our physical health, low self esteem might be an indicator of a need for improvement in this area. A person with a strong curiosity is always learning and therefore better equipped to deal with challenges and take responsibility for their outcome.

Interestingly, a person with strong ego strength not only takes responsibility for their own challenges but is also willing to allow others to handle theirs.  This means neither trying to control or dominate others nor serving as enablers by trying to take responsibility for what are rightly the other person's problems.

The fourth pillar: Self Assertiveness

According to Branden, self-assertiveness involves:

  • Being authentic in our dealings with others
  • Treating our values and other persons with decent respect in social contextsThe first pillar involves being conscious of our values but this one involves bringing them to bear on the world.  Logically, our courage to act on our values will be proportional to the confidence we have in them.
  • Refusing to fake the reality of who we are or what we esteem in order to avoid disapproval
  • The willingness to stand up for ourselves and our ideas in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts

The link between self assertiveness and ego strength is confidence.  Also, a well-rounded person is willing to take risks.  Being assertive entails a degree of risk.  What if the other party doesn't appreciate our ideas, opinions, and values?  The problem should not be framed in terms of whether we assert ourselves (because humans are inherently equal), but how.  In this respect the third and fourth pillars are connected: To assert ourselves in a healthy way often requires great resourcefulness.

The fifth pillar: The Practice of Living Purposefully

Branden describes the practice of living purposefully as:

  • Identifying our short-term and long-term goals or purposes and the actions needed to attain them (formulating an action-plan)
  • Organizing behavior in the service of those goals
  • Monitoring action to be sure we stay on trackI should probably mention the need to be realistic.  Self-esteem is sensitive to how realistic our goals and plans are.  Setting goals that are challenging but not overwhelming will be most likely to help maintain high self-esteem.
  • Paying attention to outcomes so as to recognize if and when we need to go back to the drawing-boardFailure can mean rethinking the plan.  Or it can mean a temporary setback or obstacle to be overcome.  If you are highly invested in the outcome, make sure you follow good decision-making practices.

This reminds me of the saying, "When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind."Attributed to first-century Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus. In this respect, self-esteem can be a useful barometer, telling us we need to stay on course; or perhaps it's time to set a new course altogether.  

It seems that each of these pillars builds on the ones before it.  In addition to all of the elements of ego strength we've addressed, we can add the last two: patience and persistence.  A purposeful life is not the life of a butterfly. It does not mean video game addiction or endless hours surfing Netflix.  A person who centers their life around such things will naturally have low self-esteem.  But living a purposeful life doesn't mean we are striving for accomplishment 24/7.  A well-rounded person will include balance in their life.  Unbalanced strivings are just as likely to lead to lower self-esteem.  Tying one's self-esteem to achievement inevitably means it will drop, because no one can succeed at everything.

The sixth pillar: The Practice of Personal Integrity

What does Branden say about this?  It means:

  • Living with congruence between what we know, what we profess, and what we do
  • Telling the truth, honoring our commitments, exemplifying in action the values we profess to admire

We've already covered all the facets of ego strength and nearly all the "pillars" of a well-rounded personality.In my article about being well-rounded I referenced a U.S. Department of Labor document discussing "personal effectiveness competencies" which dovetails nicely with the "pillars" I arrived at.  Integrity is high on their list. So instead of referencing those concepts as in the earlier cases, I'll just insert some quotes from some of my other articles:

Recognize that "no one has power over the way you think, feel or behave." While many of us were raised believing that our emotions are automatic responses to the actions of others, we can learn to stop and reflect on how to react, or even whether to react at all. Recognize that by taking responsibility for your actions you can maintain your integrity and self-respect.

While overall confidence is an important KPI of a person’s life, it is a person’s integrity that is a more accurate indicator. In the Confidence Bank Account, Confidence is the gross total of our account, but Integrity is the net. In business-speak, Confidence lest ConfiDebt is Integrity

But the empowering part is knowing that I have choices. And when I take responsibility for my actions I maintain my integrity and self-respect. My self-confidence stays in the black instead of going into the red (ConfiDebt).

What Branden didn't mention

Here's where I finish comparing the research I've done on the topic with Branden's six pillars.  I haven't read everything he wrote on the subject, nor will I have the chance to talk to him in person,Sadly, he died in 2014. so I don't know where he stands on the following.  Likely, he would agree that each of these are important ways to shore up our self-esteem.  I would say they qualify as additional pillars.Branden himself, in the conclusion of the book, presents what he calls "The Seventh Pillar": (Spoiler alert; these are literally the last words in the book) "The love we have for our own life ... is the beginning of virtue. It is the launching pad for our highest and noblest aspirations. It is the motive power that drives the six pillars. It is the seventh pillar of self-esteem." Those words may make for an inspiring conclusion, but they have little practical value in my opinion. Thus, for now I stand by my suggestions for additional "pillars".)

The first two additions come to mind as a result of my comparison of Branden's ideas to both ego strength and my own pillars, or fundamentals, of a well-rounded person.  The first four fundamentals were well-covered but there were two that we've only briefly touched on: care for others and a willingness to take risks

The seventh pillar: care for others

Branden touched on the topic of reciprocation under the third pillar, that is, we must give to others if we expect to receive from them.  Leaving it like that is a bit egoistic. True care for others is an important facet of healthy relationships, including our relationship with reality.  It shouldn't take much imagination to recognize that healthy relationships are essential for healthy self-esteem.  Lowered self-esteem could be a sign that I need to move away from a toxic relationship; for example, someone who resents my tactful efforts at asserting my needs.  Giving to others is a natural ego boost, that is, it's a tax-free way to genuinely raise our own self-esteem and theirs.For more ideas on how to increase self-esteem and improve relationships, go here.

The eighth pillar: willingness to take risks

Being assertive entails an element of risk.  Having a growth attitude, or mindset, or commitment to growth, also involves some risk.  It involves the willingness to make mistakes, the willingness to try new things that we aren't comfortable with, and the willingness to fail.  Taking reasonable risks is necessary to our self-esteem, because it knows when we are playing it safe, and trying to fool ourselves isn't worth it.  So I'm including it here for emphasis.  If you're not risking something, you're not really living, and your self-esteem will let you know.

The ninth pillar: keep a bright outlook

Branden mentions confidence, openness, and curiosity, but I didn't find any mention of optimism.  In fact, I searched his website and didn't find that word anywhere.  Although positive thinking is often overemphasized in a vain effort to compensate for other pillars that may be weak, it's still important.  Here are some ways positive thinking can help:

  • Focus on the positive.
  • Don’t look for things outside yourself to fill a void.  Possessions and fleeting experiences have no effect on self-esteem.You're right, he did say that already in the quote above.  It was worth mentioning again.  As always, you are a very astute reader.  Of course, only astute readers read footnotes.
  • Don't compare yourself to others.  You may be inclined to envy something they have, but there's probably something else they have that you wouldn't want.
  • Don't hold on to regret or resentment.
  • Focus on building good habits and starving bad ones.  

Remember, a bright outlook doesn't mean unbridled optimism.  One last quote: 

While hope and optimism are important to counteract the negativity we all face, blind optimism isn't the solution. ...  These are things that can be controlled and modified.  That's the "bright" idea behind Bright Outlook.  Although each of us has inherent and culturally-influenced levels of optimism and pessimism, we can learn how to appraise situations realistically and make decisions that will result in the best outcome: less distress, and higher life satisfaction.

I'm delivering on my promises. You and I can find higher life satisfaction by applying what we've learned here.  Like anything in life, a good outcome requires sustained effort.  But let your self-esteem be your barometer and let it remind you when it's time to put forth some more.  You won't regret it.