Skip to content

Building Self Esteem

In sociology and psychology, self-esteem refers to an individual’s overall emotional estimation/evaluation of his or her own worth. While self-concept refers to an idea of a cognitive understanding of who we are, self-esteem is the evaluative dimension based on our judgment of “worth/value.” Self-esteem incorporates attitudes and beliefs regarding value and is intrinsically liked to the emotional and psychological experience of the self (for example, “I am competent,” “I am worthy,” “I am a failure,”) and generates emotions such as triumph, despair, pride and shame. It tends to be a global assessment and not restricted to specific behaviors or capacities. So for example, if we have low self-esteem (LSE) we might say “I am worthless” rather than “I am really not good at X task and need to get some training or more experience to do better at the task. Branden in 1969 defined self-esteem as “the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness.” According to Branden, self-esteem is the sum of self-confidence (a feeling of personal capacity) and self-respect (a feeling of personal worth).

I will add that good self-esteem is based on an accurate assessment of the self and one’s capacities. Too high a valuation of the self (inflated sense of self) can lead to problematic behaviors and distress in our lives as much as too low a valuation of the self (LSE). Often, what appears to be an inflated sense of self masks LSE. In either case, preoccupation with self-evaluation narrows our perspective making it harder for us to see others more fully. This can affect the quality of our relationships adversely.

The LSE cycle of negativity: Believing that we are lovable and knowing that we are loved is a basic need for all of us. There is considerable evidence at this point to convince us that mammals seek safety and validation in relationships and when they receive it, they can access their full potential and be their best selves. When people have LSE they fall into a negative cycle:

a. Failing to find positive validation internally, LSE can drive people to become desperate in seeking reassurance that we are lovable. However, the desperation can make us hypervigilant (overly sensitive) and overly focused on the behavior of others as a sign of our own lovability. The narrow focus is accompanied by attribution error and we inevitably, mis-assign meaning to that behavior. The mis-assignment is colored by the low sense evaluation of the self. Thus, when (and not if) the other person does not act in ways that we think would indicate love/appreciation for us, LSE sufferers either: 1) try harder to please in order to win the love and attention of the other 2) become angry when it feels as if the other is withholding or not meeting needs, or 3) feel we must be deserving of this treatment because of our essential un-lovability or in-adequacy.
b. OR …. We choose partners/friends who are unable to give of themselves in ways that are warm, nurturing, and loving. This can happen both because LSE leads us to believe that we are un-deserving/incapable of finding better partners, or because these “toxic” people are familiar to figures in the past whose constant negative feedback still resounds in our ears and who contributed to the development of our LSE. These others re-inforce the negative feedback and cannot counteract the LSE.
c. OR both
d. When positive feedback is actually forthcoming LSE makes it difficult to accept and sometimes, no amount of genuine positive validation can affect the entrenched and rigid negative valuation of the self.

LSE is damaging. Depression and anxiety are often co-related with LSE and frequently behavioral problems related to anger, substance abuse, poor relational interactions, and workaholism can occur with LSE. Eating disorders have also been linked to LSE. Some signs and symptoms include:
Chaotic and unsatisfactory relationships
Lack of self assertion
Passive aggressive behaviors
Perfectionistic tendencies
Poor boundaries
Poor communication skills
Promiscuity and sexual dysfunction in relationships
Self sabotaging behaviors
Needing to wear a mask and lack of authentic self expression

How good is your self esteem? Take Sorensen_Self-Esteem_Test.


You can break the LSE cycle anywhere!
If the LSE cycle is holding you hostage think about breaking it at any one or all of its connectors. Here are some starting points and they can help you generate your own ideas:
1. Take responsibility for your life
2. Look inward for true validation and an accurate assessment of your self
3. Accept the things that cannot be changed and grieve the loss
4. Accept the validation you receive from others and let the positive influence you
5. Pick supportive people and build relationships with them – find mentors and friends
6. Doubt your automatic assumptions and ask others for their motivations rather than assuming it is about you
7. Do things to build your capacities and competencies and value that experience
8. Sometimes you have to “fake it till you make it” so try on feeling confident – use the exercise GROW below.

Ex: GROW:

Please complete the following sentence:” if I were more confident, I would be able to…..”
“What would that look like”? “What would that feel like”?
G: This is your GOAL. Now,
R: What is the reality/current state? What internal resources do I have?
O: What do I need to do? What are my options?
W: What help/support do I need and how can I get it.
Make an action plan ——- Commit to it.