What is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is defined in the dictionary as ‘confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect’, but there is much more to it than this definition covers. In this post we explore the theory behind self-esteem, expand the definition, and explain why it is important for success in life.

Introduction to What is Self-Esteem

Your level of self-esteem is based on your own genuine and subjective evaluation of your self-worth. The psychology of self-esteem is a complex topic, leading many theorists and psychologists to explore its dynamics.

One of the more recognized of these psychologists was Abraham Maslow, who highlighted how self-esteem plays an important role in achieving self-actualization in his highly regarded hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy is depicted as a pyramid in which Maslow puts forward 5 basic categories that drive people's motivation:

  • Physiological needs
  • Safety needs
  • Need for belonging and love
  • Esteem needs
  • Self-actualization

By including esteem in his hierarchy, Maslow represents it as a basic human need. In fact, he only viewed physiological needs (health, food, water etc.), safety needs and social belonging as more basic requirements in our lives.

My personal experiences and education on self-esteem have made me passionate about the topic. I have made a conscious effort to stay aware of my own levels of self-esteem ever since a training course in 2013. The course wasn't actually about self-esteem, but it unexpectedly and indirectly opened my eyes to its relevance and importance on both my career and personal life.

I was already familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but a deeper investigation into the theory of self-esteem helped me to understand the reasons for some of my personal actions, inaction and feelings, both past and present. It also made me realize that high self-esteem was a common trait in successful people, something that we will focus on later in this post.

Throughout this post I use extensive research and my own experiences to share insights that I feel are important when it comes to this topic.

Before we delve further into the importance of self-esteem, it might be helpful to first ensure that we understand how it differs from other, often interchangeable traits.


The difference between self-esteem and self-confidence?

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There can be slightly different perspectives on this, but a logical explanation is that self-esteem covers how you feel about yourself overall, whereas confidence tends to be more specific to your abilities.

Confidence can vary depending on the ability in question or the situation, whereas self-esteem is a personality trait so tends to be stable and enduring most of the time.

It would not be unusual for example to lack confidence in algebra, but still maintain a high level of self-esteem. Your lack of confidence in algebra would not necessarily diminish your overall self-worth and self-respect.

There is a clear connection nevertheless between self-esteem and confidence. If you love yourself (in a genuine, non arrogant way), and consequently have high levels of self-esteem, then you are more likely to feel confident as a result.

Similarly, a high level of confidence can positively impact your self-esteem. And so whilst the two attribute’s differ, they remain interchangeable and closely linked.


Is low self-esteem the same as depression or anxiety?

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For the same reason that depression and anxiety can be linked to each other yet remain different ailments, low self-esteem should also be viewed separately. It's fair to assume that someone who is suffering from low self-esteem is more likely to be affected by depression or anxiety, but it is by no means an inevitability.

The lines can become even more blurred when you consider the symptoms. Lethargy, feeling worthless and social withdrawal can be sign of all three for instance. A good tip to help differentiate is to remember that self-esteem concerns your subjective evaluation of you own worth. Depression and anxiety can develop (or not) regardless of this.  


Why is self-esteem important?

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It is human nature to be affected by how we are perceived or judged by others, but what about ourselves? Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are almost certainly going to be influenced by our personal evaluation of our own character and this should hold much more weight than any external opinions.

Our levels of self-esteem can  therefore impact the decisions that we make and how we live our lives; our goals, aspirations and ability to meet our potential.

If you have high self-esteem then you are likely to be more in tune with your sense of purpose and feel authentically like yourself. You will be more confident in the decisions that you make (despite the opinions of others), inclined to accept failure as an inevitable part of life and stepping-stone to success, and demonstrate persistence and resilience when faced with adversity.

You will naturally have higher levels of drive and motivation, embrace new challenges and understand your own value. Sounds great right? It should come as no surprise therefore why so many highly successful people are often referred to as having a high self-esteem.

Could Jeff Bezos have built Amazon to where it is today without it? Could Elon Musk have overcome the complex barriers constantly put in front of Tesla and SpaceX if he didn’t believe in himself? What about Kanye West (I’m not going to share my opinion on Kanye through fear of 50% of people immediately closing this web page either way as a consequence)?

It should be noted that having a high level of self-esteem does not mean you are arrogant, selfish or pompous. These have negative connotations and self-esteem should be viewed in a positive light.

Having high self-esteem also doesn't require you to have vast financial wealth or an impressive job title. It's your evaluation of yourself and so will be measured against your own aspirations..

We should also consider the impact of low self-esteem to balance out this evaluation. Low self-esteem doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have high ambitions or are a bad person in any way. Having a low opinion of yourself will however make the realization of your aspirations unavoidably more challenging.

Imagine being a leader with a very low belief in your own capability to inspire, an athlete with no conviction in your ability, or trying to attain great wealth when you don’t feel that you deserve it. Sounds pretty difficult right?

People with low self-esteem are more likely to be overly self-critical, yet sensitive to external criticism. They may suffer from trust issues, find making decisions difficult, and struggle with perseverance and overcoming challenges. More extreme cases of low self esteem can contribute towards self-neglect, depression, anxiety, addictions and loss of hope.

Having low self-esteem puts you at a clear disadvantage, but we should remember that you may not feel this way out of choice. Whilst some people naturally have a lower-self esteem, a particularly difficult life experience or major trauma can throw you off course and seriously derail your views on life and yourself.

The good news is that there is something you can do about it. It's not always easy but here is always hope. We expand more on this in our post on 11 ways to boost your self-esteem


Is there more to understand about self-esteem?

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Yes, plenty. It just depends on how much importance you attach to the topic and thus your motivation for learning more. Whilst we have covered some useful information in this post, we haven’t delved into the finer details. Other factors it is worth understanding are the different types of self-esteem and the 6 different pillars of self-esteem.

For example, you can have a high, low or inflated level of self-esteem; a contrast that forms different characteristics. Excessive love for one’s self can cross over to narcissism and self-esteem proper can be both implicit and explicit.

For the purposes of simplicity and structure, I will defer some of these topics for separate posts. I of course recommend exploring them all, but at your own pace and in your own order of preference.


What is Self-Esteem Summary & Further Reading

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Hopefully the content throughout this post has provided some clarity on:

  • What self-esteem is
  • How it differs to connected, but different traits
  • The importance of self-esteem and how it can impact your life
  • Understanding you can work to improve self-esteem

As already noted, I’ve reserved further information on self-esteem for separate posts. If you have found this topic interesting and are inclined to read more, you can follow the links below for more information:

To understand the 6 pillars of self-esteem read what are the 6 pillars of self-esteem

For tips on boosting self-esteem read 11 ways to boost your self-esteem

For observations on low self-esteem read 5 signs of low self esteem in a man and how to overcome them


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