What Is Self-Esteem: Definition, The Science & Can It Change?

Let me guess.

You might be thinking:

"Self-esteem, isn't that something you're born with?"

Yes and no.

You probably know of some people who have it all: they give a mind-blowing presentation on the fly, derive pleasure from the fact that difficult questions come up afterwards, and then ask a co-worker out for dinner in front of the whole group.

Okay.

I'm exaggerating a bit.

But still: you know people who have very high self-esteem right? And you know some people with low(er) self-esteem as well...

In fact, having very low self-esteem can be devastating to your life.

Think about all the opportunities you've missed because you hesitated, think about all the times you've sabotaged yourself because you thought you were "not good enough", and think about how often you're plagued about thinking back of these moments.

Simply put, without self-esteem life can be vulnerable.

I'm not preaching gloom and doom though.

My message is positive.

Even though having low self-esteem makes everything in life more difficult: social situations, becoming successful, creating the right body image, and experiencing happiness, you can change that situation.

Stay tuned to find out how...

So you might be thinking: "what's self-esteem anyway?"

I'll tell you:

I define self-esteem as to how you value yourself in comparison to others.

With high self-esteem, you're thus judging yourself to be of "higher value". What that means, I'll work out in this blog post.

Different types of self-esteem exist, which makes matters more difficult, unfortunately, 

You've got a level of self-esteem that you automatically and subconsciously assume, and self-esteem that you allocate to yourself upon reflection - the latter is displayed in action.

Even though you can observe that someone seems to have very high self-esteem that person might thus still be troubled on the inside.

Additionally, self-esteem can be more stable - as in more unconditional - or more defensive instead - in which case you're more aggressive in protecting what others think about you.

I consider the defensive instantiation not being true self-esteem because it comes with issues of its own.

In this first instalment of a 3-part series, I'll work out:

  1. The definition of self-esteem I just gave you into more detail
  2. The scientific question as to whether self-esteem is set in stone.

In the last section, I conclude.

The next two installments of this series venture into topics such as the side-effects of low-self esteem, strategies for improving self-esteem, self-compassion and how you can develop it, the downsides of high self-esteem, etcetera.

It's going to be a great ride!

Because let's face it:

Almost everyone wants the benefits of the right types of self-esteem, such as lowered stress, better coping with disease, higher quality social relationships, self-control, assertiveness, and especially greater overall happiness.

Take your first step to a better life today:

Read this full blog post series.

Why?

Everyone deserves a better life...

You do too...

Here we go:

 

Introduction: What Is Self-Esteem? A Definition

Let's first make sure you and I are talking about the same thing with the words "self-esteem". In fact, you may have heard many terms that are often assumed to have roughly the same meaning:

Self-esteem, (self-)confidence, (self-)compassion, (self-)respect, self-assurance, self-regard, and self-image.

These words do not have the same meaning.

I'll (mostly) be talking about self-esteem. 

I'll also give you my own definition of the word "self-esteem". That definition is very simple:

Self-esteem is how you judge your own self-worth.

Let me explain...

If you judge yourself to be of great value you're having "high self-esteem. If you judge that you're of lower value, on the contrary, you've got "low self-esteem".

I know what you're thinking:

"how do you define "worth" or "value" in turn?"

Great question...

You value yourself by comparing how well you are doing compared to others. With high self-esteem, you're judging that you do well compared to other people in life (in general). 

(you'll soon see that the full story is more complicated though)

High-self esteem - traditionally interpreted - is thus paired with the judgment that you are generally worthy and competent. Low self-esteem is thus necessarily characterized by a self-judgment of (some) inferiority.

 

(Advanced explanation: I know the sentence of "doing well compared to other people" can still be interpreted as semantically-vague. Nevertheless, I do assume that giving definitions lead to an infinite regress that cannot be solved - I consider absolute linguistic certainty an illusion.)

 

It is sometimes assumed that self-esteem is all in the eye of the beholder.[243; 244]

Under that theory, self-esteem becomes a "self-fulfilling prophecy". Why? This theory presupposes that having more self-esteem improves your life, which subsequently improves your self-esteem again.

The underlying assumption is that you need self-esteem first.

I do not completely agree with that assessment.

If self-esteem would be purely subjective, you could be a total failure in life and yet have extremely high self-esteem. While that situation does occur quite often, I do not think that self-esteem is fully a matter of subjective evaluation.

Instead, I think it's essential to understand that we build and lose self-esteem based on our interactions in the world. I thus assume that there's always at least a sufficient reason - or root cause - for having either low or high self-esteem.

Example?

Let's say you (try to) learn flying a plane.

If you succeed in your first plane flight, your self-esteem will improve somewhat (even though you may already have irrationally high self-esteem levels.) If I crash the plane instead, your self-esteem will probably take a hit, even if it's just for a while.

Success generally builds self-esteem, while failure does the opposite. 

Self-esteem is thus based on 1) your interactions with the world; 2) your self-judgments.

How you judge yourself thereby becomes very important, as your self-judgments change how you interact with that world.

Why?

Under the definition I just gave, judging myself to lower than is deserved will create problems with my interactions with the world. Going back to the example of flying an airplane, low self-esteem may prevent me from flying at all even though I might be perfectly capable.

Let's talk about judgment some more:

Human beings judge themselves (almost) automatically - it's very hard to fully stop judging yourself.

Instead of stopping all self-judgment, in this blog post I'm claiming you need the correct self-judgments.

(In the past, I've written an epic guide on mindfulness, wherein you also develop an acceptance skill that helps you let go of some unproductive ways of judging yourself.)

Self-judgment can be productive or can be unproductive, and everything in between.

So when are self-judgments productive or unproductive anyway? 

I'll tell you: remember the plane crash example I just talked about?

Let's say I crash that plane, and I judge that I'm an amazing pilot anyway. That judgment would be very unproductive for my future self. Why? That self-judgment would set me up for failure in the future. 

Judging yourself correctly, however, can increase how well you're doing in life - and your health.

Example?

Sure.

Let's say I'm anxious when going door to door in a sales job, but nevertheless, succeed in getting my first sales. If I correctly judge I'm capable in that instance, my anxiety will get lowered, and I set myself up for more success in the future.

Overall, self-esteem thus determines how you judge yourself.

stones that show balance. Correct self-judgment is analogous to balance in this blog post
Correct self-judgments create more balance.

 

Self-esteem is central to life.

The 20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow described self-esteem one of the most important psychological needs of human beings - at least after your needs such as food, water, housing, security, and social relationships were met.

Even in modern research, the validity of Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" is still (partially) maintained.[1; 2] 

Maslow was not the first psychologist to deal with self-esteem though: the concept was actually invented in the 19th century by the famous psychologist William James. 

From the perspective of an intellectual tradition, of course, the topics of self-judgment and self-evaluations have a much longer history.

Examples?

Sure...

The Iliad - an ancient Greek epic poem -  frequently considers the term "hubris". Hubris is an excessive form of pride and exaggerated self-opinion that ultimately leads to the downfall of a person.

Hubris is an over-valuation of oneself.

In ancient Greek thought, esteeming yourself too highly expressed as hubris would upset the world order.

Gods would punish those who were hubristic.

(Side-joke: I guess my time for punishment has yet to come)

Excessive self-valuations - which is now commonly referred to as having extremely high self-esteem - have been met with scepticism throughout history.

In Roman times, for instance, victorious generals were paraded through the streets while a slave whispered in their ear that they are "just a man".

Self-judgment thus has a rich intellectual history, even though the specific term "self-esteem" has only been in use for over 100 years.

Hopefully, by seeing the two examples I've just given above, you're getting the hint that I do not think that more self-esteem is always better - more on that topic later. As you'll learn, moreover, very low self-esteem is also problematic in health (and life) as well.

Fortunately, you've got access to modern science to tackle that problem.

Nevertheless, scientific debates still rage about what self-esteem exactly is up until today.[5; 8-10; 16-18]

That debate has been going on for several decades.

The gist?

Different types of self-esteem exist, such as your individually expressed self-esteem, that which is related to relationships, and the self-esteem of groups.

Simply put, you derive some self-esteem from your own "unique" qualities, some from your direct social relationships, and some from the groups which you belong to.

I'll only consider the first two options in this blog post. 

Furthermore, your self-esteem also depends on the context in which you are situated.

Don't believe me?

Just look at a group of soccer hooligans: they're off the charts confident in a group setting - believing they can do anything - but might say "yes master" when their wife asks them to handle the garbage.

Okay, I'm exaggerating but you get the point...

Important disclaimer: while I distinguish between "high self-esteem" and "low self-esteem", in reality, there's a large continuum between the two.

In other words, there's no overly-simplistic dichotomy to be found here.

Examples?

Sure...

My self-esteem may be located on the extreme low end of the spectrum, may be average, somewhat high, extremely high, and irrationally high, and everything in between.

How do is your self-esteem scientifically measured?

We don't - at least, not fully reliable:

Self-esteem assessments are often subjective and measured by a self-reported scale that's filled out. As of this moment, there is no completely valid and reliable objective criterion available to assess your self-esteem levels.[315-318]

Your individual self-esteem can also be divided into:[144-146; 365-372; 404; 405] 

  • "Self-liking" and "self-competence" self-esteem.

    Self-liking signifies how much you like yourself. Self-competence, however, denotes how competent you see yourself in certain activities.

    Self-liking and self-competence are not the same. I can like myself really well, for instance, but I can also assess that I'm really incompetent in certain activities, such as repairing a car.

    My inability to repair a car does not entail that I don't like myself, however - that difference is simple.

  • "Defensive" versus "secure" self-esteem.

    In the former situation, you've got high self-esteem but you're actively defending that self-esteem towards others when it's challenged. The "secure" self-esteem entails that you worry less about what others think of you, even when challenged.

    The defensive variation is one of the reasons why self-esteem has received a bad rap in the last few decades. To me, defensive "self-esteem" is not true self-esteem because there's still a deep underlying insecurity expressed within this variation.

    With defensive self-esteem, you'll also have a higher desire to be famous, and less forgiving towards others, and more prone to take vengeance. 

    If you're less secure in your self-esteem, you're also more prone to be socially anxious, self-conscious, aggressive, and to avoid social situations.

    The defensive variation of self-esteem basically entails overcompensation for your own instability and insecurity.

  • "Implicit" or "explicit" self-esteem.

    The first entails that you have high(er) self-esteem on a subconscious level, while the second instance means that you're mostly expressing the behavior externally without necessarily having (or believing you have) high self-esteem on a deeper level.

    If you score high on explicit self-esteem and low on its implicit variation, you might fill out a questionnaire as if being a very high self-esteem person, but when challenged by a colleague, your first impulse will be behavior that's associated with low(er) self-esteem.

    Explicit self-esteem is thus more imitative and forged. Scoring high on explicit and low on implicit self-esteem is also related to "defensive" self-esteem again - which was still insecure.

The best case scenario is that you'd score high on both explicit and implicit self-esteem, self-liking, and secure self-esteem.

Lastly, (your view of) self-esteem additionally depends on the society you were born in.

Explanation:

In the West, self-esteem is more achievement-oriented, while in Eastern societies "being worthy" within a community matters more.[247] Both conceptions of self-esteem have their upsides and downsides.

The upside of the Western conception is that you're more likely to achieve self-esteem on your own terms, but its downside is that you might end up with a lower self-image if you don't succeed in life.

The upside of the Eastern conception, on the contrary, is that there's less pressure on yourself as an individual--the downside is that you'll have less freedom to achieve complete self-fulfillment by yourself.

Again, even in the West, however, self-esteem has not always been viewed positively. Besides the examples of ancient history I gave earlier, religious traditions often consider what is now known as "self-esteem" as an unwanted vice because it counters humility.

Excessive pride comes to mind as a vice that's closely related to self-esteem.

Now that I've given you the definition in this section, there's one remaining question:

Are you ready to roll?

One more thing first:

I include the following disclaimer at the beginning of each and every blog post:

I'll always recommend you consider the low-hanging fruits of health first - which is true in the case of self-esteem as well.

Don't assume that working on your self-esteem alone makes you fundamentally healthy.

Instead, focus on making sure you get adequate sunlight every day, avoiding artificial light at night, conquering chronic stress, getting enough magnesium, and prioritize optimizing your sleep quality.

After you're doing these things, start "worrying" about your self-esteem. If you've got health problems, your self-esteem should not be prioritized in most instances.

Let's now dig into this fascinating topic of self-esteem.

Ready for a tour de force? 

Let's go... 

 

 

Is Self Esteem Set In Stone? The Scientific Validity Of Changing Your Self-Esteem

Before I tell you about whether changing self-esteem is possible, let's consider another classic question:

Do you first need to act as if you have high self-esteem to build up real self-esteem, or will you only act as if you've got self-esteem after you build it?

That question sounds kind of silly so hang on.

Let me give you some examples:

Did your alcoholic neighbor first start drinking and then develop low self-esteem, or did low self-esteem cause his problem?

Did you first successfully present to a big audience, and then gain greater self-esteem in presenting, or did you just act as if you had high self-esteem, and then develop that self-esteem internally?

Did you first accept mistreatment by your colleagues because you had low-self esteem, or low self-esteem precede the mistreatment?

Did growing up in poverty lower your self-esteem so that you're still having financial difficulties today, or does your self-esteem keep you in poverty for decades?

The answer to these questions kind of matters. If the right actions precede self-esteem, you can just "fake it till you make it".

Why that question anyhow?

Let me explain:

In the past, I've written a blog post on how increasing your happiness levels grow your success. The scientific consensus thus tells us that happiness precedes and causes success, contrary to what many people believe.

The blog post has the fortunate message that you can (partially) influence your happiness levels through your actions. Even if you're (genetically) born with lower happiness levels, you're not doomed.

A same type of dynamic applies here: if you've got low self-esteem today, are you stuck with that outcome for a lifetime?

I've got good news:

The simple answer is "no".

In fact, your self-esteem even naturally changes over time, without any action on your part.

How?

Self-esteem generally increases from adolescence until late adulthood and is then lowered through old age again.[114-116; 304-306; 308; 417]

You can, of course, deviate from that path end up with lower (or higher) self-esteem due to events during your lifetime.

A traumatic experience, such as physical abuse when you were younger, can leave a lasting (negative) impact on your self-esteem. If your parents divorced or if you were neglected, problems can also ensue - depending on how such situations were handled.

Some other actions build self-esteem - such actions start early in life:

Telling your kid that you love them unconditionally gives them ammunition to combat negative moments in life.[302] 

Children's environment contributes immensely to their development of self-esteem. When children have a bad relationship with their parents, for example, closeness to their peers can partially make up for that deficit.[303]

(Girls are more affected by their relationship with their mother than boys.[418] There's thus lots of individual variation.)

Once you get older, high (or low) self-esteem is not guaranteed either.

A devastating illness or losing the love of your life can have a tremendous impact. You may end up with a sense that (your control over) life "is not up to you". 

What builds self-esteem also changes throughout the years: as a kid, parental relationships are most important, as a young adult education becomes more essential, and as a senior the absence of illness is. 

Overall, many situations can thus influence your self-esteem trajectory in life.

Fortunately, it's not physical appearance that determines your self-esteem.[240; 335-338]

I get it: if you've won the "natural lottery" in the looks department that relationship is unfortunate instead.

You will nevertheless rate your own self-esteem higher when they're more physically attractive--the problem is that outside observers will not.

Self-esteem thus remains partially subjective.

Consider this argument of why beauty does not necessarily build self-esteem: 

Our self-esteem also increases massively during our 20s to 50s, even though most of us don't get any prettier during these years. 

picture of a beautiful dog, exemplifying how many people depend on their looks for confidence
Being admired for your beauty:
a common source of delusion...

Nevertheless, self-esteem can work like a healthy virtuous cycle - which is what you'll be after in this article.

In other words, having self-esteem can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. An absence of self-esteem, however, leads to the opposite direction: a downwards spiral - a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy.

But wait: "you've just told me that self-esteem does not necessarily work as a self-fulfilling prophecy?"

Yes.

The point is that self-esteem can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy - that upward spiral is what we're after in this article.

The question then becomes: in what cases is increasing your self-esteem warranted, and in which cases are that increase unwarranted? 

I'll get back to that question later...

Lastly, how realistic is it to change your self-esteem?

Unfortunately, no large-scale studies have been conducted that have investigated whether it's really possible to change your implicit and secure self-esteem.[374; 375; 412]

Remember that your implicit self-esteem is your subconscious and automatic valuation of yourself, and your secure self-esteem depends more on your more unconditional self-evaluation instead of what other people think of you. 

Nonetheless, your overall self-esteem can indeed change - I'll give you several strategies in section five to do so.

Regarding chicken and egg question: I don't think you need to worry about whether you first need to increase self-esteem to improve your behaviour or whether to take the right actions to increase self-esteem. 

The bottom-line is that self-esteem can be improved, and I'll tell you how to do so in the correct fashion.

First, however, I'll tell you everything you need to know about low self-esteem and its characteristics. That topic will come in the coming blog post installments in this series though.

For now, let's conclude: 

 

Finishing Thoughts: Moving On After We Set The Foundation

Hopefully, you like this journey...

I've just defined self-esteem in this blog post as "how you value yourself in comparison to others." I'm very well aware that such a definition can be very problematic to some. And yet, during the subsequent instalments of this blog post, I'll come back to that definition and hopefully demonstrate to you why it's valid.

The best thing?

If you're relatively young, you can easily improve your self-esteem. Once you're in the winter of your life, however, it probably becomes somewhat more difficult, as the data shows. 

Of course, there are always those who break the norm, so I don't want to rule anything out!

I'd like to take you with me in the next instalments of this blog series, where I consider the science of the side-effects of low self esteem, how you can actively improve your self-esteem, the topic of self-compassion and meditation, and much more.

So stay tuned...

Surely, wherever you're coming from in life, you'll probably recognize the value of self-esteem. I know both those with low and with high self-esteem certainly do!

 

 

 

This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com. 

 

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