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The Many Faces of Self-Esteem

Self -esteem can mean as many things as there are people.  It is probably the most overused and least understood term.  It is used so much that it has probably lost meaning.  Let’s look at its many faces- both positive and negative, and maybe find some resonance inside each of us, thereby finding its personal meaning.

“Self-esteem reflects a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs about oneself, (for example, “I am competent”, “I am worthy”), as well as emotional states, such as triumph, despair, pride, and shame. Smith and Mackie (2007) defined it by saying “The self-concept is what we think about the self; self-esteem, is the positive or negative evaluations of the self, as in how we feel about it.” (Self-esteem, Wikipedia)

Chavez, “Self-esteem develops as we grow, thanks to our relationship with ourselves and the environment and the people around us.

Our parents will be in charge of forging our self-esteem from the moment we are born. If they do not have it in mind they can negatively affect the labels or comments they give us when they contact us:”you are a fool”or”you are a disobedient child”are some common examples.

As the child grows, his or her self-esteem will be strengthened or weakened based on these tags, which like their parents will be put on by their teachers and friends.” (Oscar Chavez, The 9 Types of Self-Esteem and their Characteristics, Life Persona)

Low self esteem- Anneli Rufus’ story: “It was at four or five that I really learned language, not just words but what they meant and not just what they meant on paper but what they meant to the people saying them. I was a good learner. Words were easy for me. By five I knew the words “bad” and “ugly” and “fat” and “slob” and that my mother said them to herself about herself. I realized that because I was a part of her, because I was a small version of her, because in order to protect me from the world she had to tell me the same things she told herself, so I would know, so I would never be caught unawares or put on airs. She had to make me understand that we were not acceptable or beautiful or lovable. Okay, sure, we could love each other. And Dad loved us when we were not being lazy slobs. But everyone else mocked us or was mad at us. Of course. They had no choice.” ( Anneli Rufus, Self-Loathing: The Ultimate Prejudice, Low self-esteem is a learned behavior, Psychology Today)

Can self-esteem be improved?

Kahzan, “Boosting your ego won’t make you feel better. Instead, try talking to yourself like you would your best friend.

In 1986, California state assemblyman John Vasconcellos came up with what he believed could be “a vaccine for major social ills” like teen pregnancy and drug abuse: a special task-force to promote self-esteem among Californians. The effort folded three years later, and was widely considered not to have accomplished much.

To Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, that’s not surprising. Though self-esteem continues to reverberate as a pop-psych cure-all, the quest for inflated egos, in her view, is misguided and largely pointless.

“There’s nothing wrong with being confident. The trouble is how we try to achieve high self-regard. Often, it’s by undermining others or comparing our achievements to those around us. That’s not just unsustainable”, Neff argues, “it can also lead to narcissism or depressive bouts during hard times.”

Neff proposes a better path: Self-compassion. In other words, treating yourself just like you would your best friends, even when they (you) screw up.

I recently interviewed Neff about how self-esteem fails us and how we can boost our compassion for ourselves instead. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: “What are some contexts in which we usually hear about boosting self-esteem?”

Kristin Neff: “Well, it seems like it’s just deeply permeated, especially American culture, where we have very high levels of self-esteem and narcissism. I think because of the big self-esteem movement, people just got it in their heads that the key to psychological health was self-esteem. Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell showed that because of this emphasis on self-esteem, we actually got a generation of narcissists. I think it’s generally out there in the culture, but maybe especially among parents and educators.

When you take it too seriously, you become a narcissist. And we know narcissists tend to have problems with relationships, they push people away, so there are definitely maladaptive consequences to narcissism.

The other thing is, it’s pretty common, at least in American society, that in order to have high self-esteem, you have to feel special and above-average. If someone said, “Oh, your performance was average,” you would feel hurt by that, almost insulted.

When we fail, self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely when we need it most.

When I teach workshops I say, it’s logically impossible for everyone to be above average at all times, so we’re basically predicating ourselves with a logical impossibility. Eventually that’s going to hit reality.

Usually, self-esteem is highly contingent on success. And the three domains it’s contingent on are, first, peer approval.

And then, perceived appearance, which for women is especially damning, and it’s also the most important domain for self-esteem for women. One of the reasons boys don’t suffer as much from low self-esteem is that boys, growing up, they think they’re pretty attractive. They rate their own attractiveness pretty high. The standards of beauty are much higher for girls than for boys.

The final one is success. The real problem with that is self-esteem is only available when we succeed. But when we fail, self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely when we need it most. And some people argue that the instability of self-esteem going up and down is more damaging than the level of self-esteem itself.

Khazan: “So what is self-compassion? How is it better?”

Neff: “It means treating yourself with the same kind of kindness, care, compassion, as you would treat those you care about—your good friends, your loved ones.

One component is self-kindness, which is in a way the most obvious. But it also entails a recognition of common humanity—in other words, the understanding that all people are imperfect, and all people have imperfect lives. Sometimes, when we fail, we react as if something has gone wrong—that this shouldn’t be happening. “I shouldn’t have failed, I shouldn’t have had this issue come up in my life.” And this sense that “this shouldn’t be happening,” as if everyone else in the world were living perfectly happy, unproblematic lives. That type of thinking really causes a lot of additional suffering, because people feel isolated and separated from the rest of humanity.

So, when we have self-compassion, when we fail, it’s not “poor me,” it’s “well, everyone fails.” Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human. And that really radically alters how we relate to failure and difficulty. When we say, “Oh, this is normal, this is part of what it means to be human,” that opens the door to the grow from the experience. If we feel like it’s abnormal, this shouldn’t be happening, then we start blaming ourselves.

Self-compassion also entails a mindfulness. In order to have self-compassion, we have to be willing to turn toward and acknowledge our suffering. Typically, we don’t want to do that. We want to avoid it, we don’t want to think about it, and want to go straight into problem-solving.

And in fact, I would argue that self-compassion also provides a sense of self-worth, but it’s not linked to narcissism the way self-esteem is. It’s not linked to social comparison the way self-esteem is, and it’s not contingent, because you have self-compassion both when you fail and when you succeed. The sense of self-worth that comes from being kind to yourself is much more stable over time than the sense of self-worth that comes from judging yourself positively.

There’s some work on physical health, showing that self-compassion is linked to better immune function. Studies show that it stabilizes glucose levels in diabetes patients, another one looking at telomere lengths—it’s associated with longer telomeres. [Self-compassionate] people are healthier, they take better care of themselves, they are more likely to exercise and eat well, more likely to go to the doctor. Self-compassion is caring about yourself and not wanting yourself to suffer.

(Olga Khazan; Why Self-Compassion Works Better Than Self-Esteem, interviewing (Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas,  The Atlantic) 

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