What is Self Esteem?
By Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
Understanding Self Esteem
Self-esteem is what we think of ourselves. When it’s positive, we have confidence and self-respect. We’re content with ourselves and our abilities, in who we are and our competence. Self-esteem is relatively stable and enduring, though it can fluctuate. Healthy self-esteem makes us resilient and hopeful about life.
Self-Esteem Impacts Everything
Self-esteem affects not only what we think, but also how we feel and behave. It and has significant ramifications for our happiness and enjoyment of life. It considerably affects events in our life, including our relationships, our work and goals, and how we care for ourselves and our children. Although difficult events, such as a breakup, illness, or loss of income, may in the short term moderate our self-esteem, we soon rebound to think positively about ourselves and our future. Even when we fail, it doesn’t take diminish our self-esteem. People with healthy self-esteem credit themselves when things go right, and when they don’t, they consider external causes and also honestly evaluate their mistakes and shortcomings. Then they improve upon them.
Healthy vs. Impaired Self-Esteem
I prefer to use the terms healthy and impaired self-esteem, rather than high and low, because narcissists and conceited individuals who appear to have high self-esteem, actually don’t. Theirs is inflated, compensates for shame and insecurity, and is often unrelated to reality. Boasting is an example, because it indicates that the person is dependent on others’ opinion of them and reveals impaired rather than healthy self-esteem. Thus, healthy self-esteem requires that we’re able to honestly and a realistically assess our strengths and weaknesses. We’re not too concerned about others’ opinions of us. When we accept our flaws without judgment, our self-acceptance goes beyond self-esteem. For a list symptoms that reflect healthy vs. impaired self-esteem, see
When our self-esteem is impaired, we feel insecure, compare ourselves to others, and doubt and criticize ourselves. We neither recognize our worth, nor honor and express our needs and wants. Instead, we may self-sacrifice, defer to others, or try to control them and/or their feelings toward us to feel better about ourselves. For example, we might people-please, manipulate, or devalue them, provoke jealousy, or restrict their association with others. We devalue ourselves, including our positive skills and attributes, making us hyper-sensitive to criticism.
Cause of Impaired Self-Esteem
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can lead to codependency as an adult. It also weakens your self-esteem. Your opinions and desires aren’t taken seriously. Parents neither have nor model good relationship skills, including cooperation, healthy boundaries, assertiveness, and conflict resolution. Directly or indirectly, they may shame their children’s feelings and personal traits, feelings, and needs. It’s not safe to be, to trust, and to express themselves. As a result, they feel emotionally abandoned and repeat this pattern in adult relationships.
Shame runs deeper than self-esteem. It’s a profoundly painful emotion rather than a mental evaluation. Underlying toxic shame can lead to impaired or low self-esteem and other negative thoughts and feelings. It’s not just that we lack confidence, but we might believe that we’re bad, worthless, inferior, or unlovable. It creates feelings of false guilt, fear and hopelessness. Our self-judgment can paralyze us so that we’re indecisive, because our internal critic judges us no matter what we decide! Shame is a major cause of depression and can lead to self-destructive behavior, eating disorders, addiction, and aggression.
Our relationship with ourselves provides a template for our relationships with others. It impacts our relationships happiness. Self-esteem determines our communication style, boundaries, and our ability to be intimate. Self-esteem, assertiveness, autonomy, and intimacy, go hand-in-hand. Each reinforces the others. Research indicates that a partner with healthy self-esteem can positively influence his or her partner’s self-esteem, but also shows that low self-esteem portends a negative outcome for the relationship. This can become a self-reinforcing cycle of abandonment lowering self-esteem.
Self-esteem is generally determined by our teens. But we can change and build healthy self-esteem. Raising self-esteem means getting to know and love yourself – and becoming your own best friend. It’s difficult to get outside our own thoughts and beliefs to see ourselves from another perspective. Therapy can help us change how we think, act, and what we believe. Many times, one partner in individual therapy makes positive changes, and the relationship changes for the better.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to raise self-esteem. It’s more powerful when combined with meditation that increases self-awareness. On your own, you can follow the 10 guidelines in How to Raise Your Self-Esteem. Some things you can do:
- Recognize the signs.
- Root out and deprogram false beliefs.
- Identify cognitive distortions.
- Journal. Journaling has been shown to elevate mood and decrease depression. Monitor your interactions with others and your negative self-talk. See my ebook on overcoming self-criticism, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem: The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism.
- Heal Toxic Shame. Learn more about it and do the exercises in Conquering Shame and Codependency.
© Darlene Lancer 2019
This article was originally published here, and is reprinted with the author’s kind permission.
Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s the author Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and six ebooks, including: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People and Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness, also available on Amazon. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 30 years and coaches internationally. She’s a sought after speaker in media and at professional conferences. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”