Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Reframing Self Esteem as Self Worth

Self Esteem Is Bad For You, Part II: Reframing The Model

In considering that self-esteem doesn't make better people of us, we came to understand that, based on extensive empirical evidence (Baumeister, 2005; Twenge, 2007), the vast majority of popular beliefs about self-esteem were untrue. It would then appear that we need to develop a new model for encouraging positive self-perception based on the gathering of evidence, rather than on empty statements. More to the point, we come to a place that I often do in my conversations with clients -- "OK, so you've deconstructed my entire belief system ...now what, Doc?" [sic].

I have actually been reframing self-esteem as self-worth with my clients for several years. Frankly, I had no idea that I was taking a progressive position regarding human potential that took into account flaws regarding the modern notion of self esteem. It would appear, however, that I have been doing just that, and quite unwittingly. That said here are my thoughts on the subject.

Self-esteem is self-referential, and does not take into account the social and interactive aspects of self-development. Self-worth, on the other hand, considers the manner in which we perceive ourselves, the manner in which we perceive our social environment, and the manner in which we perceive the social environment perceiving us. It also recognizes how we interact with our social environment with respect to our self-perception, as well as how we then interact with ourselves -- also based on that self-perception. This dynamic is something the concept of self-esteem does not take into account because the notion of self-esteem largely does not acknowledge the transactional nature of human culture, society and relationship.

The experiences that contribute to our socialization are themselves shaped by organic, innate, and inherited predispositions, each of which informs our interior landscape. As we develop our idea of the world, we also develop an idea of ourselves. So, at the same time that our interior filters are contributing to our experience and perception of the world, they are also contributing to our self-perception. This, in turn, informs our self-worth.

Self-worth takes into account not only how we feel about ourselves, via identity and self-value, but also how we feel about the manner in which we interact with the world around us, through our boundary setting and management of emotions.

From this vantage point, the failure of self-esteem as a paradigm doesn't look so scary, as we now have an alternative that is not so far from the original intention of self-esteem proposed by William James. Basically, we return to a place where we develop a sense of ourselves through the gathering of evidence, rather than a self-deception. We are, then, no longer paper tigers, but lords of the realm.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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