Healthy self-esteem—that sweet spot between unhealthy narcissism and harmful self-criticism—is a wonderful thing. When you’ve got it, you value yourself. You respect yourself. You have confidence in your ability. Believe me, I know how self-esteem feels because I have some for about three and a half hours every day—after my one daily cup of coffee. Not for nothing did Dolly Parton term it “a cup of ambition” in her song 9 to 5. To me, it’s a cup of confidence. It’s a delicious feeling.
But do you need self-esteem to change a habit?
In general, the research suggests that you do not. Rather, a basic key to successful habit change, and I bet you know this, is self-control—just good, old-fashioned willpower. And where does this willpower come from? Your personal motivators. Once you identify a motivator that’s important to you, whether that motivator is “health,” “being a role model for my child,” or “creating a video,” you can more easily:
If your motivator is something you are passionate about, you don’t need self-esteem. Your burning interest in your motivator will be enough to light the fires of change.
In their book Willpower, authors Roy Baumeister and John Tierney cite research which bolsters my point. Self-esteem is not correlated with success in college or life; willpower is the one factor strongly correlated to both, as well as to longevity and health. People with willpower even have better relationships and are better at empathizing with others. Willpower gives you the ability to take initiative and to sustain your effort over time.
However, there IS one type of confidence that is important to habit change success. You need to be confident that you can carry out your plan for change. If the idea quitting cigarettes cold turkey fills you with dread (and with good reason because it’s not very effective), you need a different plan. Confidence in your ability to follow through is especially important if you’ve tried to change a habit many times and failed. If repeated stabs at habit change haven’t worked for you, then consider a program like AA or Weight-Watchers or a therapist that will support you as you change. Or, consider shrinking your goal until you are ready to make your big change a priority.
So don’t worry if you don’t have self-esteem. Find the values and goals in life that are important to you. These are your motivators. Once you have motivators, you can change a habit whether you have self-esteem or not. And successfully changing a habit will actually give you more self-esteem! It's a virtuous cycle.
You won’t even need that cup of coffee—at least not as much.
Baumeister, Roy & Tierney, John, Willpower (2011). NY: Penguin Press.
Rollnick, Stephen, et al, Health Behavior Change (1999). London: Churchill Livingstone.