David Rosen

Health 2.0


What Exactly Is Self-Esteem?

Why 'learning to love thyself' should never be optional.

Posted May 22, 2018

Gergely Zsoinai/Shutterstock
Source: Gergely Zsoinai/Shutterstock

Self-esteem is defined as a self-judgment. Early research1 highlighted the differences between ‘trait’ self-esteem, (an individual’s inherent level of self-esteem). As opposed to ‘state’ self-esteem, which is dependent on the level of success or failure in a relevant and personal goal.

Having a high self-esteem is considered to be one of the most important factors in our mental health2 and a significant driver of behavior across a broad spectrum of human activities3. It relates powerfully to the way we emotionally experience life events. For example, it can increase or decrease our positive emotions when experiencing success or influence our negative emotions following a perceived failure4.

Self-esteem is also a highly structured and hierarchical self-concept, with specific self-esteem attributions given to certain areas within individual’s lives5. It can be measuredand is perceived as a highly valued asset, linked to enhanced initiative and positive feelings7.

Self-esteem maintenance can sometimes rely on specific goal achievement8 creating a contingency for self-worth within the individual. This goal achievement focus has become increasingly socialised into western cultures. Unfortunately, this can sometimes promote volatile levels of self-esteem which can lead to depression and poor health. This is more often seen when individuals lack the necessary self-affirmation resources9. Motivation to follow contingency-dependant goals can also create behaviour driven by ‘prove’ rather than ‘learn’10. This can ultimately stunt more healthy forms of behavioural and cognitive development and lead to a reduction in self-esteem levels11.

The positive feelings and lowering of anxiety associated with achievement of contingency goals can also become addictive. Research has shown that in some cases the narcissist stereotype might, in fact, be an individual driven by the “yielding to inner urges in a way that can prove destructive and costly over time”12. For individuals with chronically low self-esteem, feeling constantly at risk of exclusion from social groups is common and can promote contingency dependent behaviour13

The development of non-contingent self-esteem or what is called in layman’s terms ‘learning to love thyself’ is of great value to positive mental health and appears to rank with respondents as a highly valued personal goal14. Research studies have shown that achievement of self-determination goals driven by non-contingent motivations are likely to have a more beneficial long-term effect on mental health.


1. James, W. (1890). The Principles of. Psychology, 2, 94.

2. Chamberlain, J. M., & Haaga, D. A. (2001). Unconditional self-acceptance and psychological health. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 19(3), 163-176.

3. Fox, K. R. (2003). The effects of exercise on self-perceptions and self-esteem. In Physical activity and psychological well-being (pp. 100-119): Routledge.

4. Greenberg, J. (2008). Understanding the vital human quest for self-esteem. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(1), 48-55.

5. Rosenberg, M., Schooler, C., Schoenbach, C., & Rosenberg, F. (1995). Global self-esteem and specific self-esteem: Different concepts, different outcomes. American sociological review, 141-156.

6. Luhtanen, R., & Crocker, J. (1992). A collective self-esteem scale: Self-evaluation of one's social identity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18(3), 302-318.

7. Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological science in the public interest, 4(1), 1-44.

8. Crocker, J., & Wolfe, C. T. (2001). Contingencies of self-worth. Psychological Review, 108(3), 593.

9. Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 261-302): Elsevier.

10. Baumeister, R. F., & Tice, D. M. (1985). Self‐esteem and responses to success and failure: Subsequent performance and intrinsic motivation. Journal of personality, 53(3), 450-467.

11. Park, L. E., & Crocker, J. (2005). Interpersonal consequences of seeking self-esteem. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(11), 1587-1598.

12. Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological science in the public interest, 4(1), 1-44.

13. Leary, M. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). The nature and function of self-esteem: Sociometer theory. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 32, pp. 1-62): Elsevier.