The Secret of Self-Esteem
Where does self-esteem really come from?
Posted Nov 20, 2014
[Article revised on 1 May 2020.]
Confidence derives from the Latin fidere, ‘to trust’. To be confident is to trust and have faith in the world. To be self-confident is to trust and have faith in oneself, and, in particular, in one’s ability or aptitude to engage successfully or at least adequately with the world. A self-confident person is able to act on opportunities, rise to new challenges, take control of difficult situations, engage with constructive criticism, and take responsibility if and when things go wrong.
Just as the foundation of successful experience is self-confidence, so the foundation of self-confidence is successful experience. Although any successful experience contributes to our self-confidence, it is, of course, possible to be highly confident in one area, such as cooking or dancing, while being highly insecure in another, such as horse riding or public speaking.
In the absence of confidence, courage takes over. Confidence operates in the realm of the known, courage in the realm of the unknown, the uncertain, and the fearsome. I could not have become a confident swimmer unless I once had the courage to lose my footing in deep water. Courage is more noble than confidence, because it requires greater effort and greater strength, and because a courageous person is one with limitless capabilities and possibilities.
Self-confidence and self-esteem often go hand in hand, but, for all that, are not one and the same thing. In particular, it is possible to be highly self-confident and yet to have profoundly low self-esteem, as is the case, for example, with many performers and celebrities, who are able to play to cameras and large audiences and yet struggle behind the scenes.
Esteem derives from the Latin æstimare [to appraise, value, rate, weigh, estimate], and self-esteem is our cognitive and, above all, emotional appraisal of our own worth. More than that, it is the matrix through which we think, feel, and act, and reflects and determines our relation to ourselves, to others, and to the world.
People with healthy self-esteem do not need to prop themselves up with externals such as income, status, or notoriety, or lean on crutches such as alcohol, drugs, or sex (when these things are a crutch). On the contrary, they treat themselves with respect and look after their health, community, and environment. They are able to invest themselves completely in projects and people because they have no fear of failure or rejection. Of course they suffer hurt and disappointment, but their setbacks neither damage nor diminish them. Owing to their resilience, they are open to people and possibilities, tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and accepting and forgiving of themselves and others.
It can be instructive to compare healthy self-esteem with pride on the one hand, and on the other hand with arrogance. If self-confidence is ‘I can’ and self-esteem is ‘I am’, then pride is ‘I did’. To feel proud is to take pleasure and satisfaction from the goodness of our past actions and achievements. Pride could not be more different from arrogance, which is borne out of hunger and emptiness. Arrogance, from the Latin rogare [to ask, propose], means ‘to claim for oneself or assume’. Arrogant people require, indeed demand, constant reaffirming and reassuring, which accounts for their boastfulness, entitlement, and anger, and their reluctance to learn from their mistakes and failures. In contrast, people with healthy self-esteem do not seek to prop themselves up by pushing others down, but are happy simply to revel in the miracle of existence, with cheerfulness, humility, and quiet action.
So much is clear: arrogance is not the result of ‘excessive’ self-esteem, but, on the contrary, a sign of its lack. Just as there can be no such thing as excessive physical health or excessive courage and virtue, so there can be no such thing as excessive self-esteem. Conversely, humility does not amount to, or even correlate with, low self-esteem. Humble people understand that there is much more to life than just themselves, which is a mark of the healthiest self-esteem.
Of course, not all people with low self-esteem are arrogant, and most simply suffer in silence. In contrast to people with healthy self-esteem, people with low self-esteem tend to see the world as a hostile place and themselves as its victims. As a result, they are reluctant to express and assert themselves, miss out on experiences and opportunities, and feel powerless to change things. All this lowers their self-esteem still further, sucking them into a downward spiral.
My view is that we are all born with a healthy self-esteem, which is then either confirmed or undermined by our life experiences. Low self-esteem is often rooted in traumatic childhood experiences such as prolonged separation from parent figures; neglect; or emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In later life, self-esteem can be undermined by ill health, negative life events such as divorce or unemployment, dysfunctional relationships, social isolation or discrimination, and a general sense of lack of control. This feeling of helplessness may be especially marked in victims of abuse or discrimination on whatever grounds. The relationship between low self-esteem and mental disorder is very complex. Low self-esteem predisposes to mental disorder, which in turn knocks self-esteem. But low self-esteem can also be a symptom of mental disorder, leading to a chicken-and-egg situation.
The Buddhist take on poor self-regard is that it is akin to a negative emotion or delusion because if we are not secure in ourselves, we are left to frantically pursue everything except what is truly important: our own growth and that of others. What’s more, our agitation is in vain: it does not change the past, it does not change the future, but only makes the present hard to bear.
The Buddhist notion of diligence is to delight in positive deeds, and the person who does not engage in positive deeds is guilty of kausidya, that is, ‘laziness’ or ‘spiritual sloth’. Kausidya has three aspects: not doing something out of indolence (laziness), not doing something out of faintheartedness (poor self-regard), and seeming busy but not really achieving anything (manic defence). Only when we refrain from these three aspects of kausidya are we truly diligent.
Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, seems to encapsulate the Buddhist attitude in this poem-prayer:
Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone;
But let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.
Prayer aside, are there any means by which we might increase our self-esteem? Many people find it easier to build their self-confidence than their self-esteem, and, conflating the one with the other, end up with a long list of talents and achievements. Rather than facing up to the real issues, they hide, often their whole life long, behind their certificates and prizes. But as anyone who has been to university knows, a long list of talents and achievements is no substitute for a healthy self-esteem.
While these people work on their list in the hope that it might one day be long enough, they try to fill the emptiness inside them with status, income, possessions, and the other accoutrements of bourgeoisie. Undermine their status, criticize their house or car, and observe in their reaction that it is them that you undermine and criticize.
Similarly, it is no good trying to pump up the self-esteem of children (and, increasingly, adults) with empty, unwarranted praise. The children are unlikely to be fooled, but may instead be held back from the sort of endeavour by which real self-esteem can grow. And what sort of endeavour is that?
Whenever we live up to our dreams and promises, we can feel ourselves growing. Whenever we fail but know that we have done our best, we can feel ourselves growing. Whenever we stand up for our values and face the consequences, we can feel ourselves growing. That is what growth depends on. Growth depends on bravely living up to our ideals, not the ideals of the company that we work for, or our parents’ approval, or our children’s successes, or anything else that is not truly our own but, instead, a betrayal of ourselves.
Socrates is a shining example of someone who bravely lived up to his ideals, and, in the end, bravely died for them. He never lost faith in the mind’s ability to discern and decide, and to apprehend and master reality. Nor did he ever compromise truth and integrity for a pitiable life of self-deception and semi-consciousness. In seeking relentlessly to align mind with matter and thought with fact, he remained faithful both to himself and to the world, with the result that he is still alive today in this sentence and millions of others about him.
More than a great philosopher, Socrates was the living embodiment of the dream that philosophy might one day set us free.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.