[Article revised on 27 April 2020.]
People usually find it easier to build their self-confidence than their self-esteem, and, conflating one with the other, end up with a long list of abilities and achievements. Rather than facing up to their imperfections and failures, they hide them behind their certificates and prizes. But as anyone who has been to university knows, a long list of abilities and achievements is neither sufficient nor necessary for healthy self-esteem.
While people keep on working 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, relationships, sex, and so on.
So what, then, is the precise difference between self-confidence and self-esteem?
"Confidence" comes from the Latin fidere, "to trust." To be self-confident is to trust 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 ready to rise to new challenges, seize opportunities, deal with difficult situations, and take responsibility if and when things go awry.
Just as self-confidence leads to successful experience, so successful experience leads to self-confidence. Although any successful experience contributes to our overall confidence, it is, of course, possible to be highly confident in one area, such as cooking or dancing, but very insecure in another, such as mathematics or public speaking.
In the absence of confidence, courage takes over. Confidence operates in the realm of the known, courage in that of the unknown, the uncertain, and the fearsome. I cannot be confident in diving from a height of 10 meters unless I once had the courage to dive from a height of 10 meters. Courage is a more noble attribute than confidence because it requires greater strength, and because a courageous person is one with limitless capabilities and possibilities.
Self-confidence and self-esteem do not always go hand in hand. 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 can perform before an audience of thousands but then damage and even kill themselves with drugs.
"Esteem" is derived from the Latin aestimare, meaning "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 a 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. To the contrary, they treat themselves with respect and take care of their health, community, and environment. They are able to invest themselves completely in projects and people because they do not fear 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 growth experiences and meaningful relationships, are tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and are accepting and forgiving of themselves and others.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.