Christopher Mruk, Ph.D.

Authentic Self-Esteem and Well-Being


Authentic Self-Esteem and Well-Being: Part III - Personality

Individual Characteristics Related to Self-Esteem

Posted Jul 28, 2018

Authentic Self-Esteem and Well-Being: Part III - Describing Basic the Types of Self-Esteem

This blog is based on defining self-esteem in terms of a relationship between competence and worthiness. Doing so reveals four basic types of self-esteem, each of which has two levels (Mruk, 2019, 2013).

Authentic Self-Esteem

Authentic self-esteem involves positive levels of competence and worthiness that balance each other in desirable ways. People who live this type typically feel good about themselves, because they consistently demonstrate the ability to competently deal with life’s challenges in ways that most of us would see as decent, good, or worthy of a mature, fully functioning adult. This type of self-esteem is associated with a number of positive characteristics, including the ability to tolerate stress, increased resilience, a sense of vitality, frequent positive emotions, nurturing relationships, and other forms of well-being.

Individuals who live high levels of authentic self-esteem in everyday life are usually self-actualizing, because they are more able to take the type of personal, career, and interpersonal risks that lead to growth and development. Those who have lower, but still positive, levels of competence and worthiness may not be as high functioning or satisfied with life. However, they are usually capable of doing the right thing when called upon by a personal or interpersonal challenge and report reasonably satisfying lives. Some call this level of self-esteem medium self-esteem for that reason and it is the most common form of self-esteem.

Low Self-Esteem

A low degree of competence at dealing with the challenges life presents, coupled with a low sense of personal worth, generally work together to form a low self-esteem. More has been written about low self-esteem than any other type because it gives rise to such things as  unhappiness, anxiety, insecurity, poor confidence, and less satisfying relationships (Leary, 2004). Lacking the competence to deal with personal and interpersonal challenges, or even just holding the belief that one does not have the “right stuff” like this tends to lead to failure, rejection, and poor relationships. At the extreme range, such unhappiness may even be intense enough to create clinical depression or to seek relief through substance abuse or suicide.

However, at milder levels such individuals manage to deal with life well enough to get by. The most common result of this condition is that they often become “negative.” The negativity comes from the fact that instead of taking the risks that could lead to a better life, these people focus mostly on maintaining the self-esteem they do have. One common way of doing that is called “self-handicapping” (Tice, 1993), which occurs in a situation that challenges a person to take a risk that could increase self-esteem and well-being. Although they know what the “right thing” to do then is, they hold themselves back from it by thinking something like, “Oh, I know I can’t do that” or “I don’t deserve to feel that good about myself.” Consequently, they do not give the challenge their best effort and create a self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps self-esteem stable.

Defensive Self-Esteem (Two Varieties)

The other two types of self-esteem share a problematic characteristic: The two factors that create self-esteem are out of balance with each other, with one being positive and the other negative. This condition makes self-esteem conflicted, unstable, or even fragile. Such instability creates a high degree of vulnerability. Since being vulnerable is not pleasant, such individuals must focus on protecting themselves, which means they are often defensive when their competence or worth are questioned.

Worthiness-based self-esteem occurs when people lack a sense of competence but do have a sense of worth, which causes them to rely on feeling worthy for their self-esteem. The result of such psychological lopsidedness means they need others to approve of them. If such approval is withdrawn, or if they are criticized for poor performance, they may compensate for feeling inferior by exaggerating their importance or by criticizing and demeaning others in order to feel superior. So called “people pleasers” often demonstrate this type of self-esteem at lower levels and narcissists are a good example of the clinical or extreme case.

Competence-based self-esteem is a reversal of the same dynamics. These individuals have a high degree of competence but also experience a low sense of worthiness. They compensate for this imbalance by relying on their competence to make them feel good about themselves, which makes success very important to them. As long as they are successful at something, they can and often do well in life – until failure occurs. Without a sense of worth to get through these times, they are vulnerable and become defensive. Overachievers may represent lower levels of this condition. More severe cases tend to engage in such antisocial behavior as lying, cheating, and using or bullying others to feel worth something.


Leary, M. R. (2004). The sociometer, self-esteem, and the regulation of interpersonal behavior. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), The handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and application (pp. 373–391). New York, NY: Guilford.

Mruk, C. J. (2019). Feeling good by doing good: A guide to authentic well-being. New York: Oxford University Press.  

Mruk, C. J. (2013). Self-esteem and positive psychology: Research, theory, and practice (4e). New York: Springer Publishing Company. 

Tice, D. (1993). The social motivations of people with low self-esteem. In R. Baumeister (Ed.), Self-esteem: The puzzle of low self-regard (pp. 37–54). New York, NY: Plenum.