Christopher Mruk, Ph.D.

Authentic Self-Esteem and Well-Being


Authentic Self-Esteem & Well-Being, IX: Three Approaches

Part IX: The ways that self-esteem works in the real world.

Posted Apr 03, 2019

Social scientists tell us that self-esteem is important in everyday life for three reasons. Each theory reveals valuable insights about how self-esteem works and what it does for us.

Self-Esteem and Personal Consistency

One perspective focuses on how self-esteem helps us maintain a consistent sense of self as we move through life. As children, according to this view, we learn to have a sense of self that is based on how others see us, react to us, and tell us about who we are in positive and negative ways. As we continue to develop, we experiment with different behaviors, activities, and roles at home, in school, on the playground, and so on. Eventually, our reactions to these experiences result in a unique set of personal preferences, skills, and characteristics that form the basis for our identities (Harter, 1999).

Once a person becomes “wired” in this way, the self needs something to hold it together, especially under stress. That something is self-esteem because it allows us to maintain a stable sense of self and consistent identity by acting as a buffer or shield that protects us from the threats that come with such things as failure, disappointment, rejection, loss, and the like. The stronger one’s “shield,” the better he or she can forge ahead in life despite the challenges and setbacks that are sure to come. The weaker a person’s shield, the more vulnerable that individual becomes. It is this way that self-esteem plays a role in our well-being or lack of it.

Self-Esteem and Social Control

Evolutionary psychologists view self-esteem in terms of controlling behavior in ways that helped us survive as a species. Early human beings depended on each other throughout their entire lives because they usually had to work together to find food, raise children, and get through difficult times. According to sociometer theory (Leary, 2004), self-esteem evolved as a type of meter or gauge that helps govern behavior by monitoring it in social situations. In other words, when someone does something that threatens the group, such as act too selfishly or too aggressively, this brain-based process lowers an individual’s feelings of worth and value or self-esteem. This negative event, in turn, prompts the person to examine his or her behavior and adjust it. When the individual makes an adaptive response or behaves in a more socially desirable way, the monitor also registers that event and responds by restoring self-esteem to normal levels. Doing something that is highly valued by the individual or society may even result in increasing one’s self-esteem in this way.

Terror Management Theory (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Goldberg, 2003) is an existential version of this view. Here self-esteem is seen as helping us adapt to the fact that we live with the awful knowledge that no matter what, we are going to die which is made worse because we know that could happen at any time. Human culture is thought to help us deal with this condition by offering meaningful pathways of life that make it worth living anyway. Originally, these belief systems were religious, but over time people developed personal or social philosophies that do the same: Provide a reason to live beyond just the desire to survive by striving for something more meaningful, even if it is “only” to provide for one’s family. Every time we live up to these obligations, self-esteem increases. Every time we fail to do so, it goes down enough to make us feel anxious about how we are living and correct our behavior by returning to the “right” path.

Self-Esteem and Growth

Humanistic psychology emphasizes the role self-esteem plays in human growth and self-actualization. Probably the most well-known example is Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, which includes the need for self-esteem. Seeing self-esteem as a basic human need makes self-esteem an internal and positive motivational drive that is strong enough to push a person to grow throughout the life cycle.

Carl Rogers (1961) went on to point out that growth involves two processes: Giving up the security or comfort of the old and familiar, while simultaneously attempting to reach higher or expanded levels of experience or ability. In other words, growth means taking risks—without guarantees. On one hand, then, self-esteem buffers the individual from the stress of taking these risks and the threats to the self and identity they may mean. On the other hand, self-esteem actually motivates the person to take these risks when appropriate opportunities arise because we have a need to grow and there is no other way to do it.

In sum, we can say that each major view of self-esteem sheds light on something important for personal and interpersonal well-being. Self-esteem helps us to maintain a consistent sense of self and identity, govern our personal and social behavior, and encourage us to grow and actualize as a person.


Harter, S. (1999). The construction of the self: A developmental perspective. New York: Guilford.

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: Guilford.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, T., & Goldberg, J. L., (2003). Freedom versus fear: On the defense, growth, and expansion of self. In M. R. Leary & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity (pp. 315–343). New York: Guilford.

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.