Christopher Mruk, Ph.D.

Authentic Self-Esteem and Well-Being


Authentic Self-Esteem and Well-Being: Part I - Introduction

Part I: The Crisis of Self-Esteem

Posted Jul 25, 2018

Most people appreciate the importance of self-esteem. After all, over 30,000 articles and books have been written on it. Some 24 mental health disorders involve self-esteem, and its lack is associated with many unpleasant states, such as insecurity and poor relationships. Finally, a high degree of self-esteem is linked to personal and interpersonal well-being.

Consequently, many people are surprised to learn that the entire concept of self-esteem is being questioned by some social scientists as having a “dark side.” So strong is this criticism that it generates what I call the crisis of self-esteem.

I always start discussions of self-esteem by first defining what it means (Mruk, 2019, 2013) because like holding a flashlight in the dark, a definition both lights up a part of the world and leaves others in darkness until we turn the light in new directions. Unfortunately, social scientists define self-esteem in three different ways, two of which are dead ends. Perhaps even worse, the definition that people use most often is itself contributing to the crisis.

Three Ways of Understanding Self-Esteem

William James (1890/1980) was the first psychologist to define self-esteem. He saw it as a ratio between our successes and failures in areas of life that are important for our identities. According to this view, the more success we have in these areas, the closer we come to being our “ideal self,” and the better we feel about ourselves. Conversely, the more failures we have, the more we feel bad about ourselves.

One major benefit of seeing self-esteem in terms of success is that it tells us how to increase self-esteem, which is to become more competent at the skills necessary to succeed in the areas that affect identity. However, there is also a downside to defining self-esteem in terms of competence: Sometimes a person can become very good at bad things, such as lying, cheating, bullying, and much worse. Competence-based self-esteem does have a dark side—it’s associated with perfectionism, overachievement, and even antisocial behavior.

The second approach is the common dictionary definition of self-esteem, which involves feeling a sense of worth as a person. This worthiness-based definition became extremely popular when Maurice Rosenberg used it to create a 10-question test that is easy to use as a measure of self-esteem with almost any population. In fact, this instrument is commonly used to study self-esteem around the world, including Asia as well as North America.

Unfortunately, basing self-esteem on just feeling good about oneself also leads to a dead end. After all, “spoiled” children and narcissistic adults often feel very good about themselves, but few people around them would agree that such a view is merited. An exaggerated sense of self-importance is unpleasant interpersonally and narcissism is even worse.

Only the third definition, based on a relationship between competence and worthiness, avoids these fatal flaws. Tafarodi and Swann, Jr. use an analogy involving lines to describe this “two-factor” approach to self-esteem. By themselves, two lines simply express different characteristics. However, when one is seen as “length” and the other as “width,” they form something new, namely, a rectangle. If one such line represents competence and the other stands for worthiness, the psychological space they create in relation to each other is self-esteem.

A major benefit of defining self-esteem as a relationship between two factors is that it eliminates the problems that occur when using either one alone. For example, competence that is balanced by worthwhile values is unlikely to result in the abuse of others. Similarly, people who feel good about themselves without doing something to merit such an opinion could not be seen as having authentic self-esteem, because their sense of worth is ungrounded, perhaps even deluded. The lack of balance leads to the unhealthy behavior associated with the dark sides of self-esteem, not self-esteem itself.

In addition, the two-factor approach more closely fits the original definition of self-esteem. John Milton (1642/1954) may have first coined the term in an essay describing why he chose to stand up to a public challenge of his integrity as a person. Later, he talked about self-esteem in relation to doing that which is “just and right” when called upon in life. In other words, authentic self-esteem results from facing the challenges of living in ways that reflect one’s competence and worth as a person. Authentic self-esteem is earned, not given: We “feel good” by “doing good,” as it were.

Purpose of the Blog

This blog’s aim is to explore what happens when we define self-esteem in relation to competence and worthiness. Such a focus includes examining the basic types of self-esteem (some of which are dark), how self-esteem works in relationships, the connection between authentic self-esteem and well-being, and more.


James, W. (1983). The principles of psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1890)

Milton, J. (1950). Apology against a pamphlet. In C. Brooks (Ed.), Complete poetry and selected prose of John Milton. New York, NY: Modern Library. (Original work published 1642)

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

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

Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tafarodi, R. W., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (1995). Self-liking and self-competence as dimensions of global self-esteem: Initial validation of a measure. Journal of Personality Assessment, 65(2), 322–342.