Authentic Self-Esteem and Well-Being, Part IV: Advantages

The two functions of self-esteem.

Posted Oct 03, 2018

Authentic self-esteem comes from facing the challenges of living in ways that are worthy of a mature, fully functioning adult. We “feel good” because we “do good,” so to speak. The two functions of healthy self-esteem help us reach and maintain a sense of well-being in two ways (Mruk, 2018, 2013).

The Self-Protective or Buffering Function of Self-Esteem

Researchers often talk about two ways that healthy self-esteem work when facing the challenges of living. One function is to protect the self under stress, which helps an individual maintain his or her sense of stability and identity during difficult personal or interpersonal times. Such stressors as anxiety, disappointment, or failure, for example, often make us question our abilities or competence as a person. Rejection, betrayal, and loneliness have a similar effect on our sense of worth. The self-protective or “buffering function” of self-esteem acts as a shield designed to ward off these and other slings and arrows of life, both small and large.

Those who have high and healthy self-esteem, which I call authentic self-esteem, are able to deal with these setbacks more readily. Of course, they will still hurt and struggle, but genuine or authentic self-esteem helps people bounce back more quickly. In other words, authentic self-esteem makes us more resilient.

Those with low or defensive self-esteem are much more vulnerable to personal or interpersonal setbacks because a weaker or more fragile shield offers less protection. It may even crack. Such an event threatens one’s identity, which can contribute to the depression commonly associated with low self-esteem. Those with fragile or defensive self-esteem are often more reactive because their self-esteem is more unstable. Consequently, they may respond to such threats more aggressively in an attempt to remove them. Most of us have known people who “act in” or “act out” in these two ways when their sense of self is threatened.

The Enhancement or Growth Function of Self-Esteem

The second function of self-esteem is called its enhancement or growth function, because it plays a major role in fostering development and, therefore, well-being. The healthy person wishes to expand his or her personal and individual possibilities in life in order to make it more exciting, satisfying, or meaningful, which is a process often referred to as actualization. Doing so, however, always involves taking personal or interpersonal risks.

The great humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow saw the connection between self-esteem and actualization or well-being in terms of a stage in his famous hierarchy. This way of seeing self-esteem means it is something we must deal with at a certain time of life. Those who meet the challenge acquire a positive sense of self that makes reaching the next stage more likely. Those who do not usually face a more difficult time in life, because they lack the sense of competence and worthiness required in order to actualize their unique potential as individuals. However, Maslow was not the only important humanistic psychologist to understand the value of self-esteem.

Carl Rogers saw self-esteem as steadier, more active force affecting everyday life, because self-esteem helps motivate us to take the risks necessary to grow throughout the life cycle. Whether it is dealing with a personal limitation, trying to reach an honorable goal, or even just beginning a relationship (not to mention deepening one), risk taking involves stress, because there are no guarantees in life. Bad things can and do happen to good people. Those with a sense of competence concerning their abilities are in a better position to be successful when taking risks. People who already have demonstrated their merit as a person know that even though it is not fun, rejection does not mean they are worthless. Consequently, authentic self-esteem is a growth factor, one of the most important ones, for well-being.

The Paradox of Self-Esteem

At first, the two functions of self-esteem might seem contradictory. After all, one is supposed to shield us from the negative events or feelings and buffer the stress they create. The other actually increases taking the risks that can lead to such things in the first place! So which way does self-esteem really work? The answer is both. In healthy people, the protective and enhancing functions of self-esteem actually work together to increase both resilience to setbacks and increase well-being.

Some people call this characteristic the paradox of self-esteem (Bednar, Wells, and Peterson, 1989) because a paradox involves seemingly contradictory phenomena occurring at the same time or place. However, the two functions actually complement each other. The expansion function plays a role in motivating us to take the risks that necessary to grow, while the protective function stands ready to help us negative outcomes. In other words, healthy self-esteem means having the best of both worlds.


Bednar, R., Wells, G., & Peterson, S. (1989). Self- esteem: Paradoxes and innovations in clinical theory and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper & Row. (Original work published 1954)

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

Mruk, C. J. (2018). Feeling good by doing good: A guide to authentic self-esteem and well-being. New York: Oxford University Press.

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