Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why the Concept of Self-Esteem Is Unreasonable

Self-esteem comes from our beliefs, not from our actions, emotions, or events.

Emma came to psychotherapy for help with depression. She’s a hospital nurse, perfectionistic about her work, and condemns herself when she makes mistakes — even small ones unnoticed by others — or gets a sharp word from a co-worker or patient. For example, when two patients call simultaneously, she feels guilty about the one she neglects at the moment. When she tells a patient she’ll ask the floor doctor a question for the patient, and she forgets, she feels even guiltier.

Dr. John Wilson, her therapist, correctly views this as a problem of low-self esteem: Emma is condemning herself for her errors and views the cause as Emma thinking poorly of herself. She agrees she feels worthless and like a loser.
Dr. Wilson intuitively yet wrongheadedly views raising Emma’s self-esteem as the solution to her low self-esteem. He suggests a variety of approaches to Emma including emphasizing her positive traits. As a nurse, she cares about people, attempts to treat them considerately, and nurses many back onto the road to health. She’s smart, conscientious about her own health, and has knowledge of plants in her region. She likes to dance and has a few intimate friends. Dr. Doe suggests she list her positive traits and read the list to raise her self-esteem and feel good about herself whenever she’s in the dumps.

Unfortunately, although this approach may help Emma feel better temporarily, it has many problems. It serves as a popular feel-good solution with deep, fatal flaws.

To understand, let’s examine the concept of self-esteem more closely from an REBT (Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) perspective. To esteem means to think highly of. High self-esteem consists of thinking highly of oneself. Low self-esteem involves the other side of the coin. Feelings of high or low self-esteem are emotions. Dr. Albert Ellis, the founder of modern therapy, built his system on the insight of Epictetus who opined, “it’s never events themselves, but rather our opinions about these events, that causes our emotions.”

The REBT therapist would, instead, help Emma see her emotions of depression and low-self esteem come from her current thinking about herself, not as a consequence of her poor work performance. To make it clearer to Emma, the REBT therapist may express it as a chronological flowchart, it’s not A, an activating event, causing her low self-esteem at C (undesirable emotional consequence), rather it’s the result of B her irrational belief, that’s the culprit.

Let’s look at a Three Minute Exercise (TME) typically used in REBT to address low self-esteem. Note: it avoids raising self-esteem:

A. (Activating event): I failed to follow up with a patient.

B (irrational Belief): I absolutely should have followed up, I’m a worthless failure.

C. (undesirable emotional Consequence): Depressed.

D. (Disputing or questioning the irrational belief): What is the evidence I absolutely should have followed up and this poor performance turns me into a worthless Failure?

E. (Effective new philosophy): There is no evidence, no data, proving I absolutely should have performed better, or that I magically turn into a worm because I neglected a patient. It’s unfortunate and regretful I forgot, hardly the end of my world. The best I can do now involves learning from my mistake, and determining how to avoid it in the future. I don’t like having done this, but I definitely can stand what I don’t like. Making this mistake only proves about my worth, at the very worst, I’m an imperfect human who acts imperfectly, hardly a no-good, rotten human. Damning myself doesn’t help and only makes me feel worse. It’s not my failure to follow-up with the patient that causes my low self-esteem, rather it’s my demanding and damning views that’s at the heart of my emotional problem and I can change my perspective. With practice, reinforcement and repetition I can learn to accept myself unconditionally as the mistake-making human I am.

F. (new Feeling): Disappointed and displeased with my mistake rather than depressed about it. Unconditional self-acceptance (USA) rather than conditional low (or high) self-esteem.

You have a choice: you can rate your entire personhood on your performance or not. You can learn to unconditionally accept yourself and dispense with self-rating entirely. You don’t have to decide if you’re a good or bad person—you’re neither. You’re a process, ever changing and evolving. Just as it’s false classify an entire painting in terms of its dominant color, Although Picasso used blue tones in some of his paintings for a few years, it would be inaccurate to classify any of these paintings as blue in color, rather paintings with predominantly blue colors. It makes sense to rate your behavior, but never your essence or your worth as a person.

More from Michael R Edelstein Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today